Arab East Jerusalem feeling brunt of Israeli discrimination
Jerusalem - Palestinian residents of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem are stuck between the continuous threat of Jewish settlements closing in on them and inadequate services provided by their discriminating Israeli-run municipality.
Everything from deteriorating infrastructure, severe shortage of classrooms and lack of basic public services are part of the daily battle for survival amid the Judaisation plans of the contested city. Ahmed Hdaib, a 25-year-old Palestinian activist living in East Jerusalem, said Jerusalemites live under pressure with “minors’ arrests, inspections, road closures, human rights violations, home demolitions and Israelising the curriculum”.
“Our lives are loaded with challenges,” Hdaib told The Arab Weekly. The college student arranges cultural and other events in Jerusalem to raise Palestinian awareness in political issues.
“We don’t expect anything from this municipality,” he said.
A two-minute ride from the Jewish settlement of Har Homa in East Jerusalem to the Palestinian neighbourhood of Um Tuba reflects the degree of discrimination by the Jerusalem municipality against its Arab residents.
The smooth drive in the partially built Har Homa gives a feeling of a modern infrastructure, similar to the United States or Europe. The hilly settlement on Jerusalem’s southern edge boasts flamboyant white-limestone apartments, playgrounds, cavernous roundabouts and spotless roads with spacious pavements bedecked with trees, benches and bus stands.
In one area, about six cranes stand ready to build more housing units, as part of Israeli plans to expand the settlement. The beautification and organised urban planning schemes bring a sense of modernity and neatness.
Nearby in Um Tuba, the simple public service requirement of garbage collection is non-existent. Roads are riddled with potholes and scattered garbage bins. There is no clear street infrastructure: no lanes and cracked sidewalks with no sign of budding flowers and no traces of public parks.
Officials in Jerusalem municipality did not return repeated calls for comment by The Arab Weekly. In the past, municipality officials blamed the insufficient services extended to Palestinians on stone-hurling youth, who — the officials claimed — hamper municipality work in East Jerusalem neighbourhoods.
Nearly 300,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem. Of the total, 80% live below the poverty line. The constant delay by the Israeli bureaucracy in renewing their papers, such as residency cards, is pushing many Palestinians out of the city.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem which houses sites holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews in the 1967 war. Since then, 35% of the land in East Jerusalem has been confiscated for Israeli settlements while only 13% of the area is zoned for Palestinian construction, much of it is already overcrowded.
East Jerusalem is the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its future is to be determined in final status negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. However, the talks broke off a few years ago with no sign that they will be restarted.
The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their would-be state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel claims the traditionally eastern Arab sector of the city as part of the indivisible and eternal capital of the Jewish state.
While East Jerusalem was annexed, its Palestinian population was not. The state of Israel offers Palestinian residents of Jerusalem a special permit that allows them only to obtain travel documents but not residency status. The permit is revoked if a Jerusalemite leaves the city for more than two years. The measure applies to students, or those working or receiving medical treatment abroad.
Unlike Palestinians who live in Israel proper, Jerusalemites were not given Israeli nationality or passports. They depend on temporary Jordanian passports for travel.
Education is contentious for many Jerusalemite parents and their children. Palestinians must pay for education in overcrowded classrooms. Human rights organisations estimate a shortage of 3,000 classrooms in Jerusalem.
“Why is it that we can’t find a place to build classrooms in East Jerusalem but when we want to open a massive visitor centre in Silwan (an East Jerusalem neighbourhood) there’s room to do that?” asked Betty Herschman, director of International Relations & Advocacy at Er Amim, which is an Israeli non-governmental organisation dedicated to an equitable and viable Jerusalem.
With plans to build new Jewish settlements, which are considered illegal under international law and rejected by the United States, Palestinian building permits are often rejected or shelved for 10 years or longer without a response.
Rent prices also skyrocketed. Palestinian families find it almost impossible to find a new housing unit. The result is large families crammed into small houses.
Some take the risk of building without a permit.
Ziyad Hamouri, head of The Jerusalem Centre for Social & Economic Rights (JCSER), questioned the Israeli reasoning behind its permit restrictions.
“We are in need of 40,000 building units, when will we be able to meet our need?,” Hamouri asked in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“There are 20,000 pending house demolition orders in the city. Is it the people’s mistake or the city’s?”
Hamouri’s JCSER is a Palestinian non-governmental human rights organisation based in Jerusalem to provide legal assistance and representation to Palestinian residents of occupied Jerusalem against discriminatory policies.
A statement by the United Nations’ Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in January said that the planning policies applied by Israel in East Jerusalem discriminate against Palestinians, making it extremely difficult for them to obtain building permits.
“As a result, many Palestinians build without permits to meet their housing needs and risk having their structures demolished. Palestinians must have the opportunity to participate in a fair and equitable planning system that ensures their needs are met,” the statement cautioned.
Palestinian residents are required to pay taxes, like other city residents. But Jerusalemites argue that they do not receive equitable services to match their participation in the budget.
“The Palestinians contribute 30- 35% to the Jerusalem municipality’s budget, yet they don’t get more than 7% of its services,” Hamouri said. He explained that international law allows the occupying authority to collect taxes from the occupied people, provided that it is returned in the form of municipal services.
Analysts accuse Israel of intensifying building in East Jerusalem to create a status quo that prevents contiguity between the Palestinian cities and their desired capital.
For Palestinians living in the city, their mere existence is seen as a demographical threat to Israel, which foresees a Jewish majority in the city.
“They are interested in pushing the Palestinian Jerusalemites to leave. This is a demographic war,” Hamouri said, describing the case as what is now widely known as the “quiet transfer”.
“Bad services, house demolitions, no building permits, bad economy, taxes, are all tools to have a limited number of Palestinians in Jerusalem and the maximum land possible for Israelis,” Hamouri added.
The result: a majority of Palestinians in the city do not participate in municipal elections in line with a political decision to refrain from recognising Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.