The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel aims to unite Jerusalem with better city services. Arabs want political change.

The Palestinian neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem shows a view of the Old City of Jerusalem including the Dome of the Rock and the surrounding al-Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as the Temple Mount, with the neighborhood of Silwan seen below, on Jan. 28. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

SUR BAHER in East Jerusalem — It's a stormy evening, but a handful of women from this Arab neighborhood have still made the effort to arrive for their weekly Hebrew class. Their teacher, an Orthodox Jew with the strings of his prayer shawl dangling at his hips, focuses on key words and phrases they will need to compile a résumé.

“Name, date of birth, address,” he says writing the Hebrew words on a board and correcting the women’s pronunciation as they ask questions.

Personal interactions of this kind between Arabs and Jews are still rare in Jerusalem, more than five decades after the Israeli military captured the eastern part of the city from Jordan. But the situation is changing, though more because of practical realities on both sides than a shared vision of coexistence.

A recent effort by Israel to improve living conditions in East Jerusalem and better integrate the Arab population reflects at least in part the strategic interest of cementing Israeli sovereignty. For Palestinians, it could be a chance to better their economic circumstances. For both, it’s an uneasy acceptance that the other side is here to stay.

For decades, the Israeli-run city council largely ignored Arab communities in East Jerusalem, spending relatively less on their education system, infrastructure, sanitation and public transport, while building permits for the expanding population were difficult to obtain. At the same time, land in the area was allocated for new Jewish neighborhoods, viewed as illegal settlements by most of the world.

In turn, Palestinians, who make up just over a third of the city’s estimated 900,000 residents, rejected Israeli sovereignty, at times resisting violently.

Israelis call Jerusalem their “eternal, undivided capital,” a position endorsed last month in President Trump’s peace plan. Palestinians say East Jerusalem should be the capital of their future state. Most countries say the final status of the city should be resolved through negotiations.

[Israeli officials try introducing Israeli textbooks in East Jerusalem’s Palestinian schools]

In the past three years, the Israeli government has approved plans to improve conditions in East Jerusalem, designating nearly $50 million to upgrade waste and sewage systems as well as enhancing transportation and adding classrooms. There has also been a push for more Arab schools to adopt the Israeli curriculum, including Hebrew instruction, a move some residents say is an effort to erase Palestinian identity. Despite resistance from some in Israel, there has also been an easing of the process for approving building permits, allowing a slight uptick in construction on the eastern side of the city.

Meanwhile, there has been an increase in East Jerusalem residents obtaining Israeli citizenship, though many Arabs still view this as giving in to occupation. Last year, about 1,200 Palestinians were granted citizenship, the most ever, according to Israel’s Interior Ministry. Most Palestinians living in Jerusalem hold residency cards allowing them to work in Israel and receive state benefits.

'Our lives are in Hebrew'

Growing up in Sur Baher, Hind Abeera, 31, studied according to the Palestinian curriculum and never had the opportunity to learn Hebrew. Now, as an adult and a mother, she needs it.

“All our lives are in Hebrew,” Abeera said. “When we take our children to the doctor or to the hospital, we are dependent on Hebrew. If I want to find any job in Jerusalem, then I need to speak it.”

Miri Shalem, chief executive of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, which runs the Hebrew study program for adults, said since the first class opened in 2018, the program has expanded to 10 more classes for about 200 people and that they can’t keep up with the demand. The initiative, she said, came from a desire to see more interaction between the communities.

Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, said a recent survey of East Jerusalem families found that 50 percent wanted their children’s studies to adhere to the Israeli curriculum because it is more modern and would offer greater opportunities.

Since being elected in 2018, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion says he has made it a priority to improve the overall quality of life in Arab East Jerusalem. His focus, he said, is on bolstering education, fixing roads and infrastructure, and enhancing sanitation.

He has also turned his attention to fighting violence and crime, particularly in East Jerusalem. In recent months, however, he has faced criticism from Arab residents who say the police have responded too harshly in Palestinian neighborhoods.

“It is not a simple issue, but my job is to make sure that all residents of this city feel like residents,” Lion said in a recent interview.

He said Trump’s vision for Jerusalem, uniting it under Israeli control, “removes any ambiguity about the city’s status and puts us in a good place.” He added, “We are now in one of those rare periods when there is peace in Jerusalem.”

But some Arabs view the Israeli efforts in East Jerusalem as an attempt to erode Palestinian identity and rights to the city.

“A war is being waged on the residents of East Jerusalem,” said Adnan Ghaith, the Palestinian Authority-appointed shadow governor of Jerusalem. “The Israelis are trying to impose their curriculum on the Palestinians in the hope that it will erase our memory and our history.”

“They think that the old will die and the young will forget, but this is a failing policy,” said Ghaith, who is barred by Israel from entering Jerusalem. “The Palestinian people are still steadfast in their beliefs, and one day we will bring an end to this occupation.”

'Two occupations'

Efforts to better integrate the two communities have not eliminated animosity and violence between them.

In January, suspected Jewish extremists set fire to a city mosque. Scrawled on the wall were the names of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank recently dismantled by Israeli authorities. Then, on Feb. 6, an Arab resident of East Jerusalem rammed his car into a group of Israeli soldiers, injuring 12. Israeli authorities labeled it a terrorist attack.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney who specializes in geopolitics of Jerusalem, said that policies aimed at improving life in East Jerusalem would not erase divisions and that “when tensions are high, they separate completely.”

Ramadan Dabash, a Palestinian civil engineer and community activist, has gone further than most in trying to bridge that divide. In 2018, he became the first Arab to run for Jerusalem’s city council. But he won little support from his own community or anyone else, drawing only 3,000 votes out of about 250,000 cast.

A Palestinian’s failed election bid highlights his community’s challenge

Still, even as he says Israeli rule is discriminatory, Dabash continues to assert that the eastern part of the city would benefit from being more fully integrated under Jerusalem’s government.

“We live under two occupations, Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “One kind of hell is a little better than the other kind of hell.”

But Mahmoud Muna, the owner of a popular bookshop in East Jerusalem, said he doubts Israeli efforts to improve services in his part of the city would significantly change the quality of life.

“It is the political reality that needs to be changed to improve people’s lives,” he said, adding, “There is not integration but penetration.”

Steve Hendrix and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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