In his May 8 interview with the Times of Israel, Mayor Nir Barkat forcefully outlines his vision of “One Jerusalem. Undivided. Open to All.” As an NGO mission driven to render Jerusalem a more viable and equitable city, Ir Amim applauds the mayor for his efforts to utilize tourism as an engine for improving the economic status of its diverse population. Our concern is with the mayor’s failure to differentiate between bolstering Jerusalem’s lure as an international tourist destination and Disneyfying the city with a system of touristic bible parks and cable cars at the expense of its most vulnerable residents.
The mayor, in all of his unadulterated exuberance, misses the world-acknowledged relevance of Jerusalem not merely as an economic hub but as the microcosmic center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether by design or not, many of the accomplishments for which he takes credit are contributing to that conflict – on a micro level, by undermining the socio-economic stability of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and on the macro stage, by blithely bifurcating the city from its political context, thereby complicating opportunities for a political resolution of the city.
The mayor’s comments are startling in their misrepresentation of the needs of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian community. According to Barkat’s assessment, his plan to build Gan Hamelech (the King’s Garden) has won the support of local residents, who have finally come around to appreciating that “everyone improves their quality of life, you bring dramatic investments into the place, you enable commerce, and all the residents stay.” Tellingly, instead of referring to the community’s Palestinian name – Al-Bustan, a section of Silwan – he rebrands it as the King’s Garden, thereby justifying residents’ anxieties about it being used to impose a single Jewish narrative onto their neighborhood.
Semantics aside, Barkat claims “the new plan doesn’t call for any evictions.” In fact, the plan is a continuation of municipal proceedings that began in early 2005 with the delivery of an ongoing series of demolition orders to the residents of the neighborhood of Al-Bustan, following demands by the city engineer to evacuate the area for the creation of an archaeological touristic park. As such, the plan would still entail the demolition of up to 56 of the existing 100 houses zoned for construction.
Barkat goes on to tout the 500 classrooms constructed for Palestinian schoolchildren during his tenure. In fact, during Barkat’s first 4 years in office, only 83 classrooms have been built, despite a High Court ruling ordering that the ongoing gap of 1,100 classrooms in East Jerusalem must be bridged by 2016. Further, conflicting official figures obtained for a joint 2012 Ir Amim-ACRI report reveal that the Education Administration does not know whether or where 24,000 Palestinian children attend school. By the twelfth grade, 40% of Palestinian students have dropped out of the system as the result of ongoing neglect and lack of sufficient budgetary investment. And, despite a recent government decision to provide free education to all children aged 3-4, only 5% of the 15,000 children in East Jerusalem aged 3-4 (800 children) will attend pre-kindergartens this school year.
In the same paragraph boasting the construction of new classrooms, Barkat acknowledges the bureaucratic impediments to proving land ownership in order to obtain a legal building license. This statement implies the Mayor’s awareness that the virtual impossibility of obtaining a building license leaves Palestinians with no recourse but to build illegally, placing them at imminent risk of home demolition. To address the problem, Barkat guestimates that the Municipality has awarded between 55-65,000 new licenses, though he fails to indicate to whom those licenses were awarded or concede the marked disparities in access between Jewish and Palestinian residents.
In 2012, the Israeli government released tenders for 2,386 new units of housing for Jews – and an additional 6,431 pre-tender approvals for new housing units. Since 1967, the Palestinian population has grown from 70,000 to roughly 350,000 (more than a third of the population of Jerusalem) but during that time building permits were issued for little more than 14,000 housing units – only 25% of the number Barkat claims to have awarded during his four year term.
There is no question that Mayor Barkat’s entrepreneurial energy has translated into gains for West Jerusalem, including the recent renovation of the old Ottoman era Jerusalem train station into an urban retail and dining hub. Yes, there are “street parties, light and music festivals, the Jerusalem Marathon, Formula One.” Unarguably, the Mayor is working hard to attract businesses and tourism dollars to the city. But in the end, these accomplishments only highlight the relative lack of investment in Palestinian east Jerusalem, the population of which now constitutes 36% of the overall population of the city and yet still receives only 8-10% of the Municipal budget. The data begs the question, is this really one Jerusalem, undivided and open to all?
This post was co-written with Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at Ir Amim; Aviv Tatarsky’s background includes training in nonviolent resistance, and transforming psychological obstacles to peace through deep listening practices.