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Jerusalem: unified city, divided views

Forty years after the city was unified, it remains split into Arab and Jewish enclaves.

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Palestinian leaders express concern about running out of time for a different plan: space for two capitals. "I believe that this is the last minute, that maybe we are losing the opportunity for solutions," says Ziad Abu Ziad, a former cabinet minister in the Palestinian Authority.

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"I feel that what is happening on the ground is making the idea of a two-state solution unrealistic," Mr. Ziad adds, "and when I travel around and see the intensive daily activities of expanding Jewish settlements, I feel it is too late, and maybe at the end we will be stuck with each other."

 A myth that Arabs 'have it good'

Some argue that Jerusalemite Arabs would be fine with that, given that all holders of Jerusalem ID cards are entitled to work in Israel and get other benefits from the state, such as health care and social security. But Atoon says that the image that people in East Jerusalem "have it good" living under Israeli rule is a myth.

"From the economic standpoint, we can feel that we're part of Israel, but the only moment I feel we're equal is that when we're in line to pay taxes," he says, adding that even then, the differences are pronounced. A recent case in point, he says, was when he went over to a municipal office in West Jerusalem to settle one of his social security payments. They said he couldn't be helped there.

"There, it's a professional office, and here, it's like I'm entering a military camp," says Atoon as he drinks tea with spearmint in his sister's home. Sur Baher, which used to be largely agricultural, is now mostly planted with houses – and memories.

One of his earliest was when he was six years old, during the Six-Day War. With warplanes overhead and the Israeli army moving in, his family fled to a nearby cave and hid for a week. His father took them to Jordan. A few months later they returned. 

Atoon earned a degree in architecture, but he never practiced. Instead, he became politically active, a choice that eventually landed him in Israeli prison for five years after being charged, he says, with intifada-related activities during the first uprising, which began in 1987. 

It was a personal tragedy that brought home how different life is from East to West. His toddler son was killed crossing a road where cars turn quickly. Were this West Jerusalem, he's sure that there would have been a crosswalk and signs warning drivers to go slowly.

There's also no city sewage system in much of this area; people have private septic tanks. Garbage pickup is once a week. Roads are poorly maintained.

He's never voted in a Jerusalem municipal election, except for when he was in jail and felt forced to do so. Most Arab Jerusalemites choose to make the collective statement of not voting, and therefore, have no representation on the city council. He did vote in the Palestinian Authority's elections in January 2006. His cousin, Abu Majahed Atoon, a legislative council member from Hamas, was elected. He was arrested by Israel and jailed about a year ago when tensions rose between Israel and Hamas.

Atoon shuns one benefit – Israeli-funded public education for his children – to put them in a private Islamic school system called Riad Al Aqsa. The facilities aren't necessarily better, he says. "But people are more concerned with what's going into their kids' head than what kind of building they're sitting in," he says.