East Jerusalem Challenge

Despite these obstacles, Israel as a nation and Jerusalem as a city must address the unacceptable discrepancies between east and west Jerusalem.

March 29, 2018 21:21
3 minute read.
East Jerusalem Challenge

A general view of Jerusalem shows the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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East Jerusalem challenge Mayor Nir Barkat’s announcement that he will run in the next national election on the Likud list means that Jerusalemites will be choosing a new mayor when municipal elections are held in October.

Though Jerusalem faces many challenges – the rift between religious and secular, poverty, housing shortages, and security issues – probably the single most pressing problem is the inequality between Arab east Jerusalem and Jewish west Jerusalem. There is a yawning socioeconomic chasm between the two parts of the city, further exacerbated by the security barrier that has left neighborhoods such as Shuafat and Kafr Akab beyond the pale of the municipality’s services and law enforcement.

Though Barkat tried to address problems in east Jerusalem such as illegal construction, a shortage of school classrooms, and unsatisfactory municipal and government services, he ultimately failed for a number of reasons.

Part of the difficulty is that issues involving the city’s Arab residents tend to be both national and local, and the municipality and the government engage in a blame game, with both trying to escape responsibility.

Regarding Arab neighborhoods that have been left on the wrong side of the security barrier, for instance, the municipality blames the state for creating the problem by building the barrier, while the state says that since the neighborhoods are inside the jurisdiction of the municipality, it is the local government that is responsible. The state also argues that the Jerusalem Municipality receives a budget to deal with these issues. The municipality, meanwhile, says it lacks the means to deal with security risks.

Complicating the situation is the fact that few Arabs, who make up close to 40% of Jerusalem’s population, do participate in municipal elections, though they have voting rights. They view voting as tantamount to legitimization of Israeli sovereignty over the city, which they have rejected since east Jerusalem came under Israeli control in 1967. Without political representation in the city council, even the most well-intentioned mayor would have difficulty prioritizing Arab interests over the interests of groups with political clout.

Despite these obstacles, Israel as a nation and Jerusalem as a city must address the unacceptable discrepancies between east and west Jerusalem. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Barkat talk of a united, undivided Jerusalem, they are making a statement about the Jewish people’s right to full access and sovereignty. But with rights come responsibilities. How can Barkat, or his successor, talk of full Jewish sovereignty over the city if there is a reluctance to take responsibility for all parts of Jerusalem, including those located in the east or beyond the security barrier?

One trend that might help provide an incentive for the next mayor is an increasing readiness of Arabs to take part in municipal elections. A survey conducted recently by Prof. Dan Miodownik and Noam Brenner of the Hebrew University, together with the Israel/ Palestine Center for Research and Information, found that almost 60% of residents of east Jerusalem think Arabs should take part in the municipal election, while just 13% object.

Ramadan Dabash, a local government official from the Sur Bahir neighborhood, has announced he will run in the next Jerusalem election on an Arab list.

“I think people are ripe to vote,” Dabash told Haaretz recently. “Some people object, saying this is Israelization and normalization, but I tell them this is everyone’s municipality and everyone’s country.”

And candidates who are vying to replace Barkat seem to have ideas about how to better tackle the problem of east Jerusalem. Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who is also Jerusalem affairs and heritage minister, has proposed the creation of a separate authority that would be responsible for dealing with Arab neighborhoods beyond the security barrier. Many on the Right criticized Elkin and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also supports the idea, for fear it would undermine Jerusalem’s unified status and set the groundwork for a partition of the city. Nevertheless, it is clear that Elkin is well aware of the problem and has the political connections on the national level to do something about it.

MK Rachel Azaria of Kulanu, a former Jerusalem City Council member who is also considering running for mayor, also has ideas about how to improve the situation in east Jerusalem.

There is much talk of ensuring that Jerusalem remains united and undivided, but with authority comes responsibility.

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