The other side of the street

With Arabs refusing to vote in municipal elections, and police and municipal services absent in east Jerusalem, is the city really united?

New checkpoint in Shuafat east Jerusalem 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
New checkpoint in Shuafat east Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On Sunday, while hundreds in east Jerusalem marched with flags to mark Jerusalem Day, Abdallah came to fix some electrical problems at N’s house. Standing on the highest rung of the ladder, he was asked how he felt about celebrating 45 years of reunification. In response, he sighed and remained silent for a few seconds. But then, in a monotone, he began to talk about his daily life.
Abdallah lives in the Shuafat refugee camp. His best friend lives in the village of Isawiya, just below French Hill. In both neighborhoods, he said, there are no addresses – no street names, no numbers. But, as in many other Arab neighborhoods, there is a high rate of crime – drug dealing, prostitution, guns and violence everywhere.
“We don’t even bother to call the police,” he said.
“They won’t come. And even if they wanted to, how could we explain where it is? There are no street names.”
He went on to describe the harsh and somewhat desperate reality in the Arab neighborhood. And then he told the story of his best friend’s son, who died last week, hit by a stray bullet shot between rival gangs of drug dealers in Isawiya. “He was only 14, a good boy who went to school and kept out of trouble, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he got shot and died there in the street because there was no way his father could get help,” Abdallah explained.
“So you see, for us Jerusalem is not really reunified,” he concluded, stepping down from the ladder.
Abdallah’s story echoed the account given a few hours later by advocate Nasrin Alian of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who participated in a panel discussion held at the Smadar movie theater in the German Colony on the issue of how much this city really is reunified. She described calmly and in perfect Hebrew her daily experiences as a resident of one of the Arab neighborhoods: hours spent waiting at checkpoints, neglected streets where the municipality’s cleaning crews dare not venture, leaving the maintenance work to private companies whose quality of service is low. Alian also mentioned the lack of street names and addresses. But mostly she talked about the crime that assails the Arab community, which she said was the result of lack of interest that the Jewish- Israeli side of the authorities have in the Arabs, who constitute 36% of Jerusalem’s residents.
What is most striking about all this is the fact that on the same day, Mayor Nir Barkat, speaking in a special holiday interview on Army Radio, said that in an earlier interview with a Chicago radio station, he said that in Jerusalem (unlike in Chicago), the crime rate was very low. That is true, certainly compared to other major cities in the world. However, if one takes into consideration the reality of the Arab neighborhoods, the picture may look quite different.
True, the police force, as well as ambulances and street cleaners, do not enter the Arab neighborhoods too often because there have been many cases of violence there – even against ambulances that came to save lives – which resulted in their refusal to go there or at least their attempt to avoid it. Not to mention that the embarrassing personal checking and frisking, which bothers the Arab residents so much, is mainly the result of the violence during the intifada.
At Safra Square, many officials say, albeit off the record, that the situation would be much better if the Arab residents would simply go to vote (they could gain at least seven or eight seats on the city council). But Abdallah and Alian believe that Arab residents will never participate in the municipal elections.
On the other hand, Yakir Segev, the city councilor formerly responsible for the Arab neighborhoods, recently said in an interview that the municipality should relinquish its authority in the neighborhoods beyond the security barrier. He has admitted on more than one occasion that the municipality simply cannot provide the services requested by the residents.
Alian said that in Barkat’s open policy to supply financing to east Jerusalem, he is the first mayor who might actually bring about a change. However, she concluded that the Arabs in east Jerusalem are “just too weak and tired to organize themselves even on the local community level.”