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How Israeli-Palestinian battle for Jerusalem plays out in one neighborhood

The Israeli-Palestinian battle for Jerusalem is playing out in Silwan between Arab residents, religious Jews, and a municipality looking to revitalize its storied global brand.

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The stakes are high; US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said these talks may be the last chance to agree on the two-state solution that many have long envisioned as the key to Middle East peace.

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Israel never formally included East Jerusalem in the settlement freeze set to expire at the end of this month, a freeze Palestinians say must be extended to preserve the territory of their future state. The steady expansion of Jewish areas throughout East Jerusalem – through Israeli property laws, a Byzantine permitting process for new homes, and millions of dollars in state support – jeopardizes a key component of that statehood dream: a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.

On the city’s flanks, numerous Jewish developments have populations in the tens of thousands. But it is the smaller enclaves in the highly sensitive areas around the Old City, such as Silwan, that have become the frontlines in this intensifying battle for sovereignty.

“There is a growing impression,” stated a 2009 report by Israeli human rights group Ir Amim, “that Silwan is the keystone to a sweeping and systematic process, whose aim is to gain control of the Palestinian territories that surround the Old City, to cut the Old City off from the urban fabric of East Jerusalem, and to connect it to Jewish settlement blocs in northeast Jerusalem and the E-1 area.”

A millionaire's plan to transform Jerusalem

Mayor Nir Barkat, a self-made millionaire who took office in 2008, sees Jerusalem’s future in much different terms. (Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Barkat's financial status.)

He’s not oblivious to the fact that Jerusalem is a relatively poor city losing 17,000 young Israelis per year to emigration, that the Jewish majority has slipped to 65 percent and will be lost altogether by 2035 if current trends prevail, and that Palestinian Jerusalemites, living in vastly inferior neighborhoods, feel increasingly alienated.

Mr. Barkat is also keenly aware that he is in charge of a metropolis that for centuries has been one of the most celebrated crossroads of humanity – a center of worship, culture, and commerce. And for him, that is the key to revitalizing the city and endearing it to a world more apt to criticize Jerusalem than to come taste its heavenly hummus.

The dazzle of New York, Paris, and Rome all draw more than 40 million visitors annually, notes Mr. Barkat’s foreign affairs aide, Stephan Miller, freshly returned from an August mayoral tour touting the city’s 3,000-year-old brand in North America.

Cyprus, an island, gets 10 million per year,” he says, eyebrows jumping. “Jerusalem – a brand important to 3.4 billion people of faith around the world – gets on average 2 million.”

If Jerusalem can match Cyprus within a decade, they estimate it will create as many as 150,000 new jobs, roughly doubling the city’s job market.