East Jerusalemites: Residents in limbo

Neither fully Israeli, nor fully Palestinian, East Jerusalemites shun municipal elections.

On October 22, residents of Jerusalem lined up noisily outside schoolrooms turned into polling stations to cast their votes in the municipal elections. Young ushers wearing bright T-shirts handed out flyers, as cars plastered with banners blared loud music and messages in support of candidates.
The next day, residents woke up to the news that secular Mayor Nir Barkat had won reelection with 51 percent of the votes cast, after a hard-fought campaign against Moshe Lion, supported by the right-wing Likud-Beytenu party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
“It was one of the most difficult, most complex races that you, I or anyone has ever seen,” Barkat said in his victory speech.
But for the 371,844 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, there were hardly any indications that elections had ever taken place. Polling stations set up in trash-strewn Arab neighborhoods were largely empty of voters or supporters, and election workers mostly sat around, bored, talking to each other. According to Interior Ministry figures, only 0.5 percent of Arabs voted, compared to the city’s general 36-percent voter turnout.
Very few people, however, were surprised by the figures. Palestinians have been boycotting or abstaining from voting since 1967, when Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the Six Day War. Barkat and his challengers, Lion and Haim Epstein, did not even campaign in East Jerusalem, and their flyers were nowhere to be seen there.
Palestinians want to establish their own independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and say participating in elections would be recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the city. The Palestinian Authority, under the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, has limited selfrule in the adjacent West Bank, but retains no jurisdiction in East Jerusalem. The fate of the city and its shrines was, at the time, left to be determined in final-status talks with Israel.
The Palestinian leadership has for decades warned residents against voting.
“Participating in these elections will be considered normalization with the Israeli occupation authority, which means legitimizing the annexation of Jerusalem,” the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said in a recent statement. For Palestinians, Jerusalem (Al-Quds) is a symbol of their national struggle for independence and home to Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. Officials say there can be no peace deal until Israel gives up control over the eastern part of the city.
For Israel, Jerusalem is its “eternal and indivisible” capital. “So long as I am prime minister, Jerusalem will remain our indivisible capital,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters after casting his vote.
It is a claim, however, that is not recognized internationally. Most countries, including the United States, do not officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and say the status of the city should be defined in peace talks. Most countries have set up their embassies an hour’s drive away in Tel Aviv.
In July, after a three-year standstill, United States-brokered peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians were renewed, with the aim of resolving the decades-old conflict and result in the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. The fate of the Holy City, in addition to establishing final borders and security arrangements, is among the toughest issues that have eluded talks in the past, and is expected to continue to dog the ongoing negotiations.
Palestinian residents of Jerusalem meanwhile say they live in political limbo – being neither fully Israeli nor fully Palestinian.
They have Israeli permanent residency status rather than citizenship, the same status given to new immigrants. It enables them to live and work in Jerusalem and receive social benefits.
It also allows them to vote in municipal elections, but not in national elections. Many travel abroad on “temporary” Jordanianissued passports. Their status formally distinguishes them from Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, who require a special permit from Israeli authorities to visit or work in Jerusalem.
But unlike citizenship, permanent residency is subject to revocation when living abroad for an extended period of time or obtaining another citizenship, and it is not automatically passed on to the holder’s children. Israel has revoked 14,084 residency permits since 1967.
Seeking to improve their lot, a small but growing number of East Jerusalem Palestinians are seeking Israeli citizenship, though many applications are rejected. The Interior Ministry says 13,000 Arabs living in Jerusalem are Israeli citizens, but adds that the number also includes Israeli Arabs who have moved from other parts of the country.
“Our status is so complicated, I don’t even understand it,” Maha Jaber, 37, walking down Salah a-Din Street in downtown East Jerusalem, tells The Jerusalem Report. “We do not know where we are now, or what’s going to happen to us in the future,” Jaber continues, adjusting her fashionable eyeglasses.
Palestinians say Jerusalem was once their political, social and commercial hub. But since Israel took over the city, the once throbbing downtown has become a ghost town, and Arab neighborhoods have become isolated, impoverished ghettos.
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, nearly 80 percent of Palestinian families in Jerusalem live in poverty, compared to the city’s average of 25 percent.
Rights groups say the dozens of Israeli army checkpoints that surround the city, along with the security barrier, cut some East Jerusalem residents off from their downtown and from Palestinian cities in the West Bank, isolating them economically and socially from their environs, and hindering their development.
Some 90,000 East Jerusalem residents live within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, but beyond the barrier, on the West Bank side, and are isolated from the city center. They must pass daily through checkpoints in order to access work, school or medical services in the city. And despite continuing to pay Jerusalem property tax, these neighborhoods receive very few municipal services.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said in a recent report that more than half of the East Jerusalem labor force works in low-income jobs in services, commerce, hotels and restaurants in West Jerusalem. Many also work in the West Bank, where salaries are significantly lower.
“The East Jerusalem economy finds itself in a world quite apart from the two economies, Palestinian and Israeli, to which it is linked. It is at once integrated into neither,” the UNCTAD report said.
Palestinian residents say their neighborhoods are crowded, their streets are potholed and lack proper sidewalks, garbage collection is irregular, there are no playgrounds, parks or parking spaces and the healthcare and education offered to them is inferior to that offered in West Jerusalem.
Meir Margalit, a former council member from the leftist Meretz party, contends that despite making up nearly 40 percent of the city’s population, residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods receive only 11 percent of the city’s budget. “Everybody knows that Palestinians are discriminated against in the city’s budget,” Margalit tells The Report from his office in City Hall. “The numbers only further highlight the obvious.”
Barkat admits that there have been discrepancies in spending but says that over his last term, he has been working towards “closing the gaps” between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. He boasts about giving names to streets in neighborhoods that previously showed up blank on maps and GPS systems, about improving roads and infrastructure, opening new postal offices, and building 500 new school rooms.
“It is Barkat’s intention to continue, in his next term, in cooperation with the residents and community centers in the east of the city, to close the gaps,” his office said in a written statement.
Margalit says given their sizeable population in the city, if Palestinians were to vote in large numbers, they could win a solid presence on the 31-member city council, whereby they could improve their status in the city. “People should realize that voting is not such a political issue – it’s not related to sovereignty – that it’s about services,” Margalit says.
But, he contends that it is difficult to reverse a decades-old tradition of disinterest and distrust in the system.
For the first time this year, Fuad Sliman, an Israeli Arab, ran for council in fourth place on the joint Meretz-Labor ticket. But the party did not succeed in garnering Arab support, and only won 5.6 percent of votes, and two council seats.
“Perhaps by not voting, we are aiding our marginalization,” Musa Izhak, 53, tells The Report, as he puts down his bags of groceries in Jerusalem’s Old City market. “But I am also not convinced that voting will improve anything,” he adds.
In the crowded Arab neighborhood of Silwan, built on the hills adjacent to the Old City, the streets are narrow, steep and potholed, and trash lies in piles. Estimates of the number of Silwan residents vary – according to Ir Amin, the left-wing Israeli NGO, the figure is 33,000. Only a few hundred meters away, the golden Dome of the Rock shimmers inside the walls of the Old City.
On August 20, municipal authorities demolished the small home of Khaled el Zir, built on a family plot in Silwan seven years ago without a building permit. He says bulldozers arrived at six o’clock in the morning. “They gave me five minutes to leave the house, and get everyone out,” he tells The Report. “I took my five daughters to my parents’ house so they wouldn’t see what was about to happen.
Then they demolished the house.”
“That day, I found myself in the street,” El Zir adds, taking a deep drag of his cigarette.
El Zir, 39, his wife and their five daughters salvaged a few of their belongings, a small television and a fridge, and moved into a cave that used to serve as a stable for his brother’s horses. He then built a wall and a door to close off the cave and put up a zinc roof. He says it has been extremely difficult, especially for his children, who are afraid of living in the cave and are taunted by their friends and classmates at school. They have been staying at different relatives’ houses.
A man walks alongside belongings that were removed from a house before being demolished in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina (SLIMAN KHADER / FLASH 90)A man walks alongside belongings that were removed from a house before being demolished in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina (SLIMAN KHADER / FLASH 90)
“Living in Jerusalem has become a humiliation, and people don’t know what to do or where to go,” he says. “How is it that they have a right to demolish but I have no right to build?” In a statement, the Jerusalem Municipality denied carrying out a house demolition, saying they “removed uninhabitable tin structures located on public property that is designated to become a national park. Thus, the area cannot be used for private residential purposes.”
According to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, authorities demolished 30 homes this year in East Jerusalem, leaving 80 people homeless.
Silwan residents say they are forced to build without permits because these are nearly impossible to obtain, as the municipality has designated most of the area as green, making all construction prohibited.
Israel plans to demolish 88 homes in a neighborhood in Silwan called al-Bustan to make way for the development of a Biblical park called King David’s Garden, displacing some 1,500 people. The municipality has not enforced the pending demolition orders, largely experts assume, in response to international pressure and ongoing legal battles by the residents against the orders.
More than 500 right-wing Jewish settlers have moved into Silwan since the early 1990s, bringing armed security guards, bullet-proof vehicles and surveillance cameras. And a settler organization also established the City of David archaeological park, which attracts half a million visitors a year.
The area is a central part of what is known as Jerusalem’s holy basin, which includes most of the sites holy to the three monotheistic religions. It has also been the focus of controversy and almost daily conflict between the residents and the settlers.
Though a political independent, in his first term in office Barkat, a former hi-tech tycoon, promoted Jewish construction in Silwan and other heavily populated Arab neighborhoods, and maintains a strong political alliance with religious nationalist groups. He has said that he is opposed to any partitioning of the city as part of a future peace agreement with Palestinians.
The Peace Now organization says some 15 Jewish areas have been established in Jerusalem outside the pre-1967 borders, with approximately 210,000 residents, undermining the possibility of ever dividing the city under a peace deal.
“It doesn’t really matter who is mayor,” Silwan resident Ahmad Qaraeen, 43, sitting outside his store, tells The Report. “Everyone knows the settlers have all the power in making decisions in this city. They want to turn this area into a Disneyland for settlers, and nothing for the Palestinian residents.”