The American Embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem last month aroused worldwide interest and while the implications of the move were debated at length, few understand or appreciate the complexities of this 3,000-year-old city.
With more than 880,000 residents, Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city, constitutes 10 per cent of Israel’s population, and is home to two large national groups – Jews and Arabs.
Nearly 38 per cent of Jerusalem is Arab, making it the largest Arab community in Israel, four times larger than the second-largest Arab city of Nazareth.
Despite an undercurrent of tension, and despite waxing and waning waves of violence and severe terror attacks, we have identified some evidence of a changing tide amongst Jerusalem’s Arab population.
For many years, East Jerusalem was an extensive commercial centre with ties to the West Bank. Jerusalem’s Arabs saw themselves as an inseparable part of the West Bank and simultaneously enjoyed Israeli residency, which granted national insurance allowances, freedom to work in Israel, and access to high quality health care.
The separation between Jerusalem’s Arabs and the West Bank began when the Oslo Accords of the 1990s placed cities and towns around Jerusalem under the Palestinian Authority, leaving East Jerusalem under separate rule to those living in the West Bank.
The separation reached its peak in the early 2000s, when the security fence was built during the second intifada, disconnecting East Jerusalem from the West Bank. This detachment led many of Jerusalem’s Arabs to conclude that their economic future was tied to Israel and not the Palestinian Authority.
Ever since, there has been a significant increase in the number of East Jerusalemites working in West Jerusalem, an eightfold rise in Arab applications for Israeli citizenship, and a proliferation of Arabs who prefer to study in Israeli universities rather than in Jordan or the West Bank.
These trends attest to a strategic shift in East Jerusalem’s attitudes, rooted in practical economic considerations, not political ones.
The Israeli government is not indifferent to these trends, nor to the economic opportunities inherent in them. Two weeks ago, the government decided to invest an unprecedented 2 billion shekels (£410 million) in East Jerusalem’s economic development, education, employment, housing and transportation.
As economic integration increases, we are witnessing diametrically opposed movements toward segregation, supported by the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. In extreme cases, violence and terror are part of the segregation process, and just recently, Israeli security forces arrested a Jerusalem-based terrorist who planned an attack on American and Canadian diplomats, the Mayor and the Prime Minister.
The integration of Jerusalem’s Arabs can significantly change the face of the city, and one of the first tests of recent trends will be an electoral one.
A number of Arab parties are coalescing in preparation for the October 2018 mayoral elections.
Will Jerusalem’s Arabs, for the first time since 1967, participate in the electoral process? Is this another integration trend in a complex unified city? Only time will tell.
Lior Schillat is the Director General of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, supported by the Jerusalem Foundation.