As we write, the United States government is trying to re-convene the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating parties in the hope of achieving a viable political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the coming year, we Israelis, together with our Palestinian neighbors, have a tremendous opportunity to advance toward a final status resolution. No agreement will be complete without an accord over the sensitive final status of Jerusalem. Ir Amim ("city of nations"), a non-profit, non-partisan Israeli organization, dedicated to an equitable and viable Jerusalem, believes that it is imperative to generate conditions that will promote a comprehensive and sustainable solution to this conflict.

In the coming year, Ir Amim is poised to tackle three identified major threats to Israeli interests in achieving a resolution over Jerusalem. These threats are: 1) Israeli settlements in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods; 2) Israeli construction along the seam lines between existing Israeli and Palestinian areas; and 3) the deterioration of Palestinian society in East Jerusalem.

Over the past few years, the Israeli government has accelerated the pace of settlement activity in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem in order to strengthen Israeli claims to Jerusalem's historic basin. The creation and expansion of numerous ideological Israeli settlements within Palestinian neighborhoods poses a serious threat. As we have seen in past years, these "facts on the ground" contribute to the escalation of tension and violence, and threaten to derail fragile negotiation processes, as the Israeli settlement activity tends to come at the expense of the Palestinian residents. These settlements are also being strategically and systematically built in order to create areas of Israeli control and presence, with the intention of eliminating any possibility of an administrative division of Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine.

Vulnerable Neighborhoods

Ir Amim has focused, in particular, on Silwan, a crowded and impoverished Palestinian neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem's historic basin. This neighborhood has undergone a dramatic succession of Israeli incursion and increasing control in recent years. Town Plan 11,555 leaves no doubt as to the government's intentions. The plan calls for the destruction of Wadi Hilweh, one of Silwan's sub-neighborhoods, so that archaeological gardens in the spirit of the Second Temple era can be recreated, as well as a promenade, and a cable car from the City of David National Park in the heart of Wadi Hilweh to Armon Hanatziv Promenade at the southern end of the city.1 Part of Ir Amim's work in Silwan has been legal advocacy, including a petition calling into question the administration of the City of David National Park by Elad, a private organization with a settler agenda; Ir Amim demands that this authority be removed from Elad and returned to the Nature and National Parks Authority.2 There is no other instance in Israel in which a public park is managed by an organization with a clear political ideology.

Like the rest of East Jerusalem, Silwan has suffered from decades of discriminatory policies, especially regarding the provision of municipal services and the right to acquire building permits.3 Because of the Jerusalem municipality's discrimination regarding Palestinian building, fewer than 20 building permits have been issued to Palestinians in Wadi Hilweh since 1967.4 The inability to acquire building permits, coupled with a high natural population growth means that many residents are forced to build illegally; structures built without permits are under constant threat of demolition. This despite current Mayor Nir Barkat's claims that he seeks to solve the housing problems in Silwan by allowing Silwan residents to build two additional floors to existing two-story buildings and to regularize illegal building, as long as permits for new and existing buildings are requested. As Ir Amim and Bimkom have pointed out in a joint report, the building requirements and realities in East Jerusalem serve to thwart, de facto, nearly every Palestinian building plan, whether at the level of plan approval or in the applications for permits.5

Israeli Government Mechanisms in Silwan

In order to transform Silwan from a Palestinian village into an Israeli national site of great archaeological and historical importance, the Israeli government has used a number of mechanisms. The Absentee Property Law is one such mechanism.6 This law was promulgated in the 1950s in order to allow the state to legally appropriate property within Israel that belonged to Palestinian refugees who had fled in 1948. Although a consensus exists among Israeli attorneys- general that the Absentee Property Law should not be applied in East Jerusalem, facts on the ground demonstrate that this has not always been observed. According to Ir Amim's monitoring work, 68 homes in East Jerusalem, including 14 in Silwan, have been transferred to settler organizations using the Absentee Property Law.

Allowing Jewish and settler organizations to establish offices and to administer public buildings in East Jerusalem is another mechanism that the Israeli government is using to further its control in these areas. In Silwan, the government has handed over, without any tenders, the control of the City of David National Park, which includes the Siloam Channel and Pool and the excavation site at the City of David, to the Elad settler organization, as noted above.7 Similarly, the Jerusalem municipality has recently announced that it would allow ZAKA, a non-profit organization dedicated to the identification, extraction and rescue of victims of terrorism, and with ties to the Haredi community, to build its headquarters and a memorial to Israeli victims in Sheikh Jarrah, another Palestinian neighborhood threatened by Israeli settlement.

Like Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, located north of the Old City, is threatened by government plans for the building of a Jewish settlement in the heart of the neighborhood.8 This settlement, as well as settlements already built in Silwan, Ras al-Amud and Jabal Mukabber, will create a ring of Israeli control around the Old City and West Jerusalem, thus weakening Palestinian claims to these areas. In Sheikh Jarrah, as well as with settlement activity throughout East Jerusalem, Ir Amim carefully monitors developments on a daily basis and disseminates information to the media, target groups and the general public through its tours and regularly issued reports and alerts. Our monitoring and reporting often appear as the basis for reports issued by other organizations also active in Jerusalem.

New Israeli neighborhoods planned along the undeveloped seam lines between Israeli and Palestinian areas constitute the second major threat to Jerusalem's future. The construction of these neighborhoods not only stifles the growth of existing Palestinian communities, but also jeopardizes any political resolution in the city. One such case is the Palestinian village of Walaja, whose lands straddle Jerusalem's southern border. Ir Amim conducted behind-the-scenes advocacy in order to overturn the District Planning Commission's rejection of the development plan submitted by residents of Walaja. The plan was rejected on the basis of the Jerusalem Master Plan 2000, which zoned the area as green space, not for residential construction.9 Now, it is likely that the Giv'at Yael Corporation will receive permission to build 14,000 housing units on that same land.10 If the plan goes through, this will be irrefutable proof that discrimination has become standard practice in dealing with Palestinian avenues for legal building options. A subsequent appeal by Ir Amim to the National Planning Commission was heard with interest, but also rejected. Ir Amim continues to monitor the building plans of Giv'at Yael on the lands of, and adjacent to, Walaja. To complicate matters, the route of the separation wall in this area is planned to completely encircle Walaja village, blocking the residents' access to Jerusalem, while connecting them to the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. The Giv'at Yael plans, together with the separation wall route barrier, are designed not only to strangulate Walaja, but also to link the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo to the settlements of Gush Etzion via contiguous Israeli construction.

The Education and Health Crises

Israeli policies of neglect and de-development of Palestinian neighborhoods, together with rising poverty, have severely weakened Jerusalem's Palestinian residents and contributed to the growing discontent and tensions within East Jerusalem. The lack of adequate classrooms in East Jerusalem is one of the more detrimental effects of Israeli national and municipal policy in East Jerusalem. The state is required by law to provide free compulsory education from kindergarten to 12th grade to all children who reside permanently in Israel.11 In East Jerusalem, this law is not fully applied, as the state has failed to provide the necessary infrastructure for its implementation. In the last school year alone (2009-10), only half of East Jerusalem's school-age population attended schools run by the Jerusalem Education Administration.12 These schools tend to be overcrowded, housed in unsuitable buildings, and lacking in basic infrastructure and equipment. Those who are eligible or have financial means attend the many private schools that have historically flourished throughout East Jerusalem.13 However, according to recent statistics, some 5,300 children were not registered in any educational institution in the 2009-10 school year.14

Ir Amim believes that it is in the best interest of all the residents of Jerusalem to have adequate educational infrastructure provided for the students of East Jerusalem. Since its inception, Ir Amim has worked to compel the state and the municipality to fulfill their educational responsibilities towards children in East Jerusalem by demanding the construction of 645 much-needed classrooms. While the Israeli Ministry of Education and the local educational authorities have promised the High Court that these classrooms would be completed by 2011, so far, only 257 classrooms have been completed. As of this writing, 1,000 classrooms are desperately needed to accommodate the growing needs in this area. Given the slow rate of new classroom construction, Ir Amim worked with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI)) to help locate East Jerusalem children who were unable to register for municipal schools because of a lack of space and helped find places for 100 children in municipal schools, using legal advocacy when necessary.

Ir Amim also works quietly behind the scenes with Palestinian partners to help catalyze a number of Palestinian socioeconomic initiatives in East Jerusalem. In doing so, Ir Amim seeks to slowly wean Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from their dependency on Israeli institutions, while creating the basis for Palestinian autonomous socioeconomic institutions in East Jerusalem.

A "United City": Myth vs. Reality

Most of Ir Amim's work, however, is directed at shattering the myth of a "united Jerusalem" among the Israeli and Jewish-American publics by educating them about the realities of Israeli control and policy in East Jerusalem. Nearly 25,000 people have joined our study tours of East Jerusalem in the past five years. Shaped by our constant monitoring and analysis of the issues, these tours give Israelis, American Jews and others a first-hand look at Israeli policies, their effects on the city, and their ramifications for the achievement of a political resolution in Jerusalem. In particular, our tours have a crucial role in ridding Israeli public discourse of the myth of a united Jerusalem and preparing the Israeli public for eventual political separation from East Jerusalem.

Countless numbers of Israelis and internationals have also been exposed to the harsh realities in Jerusalem through Ir Amim's "Jerusalem Moments" film project. This project invites young Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers to write and direct films that examine the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Jerusalem and its residents. Through both local and international distribution, the films reach a much larger and broader audience than our study tours, while transcending borders and creating opportunities for dialogue and discussion about Jerusalem in distant places.

In Israel's Best Interests

Israel's interests are at the core of Ir Amim's work. We firmly believe that the unilateral actions pursued by the current Israeli government are detrimental to Jerusalem's future. Ir Amim believes that Jerusalem should be the key to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than perpetuating it. Israeli government policies of creating Israeli settlements around Jerusalem's historic basin and creating new Israeli neighborhoods along the seam lines must be halted. Equally crucial is the responsibility the Israeli government has toward East Jerusalem residents to provide them with basic needs from classrooms to garbage collection. This neglect of East Jerusalem hurts Israelis and Palestinians alike. Without a concerted effort and good faith on the part of the Israeli government to change the course of its policies, Jerusalem will continue to be a tipping point of violence and despair, rather than a stepping stone towards a viable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

1 Ir Amim report, Shady Dealings in Silwan, pp.31-34 .
2 Dan Izenberg, "Ir Amim Demands El-ad Leave Silwan," Jerusalem Post, July 12, 2010.
3 Ir Amim Shady Dealings in Silwan, pp. 9-10.
4 Ibid., 10.
5 Ir Amim and Bimkom, Making Bricks without Straw: The Jerusalem Municipality's New Planning Policy for East Jerusalem, 2010.
6 See Ir Amim report, Absentees against Their Will, 2010.
7 Ir Amim report, Shady Dealings in Silwan, p.19.
8 Ir Amim report, Evictions and Settlement Plans in Sheikh Jarrah: The Case of Shimon HaTzadik, 2009.
9 "The Giv'at Yael Plan."
10 Ibid.
11 Ir Amim and ACRI report. Failed Grade: Palestinian Education System in East Jerusalem. 2010.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.