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Palestinian officials fund schools, fill potholes in E. Jerusalem. Are they building a state?

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is spearheading an effort to improve public services for Arab areas of East Jerusalem, long neglected by municipal officials.

By Correspondent, Catrina StewartContributor / November 23, 2010

Workers stand near concrete blocks at a construction site of a section of the controversial Israeli barrier in the Shuafat refugee camp, in the West Bank near Jerusalem on Sept. 14. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has launched an effort to improve public services for the area, which has long been neglected.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

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Jerusalem

Officially, Israel considers the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem as part of its "undivided and eternal" capital.

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But in practice, there's been an erosion of Israeli sovereignty on Jerusalem's eastern outskirts in recent months as the Palestinian Authority (PA) steps up a quiet campaign to fill a vacuum of municipal services – building new schools, filling potholes, and maintaining public order.

Amid expectations that peace negotiators will soon revisit the high-stakes dispute over a city sacred to both Jews and Muslims, the activity highlights a reassertion of Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem as their capital after nearly a decade of quiescence. Spearheaded by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian effort fits into a broader escalation of rival claims that has ratcheted up tension on the ground and among heads of state.

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"It's almost a law of physics. As we get to the final-status issues, it's not at all surprising that you're going to see increased interest and engagement of the Palestinians in the affairs of East Jerusalem,'' says Danny Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer who has pushed for a compromise in the city. "The battle for Jerusalem has already started, and it's been going on under the radar for several months now.''

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Why E. Jerusalem neighborhoods are so neglected

After winning control of East Jerusalem from the Jordanians in the 1967 war, Israel annexed not only the Jordanian-defined area of the city but large swaths of the West Bank to its capital – a move never recognized by the international community.

The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future sovereign state, an arrangement widely recognized as a key pillar in any two-state solution.

But on Nov. 22, Israeli lawmakers passed a bill requiring a public referendum for any peace deal that cedes control of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, if that deal is not approved by two-thirds of the parliament.

Uncertainty over the eventual fate of East Jerusalem has undoubtedly contributed to 43 years of neglect in the city's Arab neighborhoods, though low tax revenues factor in as well.

Sidewalks often do not exist, while street lighting is patchy, if provided at all. Sewage facilities and access to the water mains, taken for granted by Jewish families, are lacking. And a report by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel says that there is a shortage of 1,000 classrooms in East Jerusalem, despite Israel’s obligations to provide free education for everyone.

Palestinians account for 35 percent of Jerusalem’s total population yet benefit from just 8 to 10 percent of the municipality’s budget, according to Ir Amim, an Israeli nongovernmental organization founded by Mr. Seidemann.

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