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Second class residents: Jerusalem elections highlight city’s East-West divide

A general view of Jerusalem's Old City skyline is seen from the west in July 2017, with the Golden Dome of the Rock seen in the centre of Al-Aqsa mosque compound, also known as the Haram al-Sharif or to Jews as the Temple Mount
GALI TIBBON (AFP/File)

It’s a thin line that separates East from West Jerusalem, but social divides in city the run deep and Palestinians in East Jerusalem complain the municipality has abandoned them, neglecting the upkeep of their neighborhoods.

Before 1967, East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule but, after the Six Day War, Israel exerted control over the Eastern half of the city. Neighborhoods in the east suffered from lack of investment in infrastructure, education, housing and municipal services.

Some historians believe Israeli political leadership assumed this area of land would be inevitably exchanged in a future peace deal with the Palestinians and thus avoided investment in its upkeep. Others say the ongoing neglect is a product of a biased policy which seeks to emphasize Jerusalem’s Jewish character while marginalizing the Arab population.

Either way, the gaps between east and west are clear.

But east Jerusalem residents also face an issue of status. Most Palestinian residents of the city are classified as “permanent residents” but are not Israeli citizens and do not enjoy full citizenship rights granted to Israeli citizens.

“It's about right. The right of movement, the right to vote, the right to anything, we are second degree residents,” east Jerusalem resident Mohamad Nabulsi told i24NEWS. “We are not even citizens, to travel we need a visa, to go out of Israel, to come back, so to come back to your homeland you need a visa on a travel document that they issue for you.”

East Jerusalem Arabs comprise about 38 percent of the city's population, pay municipal taxes and are entitled to social security benefits and healthcare -- but they can’t apply for Israeli passports or vote in national Israeli elections.

While Israel formally offers East Jerusalem Arabs the right to apply for citizenship on paper, in reality, only a small number of applications are approved and most remain in a liminal ‘pending’ status.

Nabulsi’s story is similar to many east Jerusalem Arabs. He left Jerusalem for an extended period of time, only to discover that his residency status had been revoked. But he took his case to Israel’s supreme court and won.

“I decided to come back to my homeland and I found out that I cannot live in Jerusalem because I changed the center of my life according to the law,” Nabulsi said. “As a resident in Jerusalem, as I am a Palestinian I am a resident not a citizens and when we change the center of our lives for more than three years we don’t have the right to come back to our home, I went to court and I succeeded to get back my residency.”

THOMAS COEX (AFP/File)

According to Nabulsi, this status issue impedes basic freedom of movement.

“So how does it feel? I have many Israeli friends and they are completely free, like someone from Europe, and they can travel, and go decide to fly today or to vote or to do any job they can get it but for a resident, it's a completely different story,” Nabulsi said.

Adi Lustigman, a human rights lawyer who has built an entire practice representing east Jerusalem residents, told i24NEWS that Arabs in the city face a unique challenge.

“Jerusalem residents are not like any other people in the world, if they want to just join the modern world, the global world, go live for some time any place else, go study academically, any place else, they want to relocate for work, they are always in fear that they will lose their residency, and not trust the fact that they will be able to go back home,” Lustigman told i24NEWS.

“I think the first thing is that Israel doesn't want those people, I have to say it very bluntly because there is no other way to say it," Lustigman added.

AP Photo/Maya Hitij

Lustigman hopes to see the government alter its policy, not just on a municipal level but on a national scale as well.

"I expect the government to recognize that the people in east Jerusalem are here to stay, they are here originally, many of them were here before the legislator's parents, ancestors came here and there is an obligation moral and legal by international law, for the people in Jerusalem to live normally, without discrimination, and with equal rights to any other human being in this area,” Lustigman told i24NEWS.

Taxation without representation

East Jerusalem residents say their neighborhoods lack proper public transportation, infrastructure, sewage treatment, education and other basic municipal services.

Aida al-Qleibo is an east Jerusalem resident who ran for municipal elections in the ‘Our Jerusalem’ hoping to bring those issues to the fore. But she quickly withdrew herself from the race.

“The idea was to light a spark, to tell people, we have to do something, we are losing Jerusalem completely, and no one is doing anything about it, and more than anything we hope that this could pave way for other Palestinians to run in the future,” Qleibo told i24NEWS

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

East Jerusalem residents have traditionally boycotted municipal elections as they see it as normalizing Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish state. In the last round of municipal elections in 2013 only about two percent of the Arab population turned up to the ballot box.

“At this point we've been boycotting the elections for several years, it is very hard to accept something new, and with the Palestinian situation, currently, trust is something we lack a lot of,” said Qleibo.

Members of the Our Jerusalem party faced internal pressure from the Palestinian community to withdraw from the race and even external pressure. The party’s leader and founding member Aziz Abu Sarah said in his withdrawal announcement that his own residency had been called into question by Israeli authorities.

“So we got it the worst and the next time,” said Qleibo. “When Palestinians want to go down for the elections they will be able to do it, and it will probably be more socially accepted, because people will have had time to think about it and realize that this is the right thing to do at this point.”

Ben Avrahami, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s advisor to Advisor to East Jerusalem Affairs, said that though there are many gaps to fill in the city’s East, Barkat’s tenure in office has seen a vast improvement in investment in the city.

“We have seen unprecedented investment in building new classrooms, more than five hundred new classrooms, were built during Barkat's tenure here in Jerusalem, innovative plans, extracurricular plans, new teachers, into the system, with very very important and significant change in the way they address challenges of the education in east Jerusalem, to put new Hebrew classes, new technological classes for children in the municipal schools,” Avrahami told i24NEWS.

Avrahami also said there has been “a real deep change in the way we treat the infrastructure in East Jerusalem, we invested during this tenure more than 50 million shekels every year in paving new roads in east Jerusalem.”

“If you look at the trend you can see the way east Jersalamites live today as compared with the situation ten years ago, you can obviously see a very very significant change in their lives,” Avarahami told i24NEWS.

Jerusalem Municipality

But such wide-scale investments may take time to bear fruit and residents of the East contest the impact they are having on daily life.

“These are complimentary but they are not enough,” Qleibo told i24NEWS. “Building permits is the biggest problem we have. Palestinians cannot build homes in Jerusalem, they have to wait for about three four five years if they even get the permits.”

Qleibo also says investment in education is lacking in Jerusalem’s east.

“There are many classrooms still missing, so public schools are not actually in the best state they should be in,” said Qleibo, asserting that other municipal services are also lacking.

“The garbage trucks on the way to those streets - some of them are only sometimes emptied once or twice every two weeks, so although they are maybe trying it's not enough and we are obviously seeing a huge difference in West Jerusalem – that cannot be negotiated,” Qleibo said, asserting she wanted to run on a platform that would resonate with Arab voters.

“My idea when I first entered the elections was to help people in Jerusalem to be represented by someone in the municipality, because it is unfair, to pay for taxes and not be represented at all, and not being able to have someone to represent Palestinians in the municipality creates a huge void, it's like we are present but we are not present,” Qleibo said.

Emily Rose is i24NEWS' Middle East correspondent.

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