Investment in eastern Jerusalem is the core of sovereign political action that will keep Jerusalem whole and make it prosperous for all.
Having delved into the demographic, economic and security issues relating to Jerusalem, I am more convinced than ever that Israel can and must rule the entire city envelope, in perpetuity.
But effective rule is going to require massive investment by the Israeli government and Jerusalem municipality, because the eastern half of the city has been neglected for decades. And only a generous Israeli approach can overcome the suspicion and hostility that leads to security problems.
The good news is that more and more of the 350,000 Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem understand that there is no alternative on the horizon to Israeli control of the city, and that they will always be better off under Israeli administration. Every survey shows this, and the sentiment is demonstrated by a number of propitious trends.
This includes a vast increase in the numbers of eastern Jerusalemites filing applications for Israeli citizenship (over 1,000 a year); a leap in the number of students who have opted for the Israeli matriculation curriculum (bagrut) over the Palestinian Authority high school degree (tawjihi) – up from 300 to 5,800 students over seven years; the soaring demand in eastern Jerusalem for after-school intensive Hebrew classes, and for pre-university preparatory programs subsidized by the Israeli government.
It also includes the growing number of eastern Jerusalem teenagers who are doing civil service after high school; and the enthusiastic response to the municipality’s opening in eastern Jerusalem of employment centers, of community councils at the neighborhood level, of local police stations to handle civilian matters, of an Arab high-tech incubator, etc.
In addition, favorable notice has been taken by Arab leaders I have met of the municipality’s investment in eastern Jerusalem roads (more than NIS 50 million a year) and classrooms (NIS 500 million over the coming decade).
The rate of municipal tax collection (arnona) in the eastern half of the city is excellent too: between 70 and 80 percent. Again, this is because Arab Jerusalemites – despite their Palestinian national identity – have come around to a pragmatic attitude towards Israeli authorities. They want the right of residence in Jerusalem; they want Israeli health and social security benefits; they want to shop, study and work in western Jerusalem, and in fact, anywhere else in Israel they desire. Quite a few are moving into Jewish neighborhoods too, like Pisgat Zeev and Talpiot.
Increasingly, they see Israel not only as a culprit to be blamed for their difficulties but as the only possible source for solving their problems and turning their lives around.
And there is demonstrable linkage between Israeli investment in the welfare of eastern Jerusalem Arabs and a reduction in terrorism. The neighborhoods that have most benefitted from government and municipal budgets have become much quieter – with less crime and much less nationalistic violence. Call it smart and worthy investment in the lives of Jerusalem’s residents or call it pacification – as you will. It undeniably works.
HOWEVER, THE CHALLENGE remains enormous, particularly with regard to education. There are more than 105,000 children in eastern Jerusalem schools. The system is short 1,500 classrooms, which cost NIS 1 million each to build. The city is building 7 to 10 new schools each year, but it is not nearly enough, and there is an acute shortage of qualified school principals.
Sixty percent of the kids study in non-state-affiliated or “unofficial” schools (some recognized by the state, some not; some funded by Israel, others by private associations). The majority study the antiquated, cumbersome Palestinian curriculum – where teaching is still by rote, which doesn’t differentiate between kids of various cognitive and learning skills, and where Israel has no real supervision over teacher training, standards and textbooks.
This is, of course, an absolutely absurd situation! The Jerusalem Education Authority builds and maintains school buildings, and pays the teacher salaries in eastern Jerusalem, yet has no role in the pedagogical operation of the schools in eastern Jerusalem. Why? Because that is what was agreed upon in the Oslo Accords. Twenty-five years later, it is an insane and unsustainable arrangement.
Worse still is the student dropout rate: over 20 percent of boys and girls in grades eight through ten leave school to go to work (or to marry young). Given the fact that 83% of the children in eastern Jerusalem live below the poverty line this isn’t surprising, but it is unacceptable.
Overcrowding, rampant illegal home construction, and (consequently) grossly overburdened water and sewage infrastructures, is the norm in many eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods, with the worst example being Silwan in the heart of the city. Last year the municipality approved a master plan for new home building in Sur Baher and Umm Tuba in the southern part of the city; but again, much more is needed.
The situation is complicated by the nationalist struggles within the Arab community of Jerusalem. Many local Arab activists seek partnership with Israel in order to advance their communities, as described above, and some are even considering running this fall for election to the Jerusalem municipal council on local Arab slates – for the first time.
But Fatah leaders and the Palestinian Authority seek to dissuade them from working with the municipality, and are threatening the families of moderate Jerusalemite Arabs – with ostracism and even death.
Another bad actor with growing influence in the city is Erdogan’s Turkey. The Turks fund a great part of the Islamic missionary (dawa) activities in the city, and there is a direct line from this to radicalization and active enlistment in armed struggle against Israel. (This includes active social networking which glorifies terrorists, martyrs, and prisoners, and explicitly calls for violent resistance to Israel, as well spreading the libel that al-Aqsa is endangered by the Jews/Zionists).
Ironically, local Arab leaders whose families and clans are loosely affiliated with Hamas often are willing to cooperate on municipal matters with Israeli leaders. They believe that one day Islam will yet expel all Jews from the Middle East, but in the meantime, they apparently feel, one can pay and take tax monies from the Jews in order to benefit themselves.
Again, this is an absurd, counter-intuitive situation; but one that nonetheless Israel can and should be able to work with. Over time, greater integration of eastern Jerusalem Arabs in the world of education, employment and modern Israeli middle class life should lead to a better shared future for Arabs and Jews alike in united Jerusalem.
Which leads to one final irony. For several decades, the notion of dividing Jerusalem into two capitals with two governments floated through global discourse, leading Israeli governments to delay and deny the eastern half the city the development dollars it needs. After all, why should Israel invest in that part of the city if one day it is only going to be forked over to an Arab regime?
But now that Jerusalem “has been taken off the table” – meaning that the Israeli government has determined that Jerusalem must and will remain whole under Israeli administration, and not just for security reasons; and that Israel has received important international backing for this stance – Israel can no longer ignore its responsibilities to develop the eastern half of the city.
Which explains why it is davka the most conservative administrations ever, led by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, that have finally begun to invest in the welfare of Jerusalemite Arabs. This is a very proper thing. But they need to allocate billions of shekels more. Investment and good governance on the local level is the core of sovereign political action that will keep Jerusalem whole and make it prosperous for all.