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Jerusalem, the already binational city

Moves to shore up the Jewish majority backfire, boosting the Arab populace and increasing integration

In November 2014, a short article with a strange storywas published in Jerusalem’s local paper – Yedioth Yerushalayim. The Malcha mall, the most popular mall in Jerusalem and one of the most profitable malls in Israel, reported a 15 percent drop in retail profits at some of the mall’s leading stores. The reason, it turned out, was the almost total absence of Palestinian shoppers at the mall since the events of summer 2014. The cruel, sadistic murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir from Shuafat, random attacks on Arabs in West Jerusalem streets and the arrest of almost 700 Palestinian youth during the riots of what was later called the Jerusalem Intifada had manifested into a mixture of fear from racial attack and a political boycott of Israeli commerce.

Palestinians from East Jerusalem decided to refrain from shopping at the Jewish mall. Moreover, all local newspapers in East Jerusalem refused the mall’s attempt to promote a new Arabic advertisement campaign in the newspapers, which astonished the mall’s management. A boycott of any promotion of Jewish commerce was enacted throughout the local Palestinian press.

This story reveals the fractured and fragile nature of “united” Jerusalem. It also demonstrates the demographic transformation of the city and, as a result, the growing economic interdepedance between the two populations. In the coming decades, this rise of the Palestinian minority in Jerusalem as a player in the market and workforce — alongside their growing proportion of the general population — will dramatically change the nature of West Jerusalem.

Since the end of the Second Intifada, which claimed 173 Jewish civilian casualties in West Jerusalem’s streets, the Jews in Jerusalem have seen a relatively quiet decade. Apart from several random individual terror attacks, it was a decade without intense periods of Palestinian terror. Jewish Jerusalemites got used to a more “normal” reality. Mayor Nir Barkat, elected in 2008, has fostered and prospered in this lucid tranquility. He arranged cultural festivals, the marathon, and the Formula One race. New hip restaurants have opened, giving Tel Aviv’s cultural hegemony a fair fight. The civil society has built strong organizations, networks and coalitions, and new urban projects — including the light rail, the trail park, the First Train Station, the Arena, and the Mamilla quarter — have decorated and improved the quality of life for Jerusalem’s residents. Since the glowing days of Teddy Kollek, life in West Jerusalem has never seemed better.

At the same time, however, in East Jerusalem’s neighborhoods the only thing to celebrate has been the ongoing decay and crumbling of physical infrastructure and communal and economic frameworks. While new luxury compounds have filled any available public space in in West Jerusalem, the Arab neighborhoods have continued to cry out for paved sidewalks, roads, a functioning sewage system and hundreds of missing classrooms. Moreover, the Palestinians got their own special urban project: the Defense Barrier. The 168 kilometer wall that was meant to secure Jewish lives in the western part of Jerusalem has left the Eastern side with divided streets. It has fragmented the lives of hundreds of thousands city residents, cutting many of them off from work, schools and families that remained on the wrong side of the wall.

Nevertheless, like in Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, short-sighted political plans sometimes lead to the opposite results. The planners of the wall (the IDF and the Sharon Administration) hoped to envelop as much territory of East Jerusalem with as little Arab population as possible. This was another step in the Israeli government’s official demographic policy: Since 1967, it has tried and constantly failed to secure the Jewish majority in the city. In reality, the wall had two undesired consequences. The first was a mass immigration into Jerusalem of Palestinians who were left outside of the wall. An estimated 50,000-100,000 people have entered the most neglected parts of the city, creating a severe housing shortage in the Arab neighborhoods — yet another blow to the failing demographic policy of the Israeli government in Jerusalem. The second result was a geographical transformation of daily life activities. The wall has fostered a functional physical division between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which led many Palestinians to look westward into the Jewish parts of the city for daily activities. Going to work, shop or study in Ramallah or Bethlehem became a serious liability. Nobody wanted to get “trapped” behind the future border.

Suddenly, all of the great new developments in West Jerusalem have become a major attraction for Palestinians. Like unwanted guests, they have started to arrive in the malls, parks, light rail and workplaces. Research shows that in 2011, almost 40 percent of East Jerusalem’s workforce was employed in West Jerusalem. Some economic sectors have become highly dependent on Palestinian workers, such as tourism, transportation, building, retail and health. Even in housing, new signs of a major trend have begun to materialize: Palestinians from East Jerusalem have begun to move into neighborhoods that were initially built for Jews in East Jerusalem, including French Hill, Pisgat Zeev and Neve Yaacov. In the last decade, hundreds of such families have settled in apartments that were sold to them by middle class Jews leaving the city.

Summer 2014 brought some of these processes to a temporary stop. For the first time, just being in West Jerusalem was perceived as a physical risk for many Palestinians. But the reality in Jerusalem carries no alternatives. Today Palestinians comprise more than 37 percent of the city’s population, and by 2035 this figure is expected to reach 50 percent. The ongoing underdevelopment of East Jerusalem and the tenth anniversary of the Defense Barrier will continue pushing Palestinians into West Jerusalem.

This unexpected reality carries with it threats and opportunities. In almost every public or commercial space in West Jerusalem, new shared spaces are created whereby Jews and Palestinians are co-habiting as residents, customers and colleagues. Some see this as a threat to the Jewish nature of Jerusalem. Racist organizations like Lehava are suspected of inciting gangs of young Jews to attack Palestinian workers and passersby in Jewish neighborhoods. The new reality also causes frustration and resentment among many Palestinians, exposed daily to the wealthy Jewish neighborhoods and the suspicion and fear they encounter on the Jewish side.
At the same time, this new forced integration also fosters opportunities for positive encounters and mutual acknowledgment by both sides, both of which had become accustomed to hating each other and living apart. With time, this may lead to further political and social empowerment of the Palestinian community and reinforce new political agreements in the future. This is a process that, unlike in the past, will come from the bottom up, leading Jerusalem to be de jure, what it has already become de facto – binational.

This article was originally published in Hebrew at Haokets.

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.
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