Israel’s ‘street apartheid’

From traffic lights to refuse collection, disparities separate Jerusalem’s residents.

east jerusalem
The contrasts between Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods are most obvious in Jerusalem [GETTY]

Mahmoud Alami, a Jerusalem taxi driver, knows the city like the back of his hand. He knows the neighbourhoods, the streets. And he knows the stop lights.

There is one in particular that troubles him not professionally but personally. It stands between Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighbourhood, and Pisgaat Zeev, a Jewish settlement.

“It stays green for [settlers] for five minutes. But to go in and out of Beit Hanina? Only two or three cars can pass,” Alami says. “It’s too short. It causes a lot of traffic jams.”

Al Jazeera found that stoplights that lead to Jewish settlements and neighbourhoods stay green for an average of a minute and a half. In Palestinian areas, it’s 20 seconds. One light in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem is green for less than 10 seconds.

“[Palestinians] are stuck,” says Amir Daud, another taxi driver. “It reflects a very bad situation for the people.”

Budgetary discrimination

Roads are poorly maintained in many Palestinian areas [GETTY]

Traffic jams are just one of the many problems that plague infrastructure and services in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem. Roads are poorly maintained. They are narrow and bumpy, riddled with cracks and potholes. Street signs and sidewalks are almost non-existent.

Trash containers are usually communal and there are often too few to meet the needs of the neighbourhood. Pedestrians, forced to walk on the shoulder of the road, wade through garbage.

Jewish neighbourhoods and settlements, on the other hand, are neat and orderly. Sidewalks and traffic circles keep pedestrians safe; roads are well-marked, some with lit signs. Most buildings have a garbage bin and the streets are free of litter.

In one Jewish area, a grassy median is adorned with a rainbow assortment of decorative sculptures – metal children playing, kicking footballs, and riding bikes.

When Al Jazeera presented a list detailing the differences between Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods to the Jerusalem municipality, the spokesperson denied the findings.

But, speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former employee of the Jerusalem municipality confirmed that there is discrimination on a budgetary level. The sports department offers the most dramatic example – only 0.5 per cent of funds are allocated to Palestinian neighbourhoods. The other 99.5 per cent goes to Jewish areas.

Quality of life

Nisreen Alyan, an attorney at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), has recently filed a petition protesting against the lack of garbage collection in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Tsur Baher, located in East Jerusalem. Despite a population of 20,000, only 12 streets receive the service.

This impacts both health and the quality of life, Alyan explains. Stray dogs, some carrying rabies, are attracted to the piles of trash. Residents have been attacked by the animals. And now children are afraid to go outside.

“There are no public gardens for them, they don’t have anything,” Alyan says. “So these streets are the only place for the cars, for the children, for the garbage, for the dogs, for everything.”

The petition ACRI has filed asks the municipality to meet its legal responsibility, “nothing less, nothing more,” Alyan says. “[This] means that they have to give [the residents] the right of sanitation.”

Alyan has informed the city of Tsur Baher’s troubles in the past. But the city claims it cannot serve the whole neighbourhood because garbage trucks cannot maneuver the small streets. Alyan points out that this should not be an obstacle. The municipality has found creative solutions in other parts of Jerusalem.

The streets in Tsur Baher are problematic, one resident explains. There are not enough of them.

While most Palestinian neighbourhoods are subject to building restrictions, Tsur Baher is one of the few that is free to build. Much of their land has been appropriated by a neighbouring settlement, Har Homa; some is on the other side of the Israeli-built separation barrier; and there is no infrastructure to reach what is left.

The lack of roads also means that emergency services cannot access all parts of the neighbourhood. Children have died in house fires. And because of a police order that prohibits ambulances from entering Palestinian neighbourhoods without a police escort residents have died waiting for medical care.

“The problem is that the policemen don’t come in time,” a resident says. “The ambulance is stopped waiting at the top of the neighbourhood for half an hour …. People have died in this situation.”

“[ACRI is] writing another petition about it now,” Alyan adds.

Paying taxes

Lack of infrastructure leaves Palestinians feeling disconnected [EPA]

Asked about traffic lights in Tsur Baher, Alyan answers that there are none.

Out of concern for the children’s safety, the residents scraped together the money to add speed bumps to the roads.

In other neighbourhoods, Palestinians have pooled funds to pay for garbage collection and street sweeping.

This is after they have paid taxes.

Because over 90 per cent of Israel’s Palestinians live in towns separate from the Jewish population, many Israeli Jews excuse away the differences between Arab and Jewish areas with a “poor municipality” argument.

They are poor, their towns are poor. Arabs do not pay a lot of taxes, or enough taxes, or any taxes at all, Israeli Jews say, so their villages cannot afford the same services they enjoy.

But that reasoning falls apart in Jerusalem, a city striped with Palestinian and Jewish areas. And with Nof Tzion (Zion View), a Jewish settlement found smack in the centre of Jabel Mukhaber, a Palestinian neighbourhood, the differences are glaringly obvious.

“For years, [Jabel Mukhaber] didn’t have a main street,” Alyan says. “Just after they built Nof Tzion, [the municipality] built a very fine street with pavement and lights.” But the road stops dead after Nof Tzion. It gets bumpy, dropping off into gravel, then dirt, for the Palestinians.

The “poor municipality” argument does not hold weight in Jerusalem for another reason. To the city’s Palestinians, who have only residency and no citizenship, paying taxes is tremendously important.

“If you won’t pay your taxes, you won’t have proof that east Jerusalem is the centre of your life and if you can’t prove that, you will lose your residency,” Alyan explains. This means that one becomes stateless, a refugee.

“Before [Palestinian residents of Jerusalem] find money to feed their children, they pay their taxes,” Alyan says.

Tsur Baher, along with neighbouring Umm Tuba, pays approximately $7mn in taxes annually to a municipality they do not get to vote for. East Jerusalem residents tell Alyan that they just want the government to invest what they have paid back into the neighbourhoods.

‘Psychological warfare’

Yousef Jabareen, the director of Dirasat, the Arab Centre for Law and Policy, explains that public services are also funded on the national level. This is another point of inequality.

Jabareen points to the “National Priority” programme that gave economic incentives to government-selected areas. When the programme was introduced in 1998, 500 Jewish towns received national priority status. While Palestinians make up nearly 20 per cent of Israel’s population, and half of the nation’s poor, only four Arab villages were selected.

“That was a classic example of how the allocation of government resources is discriminatory,” Jabareen says, adding that grave inequalities can be found in the state-funded educational system as well.

Everything – from the poor conditions of the infrastructure to the lack of public services – adds up to leave Palestinians feeling rejected and disconnected, Jabareen says.

“It’s a feeling of frustration and of not belonging …. That the government and state is excluding you and you are not counted as an equal.”

Do the disparities in Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods and the differences in funding throughout the nation amount to apartheid?

“In some areas you could identify some characteristics of apartheid that should raise a lot of concern about the future,” Jabareen comments.

A young Israeli Jew, fresh from army service, simply remarks, “It’s a kind of psychological warfare. The idea is to get [Palestinians] to leave.”

Source: Al Jazeera