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How United Is Jerusalem? A Tour of Palestinian Neighborhoods and Israeli Settlements

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Reported by Ziva Galili

The recent clashes in East Jerusalem, though limited in scope and duration, are forcing us again to question the presentation of Jerusalem as a united city. Just a few weeks ago, on Jerusalem Day, Israeli politicians and settlers celebrated "Eternally United Jerusalem" and swore it will never be partitioned again. But a recent tour of some of Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods uncovered how divided it is today, 43 years since Israel announced the annexation of East Jerusalem and the creation of a united city. The divisions are palpable and can be seen everywhere in East Jerusalem. For the most part they are the result of Israel's long-term neglect of municipal services for Palestinian residents of the city. But they have become more acute and visible because of the systematic encroachment of Israeli settlers on Palestinian neighborhoods, especially those located in the most prized and sensitive area surrounding the Old City, known as the "Holy Basin" or "Historic Basin."

My tour of East Jerusalem was guided by Ir Amim Field Researcher, Ahmad Sub Laban. Much of Sub Laban's working week is spent in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, where he spots and investigates new construction, records the state of municipal infrastructure and services, and speaks to residents about problems of al (our blog from September 2009 reported on his role in Ir Amim's campaign to register Palestinian children in state-funded schools). Not many people have as intimate a knowledge of life in East Jerusalem as that developed by Sub Laban.

Our route followed the chain of Israeli enclaves built by settler organizations, forming a ring around the "Holy Basin." From south to north, they include Nof Zion, Kidmat Zion, Ma'alot David, Ma'ale Zeitim, Ir David, Khoshen, Beit Orot, Karm el Mufti, Shepherd Hotel, Glassman Compound, and Shim'on Hatzadik. In one neighborhood after another, all along this "ring" we saw physical evidence of the gapping differences between the municipal services available to Palestinians and those provided to Israeli settlers.

Our first stop was in Jabal Mukaber, which covers the crest and slopes of a steep hill on the southern rim of Greater Jerusalem. The separation wall closes on it from the east, separating it from its Sheikh Sa'ad section. To the west, Jabal Mukaber overlooks the Old City, a breathtaking view in daylight and at night. The view is one way to sell the luxury apartments of Nof Zion, a new Israeli settlement on the western slope of Jabal Mukkaber, intended for wealthy American Jews. The ads call it a "private community." No mention of the Palestinians living all around.

Driving through Jabal Mukaber one moves from the developed world into the "third world" and back, all within the space of half a mile. Starting on a regular Israeli road--4 lanes, flower-planted road divider, sidewalks--you suddenly find yourself on a narrow road, steep and winding, riddled with potholes, no sidewalks in view. Only a few of the usual green-painted garbage dumps that are ubiquitous in urban Israel are to be seen, and they are all overflowing with garbage. In one of them the residents had set fire to the waste, in apparent despair of ever seeing the garbage collected. One shutters at the thought of the pollutants freed into the air where children play in the streets.

But this is not the only danger to children in Jabal Mukaber. The road connecting the neighborhood with its school is in an especially bad condition, its shoulders strewn with enormous cement pipes. Here is evidence to a promised new road that was to serve both Jabal Mukaber and Nof Zion. The project was stopped midway and in place of an improved road there is the eyesore and physical danger of the deserted pipes. Children walking to school and back must choose between wiggling their way among the pipes or walking on the dangerously narrow road.

We continue north to Ras el Amoud. Twelve years ago, in the midst of Netanyahu's first term as premier minister, this was the first Palestinian neighborhood outside the Old City to be targeted by Israeli settlers, attracted by its proximity to the Jewish cemetery on Mount Olive and the view on Temple Mount. Today, there are two large settler compounds in Ras el Amoud and plans are afoot to increase their population many folds, as well as build a country club and other amenities for the new residents - all in the midst of a Palestinian neighborhood that suffers from overcrowding, no decent waste disposal, shockingly few schools, and no parks.

Still, this part of Ras el Amoud does not prepare the visitor for what lies just a few hundred feet away. Right in the middle of the enormous Mount Olive cemetery stands a small neighborhood of crowded, patched up houses. Like all the Palestinian neighborhoods we visited, its residents pay municipal property taxes. But in this part of Ras el Amoud you will not find evidence of even the most basic municipal services, such as paved roads, safe electrical wires, or garbage receptacles. The two approach roads to the neighborhood are barely passable: one winds and rises steeply among the walled-in cemetery plots, so narrow that when two cars meet one must reverse to the next intersection to allow the other to pass. The second road is an unpaved, steep path overhung with electrical wires barely higher than a Jeep's roof.

Between Ras el Amoud and the Old City lies the village of Silwan, the target in recent years of intensive settlers' activity, including the development of the Ir David archeological garden. We did not stop in Silwan, which was the focus of a special Ir Amim report and two of our previous blogs. Instead, we drove up to A-Sheikh, a hill that rises across the valley from Temple Mount/Haram el Sharif and is home to several Christian monasteries. Tourists and pilgrims arrive by the busloads, but like the local residents they must make their way among overflowing garbage dumps. Here, too, the residents are reduced to open air incineration as the only way to handle uncollected garbage. The stench of burning waste welcomes all visitors.

We continue up the hill to Augusta Victoria - a 19th century German hospital and a visual landmark on Jerusalem's eastern skyline. Several Palestinian hospitals have located here, making it the heart of Palestinian medical services. The area appears cleaner and more orderly, but no thanks to the municipal government. Separating Augusta Victoria from the Old City is a ring of settlements of various kinds, including the chain of parks that is forming around the "Holy Basin."

Just a couple of minutes' drive down the hill from Augusta Victory we come to Beit Orot - a yeshiva that has recently received permission to expand into a residential neighborhood. Further down the hill, in the valley that encircles the walls of the Old City, we come to the park Ein Zurim being developed by the nearby settlement of Beit Zurim. The plan is for this park to link with the King's Garden that is projected to replace many Palestinian homes in the Al Bustan section of Silwan. Many Palestinian homes and fields are located within the projected circle of parks and many of the homes face demolition orders.

We continue northward to the sprawling neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. This relatively affluent neighborhood is now being targeted by at least five different settlers' initiatives, all of them intended, above all, to make it impossible for an Israeli government to agree to a partition of Jerusalem along demographic lines. One case in particular has become a cause celebre for Palestinians and their Israeli and international supporters - the struggle of 28 families (all refugees who lost their homes in Israel during the war of 1948) against eviction from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.

As we have seen on this tour, the fight to keep Jerusalem "united" is raging on. Two rings are forming around the "Holy Basin" to block a possible partition: one composed of settlements, the other of parks. They are strangling the Palestinian population today, and could seal the fate of Jerusalem in the future. Meanwhile, the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are deprived by "their" municipal government of basic services to which they are entitled and for which they pay through property taxes.