Living on a seam – such as the one between east and west Jerusalem – can be quite demanding, psychologically and emotionally.
As deadly terror attacks burst out across the country, there is one group, apart from all those experiencing fear and trauma, who feel very exposed. As for the city’s Jewish majority, as violence escalates, fear and frustration rises, and thousands of police officers and soldiers patrol the city, who has the emotional capacity to think about the special status of Israeli Arabs who choose to live in Jerusalem?
Yet, this sector of Jerusalem’s residents – who are mostly living in the Arab neighborhoods or on the seam – are a significant component in the fabric of life in the city, on the east and west sides.
With tension growing to a fever pitch with the arrival of Ramadan and Passover, In Jerusalem assessed the situation on the ground.
Ibrahim holds a high-ranking position at the municipality and requested, like all the Israeli Arabs I met for this story, to remain unidentified. Contacted a few hours before the Seder, he recalled a scene he witnessed that describes well, in his eyes, the complex situation facing Israeli Arabs from the North visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque for Ramadan.
“There was a barrage of police at the end of the prayer, a few hours after the burst of violence that happened early morning in the Esplanade. A group of Palestinians from a village in Galilee were prevented from reaching their cars on the other side of the road. One of them called the police officer and in Hebrew told him, “I am an Israeli citizen, you cannot treat me like that, I need to reach my car, let me pass through. It took the officer just a few minutes to [create an opening in] the barrage and let the group off.
“That’s the whole story of our reality here – between Jews and Palestinians from Jerusalem.”
Israeli Palestinians, who moved from their villages and towns up the North to Jerusalem for their studies and have remained here after graduating, face these situations slightly differently. Unlike the Palestinians living in east Jerusalem, they feel and are indeed privileged, even more than those among Arab Jerusalemites who have obtained Israeli citizenship.
They are citizens by birth, persons who did not need to undertake a long and sometimes exhausting process to obtain citizenship – beyond the difficult emotional and social process that preceded the decision to apply for this citizenship.
Israeli Arabs, especially the youth, come to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and often opt to stay in the capital after earning their degree, forming a society within a society from among the city’s Arabs. “We are close in several areas – language, heritage, religion and tradition. And that is before mentioning the national connection that links me, a native of the Galilee, with Ashraf, a guy I lived with in the dorm for several years, who was born in Jerusalem and only resident status when I met him,” Ibrahim recounts.
Asked what problems he could face if identified in this article, Ibrahim replied, ”Do not complicate things for me, it’s not easy anyway.”
ACCORDING TO a study published by the Florsheimer Research Institute and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, Israeli Arabs settling in Jerusalem are an educated elite.
Many lament that Jerusalem is failing to attract a young population, and is losing their youthful drive and earning potential to Tel Aviv and its environs, where there is greater employment opportunities and cultural/social life, found the researchers. Yet, for Israeli Arabs, Jerusalem has become an attractive destination in the last two decades – the city of unlimited possibilities – at least compared to their places of origin, where the educated young generation largely faces a shortage of housing and land, and a stressful family environment.
There is no exact data but most researchers agree they now comprise about 10,000 men and women. Most come from the North and the triangle region, with a little more than half of them women, including many single women, who have managed to break through the social mores that make it challenging for single women to live outside their family homes.
What do they find in Jerusalem, which is considered a challenging, right-wing city, where apartments are expensive and upon becoming parents, they are required to choose between Israeli schools (using Hebrew and disconnected from any Palestinian tradition) or Arab schools on the east side? It turns out that Jerusalem offers Israeli Arabs the opportunity to serve as a mediating minority between the Israeli system and the more than a quarter of a million Palestinians living in east Jerusalem, who suffer from insufficient knowledge of the Hebrew language, and lack of education and matriculation certificates.
These relocated Jerusalemites work as teachers of Hebrew and special education, welfare workers, school principals, paramedical workers, lawyers and accountants, who generally serve east Jerusalem.
At first blush, this seems to be an optimal solution, but this is exactly the root of the problem.
Israeli Arabs are in the middle of the Arab and Jewish public. About half live in Arab neighborhoods, mainly Beit Safafa, and about half in Jewish neighborhoods, with the most popular being French Hill, at the seam between the Jewish and Arab localities, and to which more recently, the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood was added.
“When I meet Jerusalemite Palestinians, I always feel a bit embarrassed,” Ibrahim admits. “I acknowledge that compared to them, I enjoy a lot of privileges, like easily obtaining good jobs and that I’m more easily able to live in a Jewish neighborhood as an Arab without having to face too many problems.
“But on the other hand, I feel they sometimes look at me as one who is not really part of them, as Palestinians.”
In this way, employment opportunities as a mediating minority, in which Israeli Arabs are protected from competition from both Jews and Palestinians, are numerous, but also create friction with east Jerusalem residents that is likely to continue to grow over time. In daily life, this means that Israeli Arabs will relatively easily, find a job, rent a home and above all, master Hebrew as well as the Israeli style that protects them from being immediately identified as Arabs – and this, as such, is potentially dangerous, explains Ibrahim.
After a bit of hesitation, he adds that he and his wife, also a northern native, decided to register their children in an Israeli school. “We talk to them in Arabic at home, but more and more Hebrew words are included in our conversations. It’s unavoidable, we had to come to terms with this situation.”
It is very possible we are witnessing the beginning of a process in which family barriers in renting and purchasing apartments are being eroded, which have made it difficult for Israeli Arabs to immigrate to the big cities. For years, many Arab-Israelis have traveled daily from their localities to workplaces in the big cities – but now it is an educated middle class, where women also stand out, who prefer to move to Jewish cities because of the acute shortage of housing and employment opportunities in Arab localities, the study noted.
THIS IS not happening without some pushback, as there is no shortage of people seeking political consequences for the phenomenon, including some protest and opposition against the entry of Arabs into neighborhoods like French Hill. Yet despite it, the presence of the Israeli Arabs from the North has become a fact on the ground over the years.
Has it become a model for the local Jerusalemite Arabs, too? “Yes and no,” says Ibrahim. “Many understand that this is a positive possibility, but for many others, it has created a situation that I would describe as respect them and suspect them. I don’t say we are openly accused of collaboration with the Israeli authorities, but we are certainly considered as the privileged who maybe cannot be totally trusted.”
Another side is the local Palestinian attitude toward the Israelis. “The least we can say is that they don’t like the fact that we hold the best jobs,” says Adel, a teacher who moved to Jerusalem about 10 years ago from a village in the Upper Galilee. “I am married to a local Palestinian woman,” he explains, “I know what members of her family think of the fact that I and many other Israeli Palestinians hold some of the highest positions in the establishment, mostly education and welfare.”
Regarding what his in-laws actually think, his answer was short: “That we are exploiting our advantage and even, eventually, collaborators.”
Asked about the feeling among Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem in periods of security tension like the current one, Ibrahim hesitates and then says, “For example, you will never find one of us at Damascus Gate these days. We are, most of us, very careful not to be associated with what is going on there.”
Asked if this means that they do not share the nationalist positions of the youth involved in riots in several places on the east side, Ibrahim chooses to skip the question, but then changes his mind. “We are Palestinians, we have not, most of us, renounced or rejected our identity, nor have we disconnected ourselves from the Palestinian struggle inside the State of Israel. But we are Israelis, we are not in the same situation as our brothers both in east Jerusalem and certainly not like those living in the occupied territories, facing the violence of the settlers and the soldiers.
“Yes, we are privileged, I would say, blatantly, that we have a lot to lose and hence, while still being part of the Palestinian identity and people, we act differently.”
In regard to the ramming and stabbing attack perpetrated by an Israeli Arab in Beersheba on March 22, in which four Israeli Jews were murdered, Ibrahim says this case represents, in his eyes, a minority. “We all know there is a huge amount of ammunition and guns in the Arab cities and villages, that’s a terrible failure of the police and security forces, and most of it is used against Palestinians before it reaches the hands of those who set out to kill innocent people.”
Asked if he felt that in this area, his attitude was substantially different from his friends among Jerusalemites Palestinians, Ibrahim takes a moment and then admits that he personally avoids talking about these issues with them. “I don’t want to be trapped in a situation where I will have to explain how I am faithful to the Palestinian cause and yet refuse to praise or at least not to condemn another Palestinian who has decided to kill innocent people.”
Nabila (not her real name) works in the education system and is completing her PhD in the same field. She also refused to be identified and was very reluctant to speak. She finally conceded that her life in Jerusalem had improved in many aspects compared to the life she would have if she remained in her Galilee village.
“First thing, as long as I study, my family does not force me to get married and return to the village. In that regard, I share something with local Palestinian women, who face the same problem in our patriarchal society. Apart from that, there are some significant differences. I, for example, have always had Israeli Jewish friends – this is still rare among Palestinians in Jerusalem. It’s a sort of taboo they do not cross, certainly not between genders, at least only a very few.”
Ibrahim, his family and Nabila, like many others, often visit Bethlehem and Ramallah. “We visit there quite often for the good food and the atmosphere that fits our traditions and identity, but I feel there is something [separating us] that cannot even be defined or really felt. This creates the difference [felt by] me and the natives of Jerusalem,” Ibrahim said.
“This is not something that will prevent me from continuing to visit, but still, it makes me realize that we are close, but also different,” he concluded. ❖