Jerusalem: unified city, divided views

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Judith Katz and Mahmoud Moussa Atoon live down the street from each other. Both teach, both have an affinity for history, and both have an almost romantic love of the land on which they live. Were they residents of almost any other city, they might cross paths buying groceries, dropping kids off at school, or taking a walk.

But the two are unlikely ever to have a word with each other, nor do they really want to.

On Tuesday, Israel will kick off celebra-tions marking the 40th anniversary of what it calls the reunification of Jerusalem; Mrs. Katz will be among the merrymakers. But Mr. Atoon will be among the mourners: Arab East Jerusalemites, who now make up just over a third of the city's population, say it is a solemn moment to take stock of lives under occupation.

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The tale is one for which there is no entirely fair telling. But it encapsulates central tensions: Israelis fear a growing Arab population that could take away their demographic edge – and wear away the right to call its capital city a seat of democracy. Moreover, Palestinian and Israeli proponents of a two-state solution, long presumed to mean some kind of plan to award both peoples a capital seat in Jerusalem, worry that facts on the ground will preclude an equitable peace.

Wrapped in the Jerusalem 'envelope'

Atoon lives in Sur Baher, down the slight slope from Ramat Rachel, where Katz lives. The former was once a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the latter, an agricultural kibbutz that sat in view of the holy city. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, whose actual anniversary is during the first week of June, both areas became part of Greater Jerusalem, eventually wrapped into the municipal lines Israeli officials designated as the "Jerusalem envelope." 

But their views of Jerusalem, so enchanting from the vantage between the two communities that tour buses like to pull in for a photo opportunity, are a window into how such radically different narratives can coexist on the same hilltop. 

In many corners of the city, it's possible to find people working or studying side by side, by choice or necessity. And amid official celebrations and commemorations, many Israeli and Palestinians are holding "alternative" events to get the public to reconsider the other side of the story.

Still, to most Israelis, this is a moment of pride, for putting East and West Jerusalem under one banner, for growing a backwater into a thriving city.

To most Palestinians, this is a moment for reflection on all they have lost and continue to lose as new Jewish neighborhoods are built and nourished while Arab ones go underfunded and undeveloped by a municipality whose chief concern, in the words of its mayor earlier this week, is that a Jewish majority prevail. The Arab population will make up 40 percent of city residents by 2020, according to projections released last week by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

"Jerusalem could, God forbid, end up not under Jewish sovereignty, but that of Hamas," Mayor Uri Lupoliansky said Sunday at a special cabinet meeting marking the 40th anniversary. There, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – a former mayor of Jerusalem – unveiled a plan to pour 5.75 billion shekels ($1.4 billion) into countering demographic trends that has Israel worried. Hamas, Mr. Lupolianski said, "knows it can capture Jerusalem through demography within 12 years." 

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.

"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. 

Though it costs him much more, he says, it's worth it. He worries about the lure of the prosperity his children see in Israel. He's proud that he's not among those who walk up the hill every day to work in Ramat Rachel – at the hotel restaurant, the cleaning crew, or the laundry. 

"The reality is that our people need jobs, so they do what they have to. The problem is that when people meet and merge, they lose their roots," he says. While work is one thing, he says, he's not interested in sending his kids to a school where they'll be asked to read Israeli literature, or play sports with the Jewish kids up the hill. 

 "Maybe they're right there," he says, "but we're quite distant from each other." .

Katz's view of the city

For a city with only 720,000 residents, the extent to which people do not know each other is astounding. Atoon calls a Ramat Rachel a "settlement," although it isn't; it was founded in 1926 and is inside the Green Line, though it was destroyed three times through history. Katz didn't know that Sur Baher is actually part of Jerusalem, but sees it as just another Arab village hostile to Israel's existence. 

Katz met her future husband in high school on the other side of Jerusalem. He had been born on the kibbutz.

"The state didn't give us much either. They worked hard, there was no electricity, and our people were like cannon fodder along the front lines," says Katz, sitting outside a mobile classroom that she has turned into a studio for courses in holistic techniques. Next door are the kibbutz archives she's run for the past decade, and where she's had to add a few new pictures of fallen sons of the kibbutz.  

"This was right up against the border and people were afraid to come here," she recalls. But she became the first teacher after families stopped sending their children away to study in safer locales. This was largely a pastoral existence, where the traces of farming life can be found in the signs pointing to organic cherry orchards.

The only real connection with the neighbors, she says, is that Palestinians working in West Jerusalem often take the same bus, but then get off at the stop outside the kibbutz gate and walk home.

"We don't have friendly relations between us," she says. "Right now, the only connection is that some of them, from specific clans, come here to work."

'I can't come and go'

It irks her that Palestinians can come to her kibbutz to work or walk anywhere in Jerusalem, but that it isn't safe for her to go into their neighborhoods. In more than 30 years, she's never gone down to Sur Baher. "I have nothing to look for from them," she says. "I know people who used to go looking for a pair of inexpensive jeans on a Saturday and come back with their cars damaged from the stones."

She says an expanding city is "swallowing up" Ramat Rachel. As Israel has built new Jerusalem neighborhoods – or settlements, depending on one's point of view – Ramat Rachel is becoming part of the city. Today, its name is synonymous with its pool, fitness center, and hotel. 

The Arab neighborhoods of the city are like another country. She wouldn't want to partition Jerusalem or cede part to a Palestinian capital, but neither would she want her children to go to school with the Arab kids down the hill.

"I don't feel a part of them," she shrugs. "We live our lives and they live theirs. I don't have any faith in them, I'm sad to say. It's one city now, and let it stay that way."

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