The gentrification of east Jerusalem

The municipality has also invested in the Music School and Cultural Center in Silwan, which offers leadership programs, swimming and cooking classes and houses a theater group.

‘A sprawling mess built on an archeological gold mine’: Silwan Valley. (photo credit: ELIJAH ESKIN)
‘A sprawling mess built on an archeological gold mine’: Silwan Valley.
(photo credit: ELIJAH ESKIN)
East Jerusalem today is not all firebombs and our capital is not going up in smoke. The city is alive and thriving. It may be more socially segregated than other Israeli cities, where work and mutual interests combine to forge fluid and healthy daily interaction between Arabs and Jews, yet there is a discernible dynamic in the inner-city neighborhoods of the city toward what might be called gentrification.
The recent completion of the restoration of the Ophel and the continued growth of the City of David have significantly altered the profile of east Jerusalem, bringing international and local attention to Silwan, Abu Tor and surrounding Arab neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are something of an enigma; they belong to the city, yet non-residents rarely venture past the main street of Abu Tor or the entrance to the City of David.
I was curious to find cultural hubs of interracial activity in these neighborhoods, where I had hoped progressive Arabs and open-minded Jews might rise above political differences over strong Turkish coffee and honey-drenched baklava in hole-in-the wall street-front coffee shops. But unlike the streets of Rehavia, the mixed neighborhoods of Abu Tor and the mostly Arab Silwan are disappointingly devoid of commercial street life; I found little of what I was searching for.
However, I did find concerted action from both residents and the local city council toward inclusion and gentrification – despite setbacks such as the recent murder of two Israeli Druse police officers on the Temple Mount and the protests that followed, resulting in the removal of the metal detectors erected by the government.
On the main street running through Abu Tor, a large building under construction overlooks the southeastern slope boasting views of the Old City, Mount Zion and the Dormition Abbey – a German Benedictine church, built by Kaiser Wilhelm II on the site of what was once Hagia Zion/Maria. An elderly Arab gentleman named Halib walked toward us there, greeting us warmly. Making his way down toward the dense, more Arab-populated and poorer part of the neighborhood, he paused to proudly tell us how once he lived on this affluent street next door to Prof. Yuri Miloslavsky, author, poet and religious literature historian. Having moved to Abu Tor from Hebron in 1950, he remembers well the house to which he points – from which Jordanian soldiers tried to defend their claim on the city during the 1967 war.
“This is where they shot from,” he says, smiling in hindsight at the absurdity, for today the gentrified neighborhood houses Jews, Christians and Arabs who live together in peace. But Abu Tor is the exception rather than the rule.
Standing on the eastern ridge of Jerusalem’s Old City at the newly restored site of the Ophel – a collection of ancient ritual pools and dwellings visited by Hebrew pilgrims some 2,500 years ago – the views over the City of David and through the Silwan valley are spectacular. It is easy to picture the hordes of pilgrims who made their way up the valley toward the ritual baths in preparation for their offerings at King Solomon’s Temple three times a year. Equally spectacular is the solid eastern wall of al-Aksa mosque, which stands defiantly at the southern end of the Temple Mount blocking access from the Silwan valley.
Silwan is a sprawling mess built on an archeological gold mine of ancient artifacts, tombs built into the bedrock – and of course the City of David. Today it houses anything from 20,000 to 50,000 residents due to the merging of the neighboring Abu Tor, Ras el-Amud and Jebl Mukaber. Other large predominantly Arab neighborhoods include Shuafat and Beit Hanina on the northern side of the city.
Mahdi – not his real name – grew up in Beit Hanina and, like most east Jerusalem Arabs, currently has resident status. He is in the process of applying for Israeli citizenship, which is available to eligible east Jerusalem residents. Mahdi believes the wave of demonstrations following the Temple Mount incident express a newfound form of “peaceful” protest. He tells me that Muslims don’t have a problem with Jews and Christians living peacefully under an Islamic caliphate (subservient to Muslims). While he supports the Islamic claim over al-Aksa, he believes that in order to get ahead, Arabs have to work with the system instead of against it, a sentiment he says is shared more and more by young east Jerusalem residents.
One of the most common complaints from both Arab and Jewish residents is the difficulty in obtaining building permits. To address this issue, the Jerusalem Municipality, in partnership with east Jerusalem community leaders, has recently implemented systems to help Arab residents simplify the process of proving land ownership. Furthermore, following an unprecedented investment of some NIS 500 million in 2015, the municipality is boosting investment in community infrastructure – schools, public transport, health and sports centers, fixing roads in disrepair and creating parking areas.
This year 5,400 pupils in 30 Arab schools will follow the Israeli curriculum, not just the Jordanian/Palestinian one currently used. In addition, enrollment in school enrichment programs offered during extended school hours has more than doubled since the program began. Israeli-recognized science and math courses are encouraged with the aim of providing students with better educational and employment opportunities. Government-sponsored business initiatives and training programs have also been established to better enable young Arab businessmen and women to join the job market.
The municipality has also invested in the Music School and Cultural Center in Silwan, which offers leadership programs, swimming and cooking classes and houses a theater group. All of these initiatives have been generally well received. Polls conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion and Princeton University show a 19% increase in resident satisfaction with municipality services and an even more dramatic 30% increase regarding building permits.
Yet other proposed developments, such as the King’s Garden in Ir David, still stand on precarious political grounds. Watered by the Gihon Spring, the fertile area designated for the King’s Garden is believed to have been the site of ancient royal gardens. Some 100 illegally built Arab structures stand in the way of the development of the proposed park land, which is zoned for “open recreational space.”
For most of the 100 or so Jewish families living in the neighborhoods of Ma’aleh Hazeitim and Ir David, the environment is hostile, but there is an understanding between residents. Off the record, locals acknowledge that Jewish presence in the neighborhoods ultimately leads to increased security and better municipal services. For now, the Jewish presence is based largely on idealistic, indigenous claims to the ancient Jewish homeland. Eventually though, for young Jewish families struggling with high costs of living, east Jerusalem’s inner neighborhoods may become a viable option for reasonably priced housing.
The greater vision of east Jerusalem will no doubt have to include some larger-than-life cityscaping for these suburbs to participate in the multibillion-dollar potential of projected tourism growth. The number of annual tourists to the city is poised to more than triple from 3.5 million today to as many as 12 million by 2050, according to World Tourism Organization figures.
While incremental improvements in the area may be seen as hopeful, for Arab residents, according to Mahdi, they are embraced less as a statement of national identity, and more as a realization of a reality on the ground. Though the theological struggle remains deeply embedded in both cultures, Arabs and Jews alike are tired of fighting a daily battle that no longer seems relevant at the city’s edges – which have somehow expanded beyond the demarcations of idealistic claims by the progress that steamrolls ahead slowly and inexorably.
As yet another generation rises from the ashes of a failed Palestinian infrastructure that provides little hope in the daily lives of residents, a gentrified and more educated east Jerusalem emerges – despite resistance, protests and simmering hostilities.