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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 mayor, coming from the “win-win” world of hi-tech deals, envisions projects like the King’s Garden archaeological park as a way to not only woo tourists and make the city more attractive to young Israeli families, but also to bring better management to Arab areas such as Silwan.

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Such projects would improve roads and sewage, and add new buildings such as a $10 million community center planned for Diab’s community.

The trickle-down effect, the municipality foresees, would open up more job opportunities for Arabs and give their children a better start in life through higher standards of living and improved schooling.

While roughly 2 in 3 Arab residents pay property taxes, the lack of building permits they obtain means that almost none pay the separate fees associated with buying and building homes – depriving their communities of a crucial cash pool for roads, schools, and other development, says Yakir Segev, the city councilor in charge of East Jerusalem.

Complicating the situation is the fact that Palestinian Jerusalemites refuse to vote or run for local government positions on principle.

“Cooperating with the municipality is sometimes perceived as accepting Israeli sovereignty,” says Mr. Segev. “We’re to blame to some extent for not overcoming the fact that these guys have chosen not to be represented, and then I think the [Arab] community can blame themselves for not cooperating and paying what they should have, and working with us to figure out how to help them.”

Silwan: Top priority in wider plan

The mayor has tackled Silwan as one of his first priorities in the wider effort to transform Jerusalem – using as a blueprint a massive rezoning plan he inherited, which calls for a green belt around much of the Old City.

But Palestinians in Silwan deeply resent what they see as an invasion of an area that they say has long been theirs, although satellite images gathered by the Jerusalem municipality show very little development until the 1990s.

As part of a compromise, the owners of 66 of the 88 Palestinian homes affected by the King's Garden plan will be allowed to apply retroactively for permits, though approval of the permits is not guaranteed.

They will also be allowed to build additional units intended to accommodate the residents of the remaining 22 homes – including Diab’s – that will be demolished to make room for the park.

But such proposals satisfy neither religious Jews, who seek a stricter interpretation of the law, nor residents.

“[Israel is] demolishing family, future, and any opportunity of peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” says Abu Diab. “I hope for me and my children’s sake a third intifada won’t happen. But if it does, it will be not just local, but regional as well. There are 20,000 Abu Diab families – in Amman, Saudi Arabia, US – and that’s just a small sample.”

But despite the intense emotions around the city's status, Ir Amim spokeswoman Orly Noy sees merit in tackling it head-on.

“We think that a solution is still possible in Jerusalem and in the conflict in general – and,” she adds, “that Jerusalem can, in fact, serve as a key for getting to this overall solution.”

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements