You are here

'Israelization' of East Jerusalem

A year ago, for the first time, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel postal service established a post office in the village of Isawiyah, which lies below Mount Scopus, within the municipal boundaries. Along with the opening of the new branch − part of a plan to improve postal services in East Jerusalem − the village streets were given names and the houses received numbers. These developments followed a petition to the High Court of Justice, submitted by residents with the aid of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. But the municipality could not find a site for the post office, since most of the buildings in the village were illegal structures, so their future was thus in question.

“I visited the village dozens of times looking for a location,” says Itay Tsachar, an adviser to Mayor Nir Barkat and his project director for East Jerusalem. “We wanted to put the post office in the community administration building, until we discovered that it too is the subject of a demolition order.” Finally, a site for the post office was improvised between the support pillars of the neighborhood sports center.

However, on the night before the scheduled festive dedication of the new branch, which the mayor was to attend, the site was torched and slogans against normalization and collaboration with the municipality were scrawled on the walls.

“In the morning I get an urgent call from the residents,” Tsachar says. “They say: ‘Don’t ask − people tried to burn down the place.’ When I got there I found 20-30 people milling around and cursing: ‘Look what the sons-of-bitches did.’ I told them it was not a problem, because the structure was made of iron. ‘It’s just scorched a little. We can clean it up and go ahead with the ceremony,’ I told them. They organized and cleaned it up, and to this day the post office is operating just fine.”

Barkat showed up that day as scheduled to dedicate the site. His convoy was subjected to some stone-throwing on the way, but the local mukhtar, Darwish Darwish, joined a group of villagers who positioned themselves near the car to protect the mayor and the other officials.

The story of Isawiyah’s post office is a microcosm of the contrasting trends unfolding in East Jerusalem. Along with the nationalist radicalization, widespread support for Hamas and violent clashes reported in the media, far-reaching changes are taking place among the local Palestinians. These processes can be described as “Israelization,” “normalization” or just plain adaptation. The Israeli authorities, with the Jerusalem Municipality at the forefront, are encouraging and in some cases fomenting this process, and displaying surprising bureaucratic flexibility along the way.

Examples of this trend are legion. They include: increasing numbers of applications for an Israeli ID card; more high-school students taking the Israeli matriculation exams; greater numbers enrolling in Israeli academic institutions; a decline in the birthrate; more requests for building permits; a rising number of East Jerusalem youth volunteering for national service; a higher level of satisfaction according to polls of residents; a revolution in the approach to health services; a survey showing that in a final settlement more East Jerusalem Palestinians would prefer to remain under Israeli rule, and so on.

But dry statistics tell only a small part of the story; other elements are not quantifiable. For example, there is the pronounced presence of Palestinians in the center of West Jerusalem, in malls, on the light-rail train and in the open shopping area in Mamilla, adjacent to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. These people are not street cleaners or dishwashers, but consumers and salespeople. Another phenomenon is the growing cooperation between merchants in the Old City and the municipality.

Everyone involved in developments in East Jerusalem agrees that a tectonic shift is occurring, the likes of which has not been known since the city came under Israeli rule in 1967. Opinion is divided about the source of the change. Some believe it sprang from below, propelled by the Palestinians’ feelings of despair and their belief that an independent state is not likely to come into being. Others think it is due to a revised approach to the eastern part of the city by Israeli authorities, spearheaded by the municipality. Everyone mentions the separation barrier, which abruptly cut off Jerusalem from its natural hinterland − the cities and villages of the West Bank − as a factor that compelled the Palestinians in Al Quds ‏(“the holy sanctuary”) to look westward, toward the Jews.

The huge light-rail project, which cuts across the city and greatly facilitates access from the eastern neighborhoods to the city center, is also contributing to the transformation. Most of these changes are occurring below the radar of the Israeli public, but their consequences could be dramatic, particularly with regard to the possibility of dividing Jerusalem − and the country. It is very possible that Jerusalem has already chosen the binational solution.

1. Education

Three months after Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, the new school year began. The government, which by then had already annexed the eastern part of the city, sought to implement the Israeli curriculum in its public schools. However, the teachers, parents and principals adamantly refused. They launched a strike that became the symbol of the struggle by the Arabs of East Jerusalem against Israeli attempts to normalize the occupation. The strike persisted for two full years, until Israel finally capitulated and agreed to allow the Arab schools in Jerusalem to continue teaching according to the Jordanian curriculum. In time, that was superseded by the curriculum of the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians view that victory as a milestone in their resistance to Israel’s annexationist thrust. However, the triumph has begun to erode of late. Increasing numbers of parents now want their children to obtain an Israeli matriculation certificate, and more and more high-school graduates are attending special colleges that prepare them to enter the Israeli academic world. At present, there are three schools in East Jerusalem geared toward Israeli matriculation, while in others special programs are being launched with the same aim.

A school in Sur Baher, for example, initiated a track for Israeli matriculation last year. The school expected about 15 students to register, but 100 signed up − and the number is likely to grow in the years ahead.

According to Education Ministry data, the number of East Jerusalem high school students who took Israeli matriculation exams rose from 5,240 in 2008 to 6,022 in 2011. Another 400 people sat for external matriculation exams ‏(that is, outside the formal school framework‏). The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleges in the city and elsewhere in the country report an increase in the number of Arab students from Jerusalem. For example, there are 63 Arab students enrolled in the Hebrew University’s preparatory course this year, up from 39 last year. Other academic institutions that are popular among East Jerusalem residents are David Yellin Teachers’ College and Hadassah College, both in Jerusalem, and Al-Qasemi Academic College of Education in Baka al-Garbiyeh, in Galilee.

Jaffa-born Amal Ayub is the founder and principal of Promise, a school in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina in Jerusalem, which adopted the Israeli curriculum three years ago.

“I came to Jerusalem 15 years ago, but what is happening in the city now is something completely new,” she says. “First of all, there is openness. We are a coed school, which at one time was taboo. When parents visit the school I see in their eyes why they don’t want their children to do the tawjihi [Palestinian matriculation]. They think it is not relevant for them, because since the separation barrier was built, it is harder to register in Bethlehem or Bir Zeit, so they aim for the Hebrew University, David Yellin College or Hadassah College, and the tawjihi is of no use there. And the recent events in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world do not encourage them to attend universities there.”

In addition to internal changes in secondary schools, there are now about 10 colleges in East Jerusalem that specialize in preparing students for Israeli universities and colleges. One of the biggest is the Anta Ma’ana ‏(“You are with us”‏) Institute on Al-Zahara Street. Students of various ages crowd into a small classroom to receive help in preparing for the Israeli matriculation exams and mandatory pre-university psychometric test.

“It used to be unacceptable. People would make comments − ‘Why are you going to school with the Jews?’ − but now we are closed in and we have to stay in Jerusalem,” says Abdel Gani, the institute’s director. To which Eid Abu Ramila, who teaches civics, adds, “And then you see that the Hebrew University is just five minutes away. If you go to school in Bethlehem or to Al-Quds University, the only place you’ll be able to find work after you graduate is at the PA, for NIS 2,000 a month. So everyone is now flocking to Israel.”

Another reason for the rush to complete an Israeli matriculation − in fact, the main reason, according to most of the college’s students − is fear of the tawjihi, which is considered very tough. We met some students when we visited the college recently. Rawan, from Beit Hanina, wants to study psychology at Hebrew University; Aboud, from Beit Hanina, is interested in communications; and Azhar, from Ras al Amud, is considering nursing or law.

None has encountered a hostile reaction from family and friends for deciding to take the Israeli matriculation exams. “It’s easier to integrate into society and to find work with a matriculation certificate [from Israel],” says Aboud. “Civics is the hardest subject,” Abu Ramila, the teacher, adds. “I teach them about the principles of democracy, about equality, and they ask me: ‘Where’s the equality?’”

Some local Palestinians have been trying to fight this phenomenon by persuading the PA to revise the tawjihi exams. Hatam Hawis, the spokesman for the united parents’ committee of East Jerusalem, terms the Israelization phenomenon “appalling,” because it undermines the residents’ Palestinian identity. “Israel deliberately weakened the schools in the city in order to push people to Israeli matriculation,” he says.

2. Housing and water

There are hardly any water meters in East Jerusalem, because most of the homes were built without a permit, and it is prohibited to supply water or install a meter in an illegal structure. About two years ago, again after an appeal by ACRI, the municipal water corporation, Hagihon, came up with a creative legal solution. Instead of calling it a “water meter,” it’s now called a “control device.”

The change of name made it possible to circumvent the law and install water meters and a water supply system in thousands of homes − and to start charging for the service. About 10,000 of the devices have been installed in the past two years. Hagihon has also received hundreds of requests from families that want to disconnect from the Palestinian water network, which still supplies water to some of the northern sections of East Jerusalem, and tap into the Israeli grid. The reason: The water supply by the Palestinian company is sometimes erratic.

“We received so many requests from residents to be connected to the Israeli system,” Tsachar, the mayor’s adviser, says. “Let’s say I am an incorrigible Palestinian nationalist, but I also want to shower. What can I do? In that case, [asking to be supplied with] Israeli water is legitimate and pragmatic, and it will also be available all the time. I can fly a Palestinian flag next to the water container on the roof, but I would rather get the water on a regular basis. Now think about the ‘tower and stockade’ settlements [of the 1930s and 1940s]. Do you think they would have said, ‘We will not build a tower but will hook up to the Jordanian network, because it’s more practical’? Obviously not. So there is a process underway here. It’s something that cannot be ignored.”

The matter of issuing building permits provides another example of the authorities’ administrative flexibility in East Jerusalem. The main problem is that most residents cannot get a building permit because they do not have documents attesting to their ownership of property. To solve this problem, the municipality devised the so-called “Barkat procedure.”

“The problem is that if you don’t have confirmation of land ownership, the whole judicial system is stuck,” says Barkat. “We therefore created a mechanism in which the mukhtars, community directorate and municipality meet, and if they reach the conclusion that there is no reason not to believe someone who says the land is his, he gets a temporary permit.

After 20 years, if no one else claims ownership, it becomes permanent. This is a city in which legal creativity is a must. I would rather be right and smart than right and dumb.”

Barkat, who locates himself to the right of the political center, has played a crucial role in the story of East Jerusalem in recent years. The data may not show dramatic changes in budgetary allocations for East Jerusalem, but even his political foes admit he is making efforts to change the situation. From his perspective, the struggle to improve the lot of the city’s Arab population is part and parcel of his effort to eliminate plans to partition the city.

“I am determined to improve the quality of life of all the city’s inhabitants,” Barkat says. “That is precisely how I am unifying the city: by making things better for everyone. Jerusalem will not be divided. Period. It will not be able to function if it is divided, because of something very deeply ingrained in the city’s essence.” He adds, “But in Jerusalem each tribe has its own place, so I have no problem with the Arabs coming out to vote. My job will be easier if they have representatives on the city council.”

The key question is whether these developments will in fact induce Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote in municipal elections, which they have not done in any meaningful numbers since 1967. Constituting 36 percent of Jerusalem’s population, the Palestinians have the potential electoral power to change the political composition of the city council dramatically. There are voices in East Jerusalem calling for the Palestinians to vote, as part of a strategy to seek a one-state solution instead of the vaunted two-state concept. However, most experts believe that even if this eventually comes about, it will not affect the next municipal elections, which are about a year away.

“There is no doubt that Barkat has changed his strategy,” says city councilman Meir Margalit ‏(Meretz‏), who holds the East Jerusalem portfolio. “He is not a political person and not a great ideologue. He is pursuing a businessman’s strategy: buying people rather than forcing his rule on them. Why bring in bulldozers and demolish things if you can get people to leave of their own free will? He is creating a situation in which people feel they have something to lose.”

A few weeks ago, Barkat convened a meeting to discuss children at risk in East Jerusalem. About 20 Palestinians from neighborhoods and villages came to the meeting in the luxurious council room at City Hall, most of them with complaints aimed at the municipality and the social affairs and education ministries. According to Barkat, they came because they feel that someone is listening to them.

“In the past, they would come and talk and see that nothing came of it, and no one knew whether it was ideology, lack of desire or impotence,” Barkat says. “Suddenly, when they see things happening, they realize it is ideology and that there is no lack of desire and no impotence.”

Among the achievements Barkat lists: investments in infrastructure and transportation, planning of neighborhoods, building of schools and more. To illustrate the altered perception on the Palestinian side, he recalls the events surrounding the city-sponsored Festival of Light in the Old City and the behavior of the merchants there. The festival, which focuses on sculptures and performances relating to the theme of light, was held for the third time this year.

“The first year we had a pilot program, only in the Jewish Quarter, and 100,000 people showed up,” Barkat says. “In the second year we held it in the Jewish Quarter and the Christian Quarter, and 200,000 people came. This year it was in all the quarters and there were 300,000 visitors. At first the merchants were afraid to open up for the event, because they got threats. But then they saw that one store opened and then another, and before you knew it they were all open. Everyone made a killing and people got used to the idea.”

3. Health

Make no mistake: Despite what Barkat says, the boundary between the two parts of the city is still very sharp. The roads in the eastern city are still strewn with potholes and twist and turn at impossible angles. Uncollected garbage continues to pile up. By every yardstick − number of garbage bins, public parks, number and quality of school facilities, number of lampposts, well-child clinics, budgetary investment per resident or per schoolchild, and so on − the east is disadvantaged compared to the western city. Likewise the Palestinians, compared to their Jewish neighbors.

A detailed study conducted by councilman Margalit found that, at best, only 13.68 percent of the city’s budget is invested in the 36 percent of its Arab residents who live in East Jerusalem. Moreover, the Arab population there suffers from rampant unemployment and poverty, and is more likely than the Jewish population of the city to be subjected to police violence. Jewish settlers hire private guards to operate in Arab neighborhoods, and the Shin Bet security service still has a say in the appointment of school principals.

Still, in one area, the gap between the Jews in the west and their neighbors in the east has almost closed: public health. The past decade witnessed something of a mini-revolution in this sphere in Jerusalem. Until about 15 years ago, the Arabs of East Jerusalem were severely disadvantaged in terms of health care, mainly when it came to the health maintenance organizations. There were few clinics, physicians were unqualified, services were lacking. In the wake of the enactment of the National Health Law, which rewards the HMOs according to the number of members they have and their upgrading of various medical indices − none other than Leumit HMO, which is identified with the Revisionist Zionist movement − decided to enter the market in the eastern city. A major draw was the fact that the East Jerusalem population is young.

Around the same time, whether by chance or not, the Leumit logo also underwent a transformation: The long-time Star of David morphed into a flower. Within a few years, unbridled competition broke out between HMOs in the eastern city, which are run by local concessionaires − for the most part physicians, but in some cases businessmen.

The competition and privatization generated protests by organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights and ACRI. Their concern was that there was substandard supervision by the HMOs and a preference for making a profit instead of improving medical care. In the end, the process brought about a situation in which almost every neighborhood now has a number of clinics that boast advanced equipment. Following a number of cases in which ambulance drivers refused to enter Arab neighborhoods, some of the clinics now have their own forward ER units. In some cases the residents get free transportation to the clinics, free subscriptions to health clubs or free dental care, to ensure that they don’t switch to a rival HMO. The directors of the HMOs in the city still shudder when they recall how, three years ago, one concessionaire got tens of thousands of people to switch to a different HMO by reaching a better agreement with the competition.

Fuad Abu Hamed, a businessman and community leader from Sur Baher, runs the Clalit branches in his village and in Beit Safafa. He proudly shows off his clinic, which has an advanced ER unit, an X-ray center and a dental clinic. He speaks of extraordinary achievements in the realm of preventive medicine. “When the need arose to perform mammograms, we got 95 percent of the women, which is unprecedented. That’s because I know the community, and if a woman refuses we talk to her husband or sister, and I send a car to bring her. We don’t give in.”

Prof. Yosef Frost, director of the Jerusalem district of Clalit, describes the health developments in East Jerusalem over the past few years as an international record. “Take the quality indices, which are objective and universal, and examine the quality of medical service,” he says. “Four years ago, the indices were extremely low, whereas now they are almost equal to the Israeli national average. Some of the clinics in East Jerusalem are the leaders in the whole district; I could easily put them in the center of Tel Aviv.”

According to Frost, the health quality indices in East Jerusalem rose from a grade of 74 in 2009 to 87 today. That is the same grade the clinics in West Jerusalem receive, and just one point below the national average of Clalit clinics.

4. ID cards

The most advanced phase of the Israelization process appears in the requests for an Israeli ID card. In contrast to the territory in which they live, which was fully annexed to Israel, the residents themselves were annexed only partially; nearly all of them hold only a residency card. Residency status denies them many rights, including the right to vote in Knesset elections. But more important, it deprives them of the right to live wherever they wish.

Unlike citizens who can live in the territories or anywhere else, a Palestinian Jerusalemite who moves to the territories ‏(or if the municipal boundary places his home across the line‏), or who goes abroad to study for too many years, is liable to lose his residency status − and thereby also the right to return to his native city.

The road to obtaining full citizenship is seemingly open, but in practice Israel heaped obstacles in the way of those who sought citizenship. In any event, applicants for citizenship were few, as they were considered “traitors” who accepted the occupation. However, that barrier too has apparently been breached. Interior Ministry data show that several hundred Palestinians from East Jerusalem received Israeli citizenship in each of the past few years. Lawyers who are involved in this process say the queue of applicants is getting longer all the time.

“The shame barrier has fallen,” says attorney Amnon Mazar, who specializes in applications for citizenship. “People have reached the conclusion that the PA will not be their salvation and that Israel is a cornucopia. So they do it for their personal benefit. People who obtain Israeli citizenship are no longer necessarily considered traitors to their nation. It’s the trend. They don’t feel they have anything to be ashamed of.”

The fall of the shame barrier was also discernible in a survey conducted among East Jerusalem residents by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy − an independent think tank − last January. The results were dramatic. One question was, “In the event of a permanent two-state solution, which state would you prefer to live in?” No fewer than 35 percent of the respondents chose Israel, 30 percent opted for Palestine and 35 percent refused to answer.

“It was a surprise,” admits Dr. David Pollock, who conducted the survey. “We thought people would not want to say or admit it, but they did. You can see from the large number of people who declined to answer that it is a highly sensitive issue. So I would say that these figures are the minimum.” In reply to the question, “What would your neighbors prefer in that case?”, 39 percent replied that their neighbors would prefer to live in Israel.

What’s the explanation? The number of explanations for the processes being undergone by Jerusalem and by its Palestinian residents is equal to the number of experts one asks.

Some cite the separation fence, which cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank, its natural market and hinterland, and drove the residents into the arms of the Israelis. Others point to the deadlocked peace process and the attendant despair of change that has gripped the East Jerusalem Palestinians. There are experts who think the Arab Spring and general instability in the Arab world are pushing the Palestinians in Jerusalem to search for a future in the unified city. Another cause sometimes mentioned is the ongoing crisis and division within the PA. Or it may be simply due to the fact that, after so many years of occupation, a generation that was born into the situation prefers to look for its material future rather than raise the national flag. But everyone agrees that the driving force behind these developments is not love of Israel, but a desire to survive.

“The Israeli ID card is part of my summud,” says a Palestinian who obtained an ID card, referring to the concept of steadfastness. The Israeli attorney Adi Lustigman, who represents residents in the naturalization process, believes that requesting Israeli citizenship actually empowers Palestinian identity. “It’s what makes it possible for them to preserve their land and their rights in the place where they live,” she says. “They are still Palestinians; the fact that they are granted citizenship does not make them settlers. On the contrary: it gives them more freedom of movement and the possibility to stay in touch with the Palestinians in the West Bank, to work in Ramallah and live wherever they want without having to account to anyone.”

Tsachar: “A habit becomes natural, and this habit too will ultimately become natural. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Israelization or pragmatism. The farther you move along the axis of time, the more the disparity between 1948 and 1967 is reduced. There are many new milestones on the axis. It’s human nature.”

According to Israel Kimchi, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, it’s vital to remember that more than half the population of East Jerusalem “was born into this situation [of Israeli rule]. Things are moving toward greater moderation, more of an acknowledgment of the existing situation, of living the day-to-day as long as that’s possible. What interests them is having a playground for the children, like in the western city.”

“Survival” is also the word used by Dr. Asmahan Masry-Herzalla, a researcher in the Jerusalem Institute, to describe the behavior of East Jerusalem Palestinians. She too agrees that, contrary to expectations, the current process will actually bolster the Jerusalem Arabs’ Palestinian identity.

“It’s sheer survival. It doesn’t mean they want to become Israelis. They want to walk between the raindrops,” she says. “But when a young Palestinian man engages in study, it will heighten his awareness and reinforce his identity. Look what happened to the Arabs in Israel: the more they integrated, the more aware they became of their Palestinian identity.”

Jawad Siyam, from the village of Silwan, which abuts the Old City, is a prominent political leader in East Jerusalem. He is at the forefront of the struggle against the Jewish settlers in his village, and has been arrested many times. “Our life in East Jerusalem is complex,” he says. “We are Palestinians and need to belong to a place where we feel we have respect, and that is not Israel. In the meantime, we have an Israeli [residence] card and have to deal with the Israeli authorities, and I understand that some people are taking out an ID card in order to make life easier. But in the meantime, everything Israel and the settlers are doing only makes the Palestinians feel more Palestinian.”

Kimchi, who for years produced proposals for political solutions to divide the city, doesn’t think this process will affect the partition option. “In the end, the decision will be a political one. Nothing will help them,” he says, referring to the Arab residents. “No one will ask them.”

According to Margalit − who made these remarks before the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine nonmember observer-state status − “More and more Palestinians have despaired of the Palestinian Authority. They do not believe partition will happen. They see what is happening between Hamas and Fatah, and within Fatah, and they say ‘No thanks. We have enough problems of our own, so why should we step into that mess? We would rather be under Israeli rule.’ For someone like me, that is a truth that is hard to accept.”

Indeed, for Margalit, a veteran activist on behalf of the Palestinians’ rights in Jerusalem, the new situation creates vexing dilemmas. “There is daily soul-searching here between the humanistic consideration and the political consideration. It’s true that things are a little better for the Arabs of East Jerusalem,” he says, “but in the long term, we as Jews, and all of us together, will pay a higher price. That’s because what’s underway is destroying the foundation of the two-state solution.”

“I went through the period of whining, when we said ‘only the Jews are to blame.’ I do not say they are not responsible, but I also want to look after myself,” adds Abu Hamed, who, in addition to being the director of HMO branches, chairs a volunteer committee to promote education in Sur Baher. Both roles bring him into constant contact with the Israeli authorities. What drives him, he says, is the feeling of discrimination.

“It’s a harsh feeling. It burns me up when I drive through Armon Hanatziv [a post-1967 Jewish neighborhood next to Sur Baher] and see that they are scraping the old asphalt in order to repave the road, and you say to yourself, ‘Dear God, I wish we had even the old asphalt.’ The expectations of the people in East Jerusalem extend to banal services like roads and sewage disposal. It’s not their fault that the Six-Day War happened. Let them at least let us live with honor, whether it’s 40 years or 400 years. When the political solution comes, then we will see.”

After this article went to press, there was another clash between Palestinians and police in Isawiyah. Eighteen youths were arrested. The post office was not attacked.

Islands of anarchy

The undeniable processes by which the eastern part of Jerusalem is being unified with the western side do not incorporate all the residents of East Jerusalem. They include mainly the more established neighborhoods, and, more specifically, the people of means in those neighborhoods. These processes are completely absent in the Palestinian neighborhoods that are outside the separation fence. In fact, the situation in those areas is almost the reverse.

Some 70,000 Palestinians, almost one-third of all the Arab residents of Jerusalem, now live on the other side of the separation fence. Their neighborhoods have become islands of complete anarchy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The police, the municipality, the infrastructure companies and the other Israeli authorities barely operate in these neighborhoods, and the PA is barred from entering them under the terms of the Oslo Accords. The result is that their inhabitants are doomed to a life of hardship, lacking even the most basic services, and with a constantly diminishing connection to their city, which has left them on the wrong side of the checkpoints.

For the past few years, mayor Nir Barkat has been trying to get these neighborhoods placed under the responsibility of the army’s Civil Administration, which controls the West Bank. Barkat wants “to adjust the municipal boundary to conform with the fence,” adding, “I cannot operate when a fence crosses the municipal boundary. The fence is a real barrier in terms of supplying services.”

Redrawing the municipal boundary on this scale would of course be a dramatic move. Some would say it signals the start of Israel’s relinquishment of East Jerusalem. In the meantime, the political decision makers at the state level are refusing to consider Barkat’s idea.

The King’s Garden

Two years ago, a political storm was unleashed over a plan to develop the area of East Jerusalem known as the “King’s Garden.” Under the plan, which mayor Barkat supports, a new tourist area would be created on the lower slopes of the village of Silwan, below the City of David. The plan calls for the demolition of 22 of the 88 illegally built homes in the neighborhood of Al-Bustan, with the residents being moved to new housing in another part of the neighborhood.

The plan drew widespread condemnation. Local residents erected a protest tent that became a rallying point for months of violent demonstrations. Governments across the world spoke out against the plan, and Meretz left the municipal coalition in protest. ‏(The party reentered the coalition about a year later.‏)

In the meantime, the mayor and his staff continued to visit the area and discuss with the residents the possibility of their voluntary departure. Barkat says many of them have already agreed to the plan, even if they are unwilling to say so publicly. “I come to them with a win-win approach. What goes on in Abu Ghosh on Saturdays is nothing compared to what can be done here,” the mayor says, referring to the droves of Israeli Jews who flock to the Arab village west of Jerusalem (and inside Israel) to eat and shop on the weekend.

“The plan will upgrade their assets to a level they can only dream of,” Barkat continues, “and they now take a completely different view of it. In the end, they will understand that it’s a serious proposition and they themselves will request it.”

Attorney Ziad Kawar, who represents most of the tenants involved, and Morad al-Sana, a neighborhood resident, vehemently deny that negotiations are underway with the municipality. “Maybe one person out of a hundred signed off on the plan, but that means nothing,” says Sana.

However, councilman Meir Margalit of Meretz, who holds the East Jerusalem portfolio and is closely acquainted with the developments, believes that, below the surface, negotiations have reached an advanced stage. “There are increasing indications that some residents have arrived at understandings, even if things have not yet been signed,” Margalit says. “I say this with great sorrow, because politically, this plan must not go ahead,” he continues. “I am convinced that the Elad organization will have a foothold,” he says, referring to the controversial, ultranationalist group that runs the nearby, City of David site. “But if I had a house of 40 square meters without ownership papers and I could get a house twice that size and with papers − well, I can’t really blame them.”

By Nir Hasson