Peace in our Time?

May 23, 2007

Israeli Riddle: Love Jerusalem, Hate Living There

Filed under: Blogroll, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Peace, Uncategorized — angelajerusalem @ 10:22 pm

GREG MYRE, The New York Times, May 13, 2007

JERUSALEM — ISRAEL is facing a challenge it never expected when it captured East Jerusalem and reunited the city in the 1967 war: each year, Jerusalem’s population is becoming more Arab and less Jewish.

For four decades, Israel has pushed to build and expand Jewish neighborhoods, while trying to restrict the growth in Arab parts of the city. Yet two trends are unchanged: Jews moving out of Jerusalem have outnumbered those moving in for 27 of the last 29 years. And the Palestinian growth rate has been high.

In a 1967 census taken shortly after the war, the population of Jerusalem was 74 percent Jewish and 26 percent Arab. Today, the city is 66 percent Jewish and 34 percent Arab, with the gap narrowing by about 1 percentage point a year, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Jerusalem’s profound religious and historical significance makes its status perhaps the single most explosive issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And that status clearly would become even more contentious were the balance of the population to tip toward the Arabs. This is a specter that worries Israelis, even as the 40th anniversary of their victory in the June 1967 war approaches.

“The Jewish people dreamed for centuries of getting back their ancient capital,” said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and author of “The Fight for Jerusalem.” Nineteenth-century immigration to Jerusalem, site of the biblical Jewish temples, gave the city a Jewish majority that has been in place since the 1860s, he said.

For many Palestinians, Jerusalem is an economic hub, containing the third-holiest site in Islam — and the city they yearn to make the capital of a future state. Yet Israeli security measures, imposed after the Palestinian uprising in 2000, have put the city, like the rest of Israel, off limits to the vast majority of Palestinians who live in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

“People want to go to Jerusalem to pray, but they can’t,” said Rami Nasrallah, an Arab resident who advised the previous Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, on Jerusalem affairs. “This makes Jerusalem even more important in their imaginations.”

While Jerusalem’s symbolic importance is paramount to both sides, Israelis and Palestinians differ on the city as a place to live. For Palestinians, it remains a magnet, offering more opportunities than any Palestinian city in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. But many Israelis see it as poor, rundown and riddled with religious and political tension.

When it comes to job opportunities, affordable housing and a varied cultural life, Jerusalem is much less appealing to secular Israelis than Tel Aviv or other cities.

“Jerusalem just got to be too extreme and we decided it was time to leave,” said Alona Angel, 60, an Israeli who lived more than 30 years in Jerusalem before moving to Tel Aviv two years ago when her husband retired and the last of her children finished high school. “After so many years in Jerusalem, I thought it would be hard to leave, but it wasn’t.”

Ms. Angel said she was increasingly turned off by religious and political intolerance. She recalled being casually but modestly dressed one day when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman began yelling at her that she was not properly clothed. “I just felt less and less welcome,” said Ms. Angel, an interior designer.

Last year, Jews leaving Jerusalem outnumbered those moving in by 6,000, in line with figures for the past decade, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

A poll released last week captured the Israeli ambivalence over Jerusalem. More than 60 percent of Israelis said they would not want to give up Israeli control of the city’s holy sites, even as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Yet 78 percent of Israelis said they would not consider living in Jerusalem or would prefer to live elsewhere in Israel.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, but only a tiny minority of the Arabs who live there are citizens of Israel. The vast majority have legal residency, a status similar to that of green-card holders in the United States.

Jews and Arabs, by and large, do not mix. “This is still a clear case of two separate cities,” said Shlomo Hasson, a geography professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “There are separate commercial centers, separate transport systems and separate cultures.”

When the Israelis and Palestinians held their last round of full-fledged peace talks in January 2001, the two sides discussed a plan to make Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods part of Israel, and the city’s Arab neighborhoods part of a future Palestinian state — a sharp break from Israel’s insistence that all of Jerusalem remain part of Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital.” But the talks collapsed, and since then Israel has built a West Bank separation barrier that runs largely along the eastern border of Jerusalem. The one substantial exception is in northern Jerusalem, where more than 50,000 Palestinians have been left outside.

Still, the thought of re-dividing the city provokes a strong reaction among some Jews, who recall when Jordan held East Jerusalem and the Old City, from 1948 to 1967, and Jews were not allowed to pray at the Western Wall.

That is a central reason that the demographic trends stir fear among Israelis, since it would be difficult to reconcile the fact of an Arab majority in the city with its status as Israel’s eternal capital. Overall, the city now has 475,000 Jews and 245,000 Arabs as of 2005, the latest year for which figures are available.

Jerusalem’s Jewish population is still growing despite the out-migration, but only by a little over 1 percent a year — not enough to match the annual 3 percent increase among Arabs. The small Jewish increase is a result of an extraordinarily high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about a quarter of the city’s population; on average, each of these woman has more than seven children.

Yet as the ratio of ultra-Orthodox Jews increases, so does the outflow of secular Jews.

With the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities expanding, the city’s tax base has weakened, straining municipal services and contributing to the outflow of the middle class. Meanwhile, many Palestinian neighborhoods are becoming badly overcrowded.

While it is virtually impossible for Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza to move to Jerusalem if they were not born there, natural population growth and restrictions on building in Arab parts of the city mean large families often share very small apartments.

An estimated 18,000 apartments and homes, or a third of all the Arab residences in East Jerusalem, were built illegally because permits are so hard to obtain, Mr. Nasrallah said, adding that Israel has not approved the development of a new Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem since 1967.

“Israel sees Jerusalem as a demographic problem,” he said, “and sees the solution as getting rid of Palestinians.”

In contrast, Israel has established many Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and more than 200,000 Jews now live in the eastern part of the city.

But in the long term, if the demographers are right, it will not be enough.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


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