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In Jerusalem, the real cost of making Palestinians pay

East Jerusalem residents play such a critical role in the capital's economy that closures are a serious threat

A friend of mine is the director of human resources at one of the biggest hotels in West Jerusalem. Yesterday he told me that since the recent outbreak of Palestinian terror, he has found himself in a peculiar situation. More than half of his workforce in the hotel consists of Palestinians from East Jerusalem. Half of them did not show up to work. They were too frightened to leave their houses for fear of being wrongly identified as terrorists or simply harassed by racist Israeli gangs. Those employees who did show up have been walking around the hotel with such grim faces that even my friend is frightened of them. He therefore carries a small canister of tear gas in his pocket for self defense at his own office. This contradictory and tense environment has characterized many workplaces in West Jerusalem lately.

But this reality is not only the result of recent events. It has built up slowly over the past decade. Since the Second Intifada and especially since the construction of the separation barrier between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the number of Palestinians employed in West Jerusalem has grown dramatically. The collapse of East Jerusalem’s local economy — after it lost its position as the metropolitan center of the West Bank and was physically cut off from job opportunities in the other Palestinian cities — has led many of East Jerusalem Palestinians to the West Jerusalem labor market.

According to an analysis of a survey of travel preferences conducted by the Jerusalem Transport Master Plan team in 2011, almost half of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian workforce was employed by the Jewish sector, mostly in West Jerusalem, as well as some in other Israeli cities. Today, an estimated 35,000 Palestinians work in West Jerusalem. This suggests that East Jerusalem’s Palestinian families are highly dependent on the Israeli job market. But this dependency is not one-sided: Because of East Jerusalem Palestinians’ high concentration in a few economic sectors in West Jerusalem, their value to the basic functioning of the city’s economy is critical. According to data from Israel’s National Insurance Institute, in 2012/13 East Jerusalemite workers comprised 75% of the hotels industry, 65% of the construction sector, 52% of transportation, 29% of industry and 20% of the health and welfare sector.

These numbers illuminate the problematic nature of the recent loud calls by government officials to enact a complete closure of Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Such an act will lead to a dire shortage of manpower at hotels, factories, construction sites, hospitals and pharmacies in West Jerusalem. In health services, for example, Palestinians not only work at the basic levels in maintenance roles, but also as nurses, doctors and pharmacists. Moreover, they comprise 40% of Egged bus drivers in Jerusalem and half of the taxi drivers, a basic and crucial public infrastructure that keeps the local market intact. Palestinians are also a significant purchasing power in West Jerusalem. They shop and spend on recreation at the local malls, supermarkets and other commercial services. A potential prolonged cut from West Jerusalem might change their long-term consumption behavior at the expense of the Jewish retailers. Such hard shocks to the already-fragile West Jerusalem economy are liable to lead to a local economic crisis, to be further intensified by the anticipated decline in local and international tourism in light of recent events.

Jerusalem is perceived by outsiders — and even by it local residents — as highly divided city. But the reality, forged over decades of forced unification under conditions of high socioeconomic polarization, has created deeply-rooted patterns of economic interdependency. However, a closer look at work relations in the local labor market reveals a stark hierarchy between Jews and Arabs. Despite a few exceptions, Jews usually serve as the white-collar workers in business services or the public sector, and most of the Palestinian workers occupy lower levels in the labor pyramid, as unskilled blue-collar workers or junior directors at commercial services. Thus, on the one hand, working together can create tension and even reinforce power relations, engender frustration, and lead to unmet career aspirations among Palestinians. At the same time, it can also create meaningful social relations and positive daily encounters with the other, especially if the workers do share the same status and position.

The links that market forces create between the communities are still active even during the harshest violence. In many ways, they keep the city together, and may even prevent the city from lapsing into an irreversible intifada. So far, most of the Palestinian terrorists have been teenagers, not daily workers in West Jerusalem. Indeed, keeping all of the Palestinian workers trapped at home under neighborhood closure might lead some of them to consider “other occupations.” Hopefully, this wave of violence will eventually subside, and Jerusalemites on both sides will be able to return to their normal daily life. But we must take a new look at our inter-communal relations. Without a diplomatic solution in sight, we cannot continue playing the same old game and wait for the next wave of terror. Instead, we must think about creating an overall strategy for the inter-community economy that emphasizes positive integration through removal of the glass ceiling for Palestinian workers and by fostering policies that encourage diversity. As the old saying goes – if we don’t hang together we shall surely hang separately.

About the Author
Marik Shtern is a PhD student at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.