Of the many painful realities of life in Jerusalem, one stands out as especially evocative: Most taxi drivers won’t go to the city’s Arab neighborhoods.
They are considered too dangerous.
That fact, however trivial, reveals much about the state of Jerusalem, perhaps the most contested territory in the world. Palestinian enclaves in East Jerusalem have been eroded by Israeli settlements, and basic infrastructure there remains sparse.
Those disparities, documented in a new report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), present a complex political challenge for Israeli policymakers, just as they begin indirect peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli hardliners have long insisted on a “unified Jerusalem,” and Israel’s current center-right government has mounted a sustained effort to introduce Jewish settlers into Arab neighborhoods. Just last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged that he “will never divide Jerusalem.”
But the Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed from Jordan in 1967, as the capital of their prospective state, and argue that the stark disparities between East and West Jerusalem undermine the notion of a “unified” city.
“The Israeli government’s line has always been ‘united Jerusalem,’” Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and negotiator at the 2000 Camp David Summit, said in a telephone interview. “In reality, there’s a division.”
The ACRI report found, among other things, that three-fourths of Arab children in East Jerusalem live in poverty, and that 160,000 Palestinians there lack access to water. The Eastern part of the city faces a shortage of 1,000 classrooms, and the school dropout rate hovers at about 50 percent.
Those disparities have prompted some prominent Israelis to accuse the government of neglect and discrimination, and argue that East Jerusalem would be better off under Palestinian control.
“It is not us, Israelis, who should claim to be the proprietors of Arab Jerusalem — it is them,” Eyal Megged, an Israeli author and journalist, wrote in a forward to the ACRI report. “The path for a creative solution in Jerusalem rests upon a genuine familiarity with East Jerusalem, and the recognition that we share this city.”
Even some right-wing Israeli politicians have given up on certain portions of East Jerusalem, arguing that the central Israeli government is unwilling to allocate money for those neighborhoods while their political status remains murky.
“The state of Israel has given up,” Yakir Segev, a municipal official in Jerusalem, said in a January speech to the Hebrew University. “Outside the half delusional right wing camp, I don’t know anyone who wants to enforce Israeli sovereignty over this area.”
But the current Israeli government has pushed ahead with Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, in an attempt to undercut any future proposals by U.S. officials or others to divide the city. According to the parameters of the final Camp David proposals in 2000, Jerusalem would have been divided cleanly into Arab and Jewish neighborhoods.
If those neighborhoods become integrated, the thinking goes, dividing them will become much more difficult.
“The Israeli government is going for an unprecedented level of construction and demolition in East Jerusalem, with the objective, obviously, being a change in the demographic reality,” al-Omari said.
He added that such an effort could derail the peace talks even before they begin.
“If we get to a point where Jerusalem becomes impossible to divide, the settlement projects take such proportion that Jewish and Arab are so intermeshed,” al-Omari said, “then you will basically kill any two-state solution.”