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Jerusalem: planning makes idea of united city a myth

The ancient city is more and more divided

The iconic image of Jerusalem takes in the gold-topped mosque of Omar, atop the Temple Mount in the heart of the Old City, home to some of the most sacred sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Holy wars have been fought for control of this densely-packed expanse of less than a square kilometre. Last summer saw a sharp surge in violence in Israel’s capital, with tensions rising over Jewish visits to the al-Aqsa mosque compound.

But while the Old City remains scenic and symbolic, a more wide-ranging battle for Jerusalem is being fought away from the famous pilgrimage sites and tourist destinations, over banal yet fundamental issues – housing, transport, education and sanitation.

Jerusalem is much more than a holy city. It’s now a sprawling metropolis, home to nearly 800,000 residents, including some 380,000 Palestinians. From independence in 1948 until the Six Day War of 1967, Israel only controlled the Western part of the city. The east, together with the all the holy sites of the Old City, was under Jordanian rule. After Israel emerged victorious from the Six Day War, it extended its control over all Jerusalem, extending the municipal boundaries to take in 28 Palestinian villages. Israel unilaterally “unified” the city, a move unclear in international law and still unrecognised by even its closest allies.

Demographic balance

But the idea of Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel is one that successive Israeli administrations both left and right have taken as an item of faith. And for decades urban planning has been the battleground for this struggle.

“The planning policies are all guided by one main policy, which is the demographic balance,” says Sari Kronish, an architect working on the East Jerusalem team at Israeli NGO BIMKOM-Planners for Planning Rights.

“Basically all the planning of the Israeli institutions is guided by the desire to maintain Jewish majority in the city of Jerusalem in its new borders, post ‘67.  And when this is what guides planning it also clouds planning, which becomes a tool for this policy and not a tool for the improvement of quality of life, of urban fabric, which is what it should be.”

This affects everything from plumbing – the east lacks a full 50 km of sewage pipes – to education, with more than 1,000 extra classrooms needed to cater for young Palestinians. In some neighbourhoods, schools teach in two shifts to accommodate all the pupils.

The disparity between life in the west and in the east of the city is clear to the most casual visitor; neighbourhoods are neglected, rubbish piles up, services are obviously lacking. Drive across the old border into a Palestinian area and you will immediately notice the difference in the cracked and potholed asphalt, although the roads in Jewish neighbourhoods in the east are up to western standards.

“From the point of view of human rights and planning rights of many, many hundreds of thousands of people who live in these neighbourhoods, their quality of life is really incomparable to living in a city,” Kronish explains.

There is also a chronic housing shortage, adds Ahmed Sub-Laban, a field researcher for Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO working to find a sustainable solution for the needs of all Jerusalem residents.

A third of east Jerusalem land has been confiscated by the state and some 53,000 units built to serve Jewish Israelis living there. In comparison, Palestinians have seen only 4,000 housing units built legally in East Jerusalem since 1967, a completely inadequate number. Illegal construction is rampant; getting permission is nearly impossible.

Then there is the designation of areas as “national parks,” a tactic that activists say has little to do with preserving archaeological remains or creating green space and everything to do with restricting the growth of Palestinian areas.

“It’s a method to control and seize land,” says Sub-Laban.

He gives the example of a planned national park between the Palestinian areas of Issawiya and A-Tur. “This is going to confiscate around 740 dunams from these two neighbourhoods, and this is the only place left for these neighbourhoods to enlarge and grow normally. Most of their land has already been confiscated for settlement infrastructure or settlements themselves.” The official Israeli claim that this is designed to provide “green spaces” to all residents is contradicted by the conspicuous paucity of public parks built in Palestinian neighbourhoods over the last four decades.

The impact of the separation barrier on Jerusalem has also been immense. Built during the bloody years of the second intifada, the Israeli rationale was that this barrier would prevent the movement of suicide bombers from the West Bank into Israel and help maintain security. The wall, however, does not run along the Green Line, separating many parts of east Jerusalem and dividing the West Bank from Jerusalem yet further.

The agreements that set out a two-state solution to the conflict envisaged Jerusalem as a shared city, capital of both Israel and Palestine.

However, Gershon Baskin, Jerusalem resident and veteran peace activist, describes it currently as “the most segregated city in the world”.

Shared capital

Nonetheless, he sees no other solution but for the capital to be shared, as envisaged in the Clinton Parameters, guidelines for a permanent status agreement proposed by the former US president in 2000.

“So Palestine would have sovereignty over the Palestinian areas,” Baskin explains. “Israel would have sovereignty over the Jewish areas. It has to remain an open city. Jerusalem can't be physically divided by walls and fences and barbed wire because it will kill the city and anyone who knows any urban space, knows that you need to open this. You need movement.”

Nir Hasson, the Jerusalem correspondent for Israeli liberal newspaper Haaretz, agrees that politicians have ignored some fundamental basics of urban life.

“Even though I think the last three or four prime ministers of Israel had maps of how to divide Jerusalem, not many went to the field and asked themselves what it was going to look like. What will we do with the buses, what will we do with the electrical infrastructure, what will we do with the neighbourhoods, what will we do with the tourists?” he said. “In history, I don't think we have any other example of a city that has been divided during peace.”

Israeli supporters of the annexation of the eastern side of the city point to infrastructure work such as the light rail, Jerusalem’s largest-ever transport project, which has been running through both sides of the city since 2011.

They argue that municipal gardens, shopping malls and Israeli ID cards enabling travel and work throughout Israel, are all advantages the Palestinians have gained from Jerusalem’s “unification.” They also blame the Palestinian leadership for refusing to cooperate in planning the city’s future. But the reality on the ground doesn’t indicate a willingness for cooperation, even if the Palestinians were prepared to set aside their national aspirations.

It’s no accident, says Hasson, that the light rail became one of the targets of the violence in East Jerusalem last summer. Stones were thrown at trains and stations in East Jerusalem set alight “because it's a symbol, the symbol of the united Jerusalem”.

Such infrastructure projects serve as a central tool of division, he said. The idea that the capital is united is, and continues, to be a myth.

Daniella Peled is an editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and writes widely on foreign affairs

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