Palestinians in West Jerusalem: Economic Dependency Amid Violent Contestation

“Excuse me, what is the time?” A seemingly innocent question. However, if you are a young Arab or Jew who looks “Mizrachi,” stopped in the center of West Jerusalem, there is a reasonable possibility that this question is not in the least bit innocent. In recent months activists of the racist Lehava organization have been roaming West Jerusalem, searching for Palestinian passersby or workers to attack and compel to flee from what they consider to be an exclusively Jewish area of the city. Since many Jewish residents of the city are themselves descended from immigrants from Arab countries, with dark skin as well as hair, and clothing styles consistent with global pop culture, Lehava activists often struggle to ascertain the identity of city residents and determine precisely who is “Jewish” and who is “Arab.” Therefore, they harass people walking by with “banal” questions such as “What time is it?” in order to pinpoint their ethno-national identity according to their accent.

Such discriminatory and humiliating practices point to two conflicting processes taking place in Jerusalem throughout the last decade. On one hand: ethno-religious radicalization among Jews and Palestinians, the latest expression of which is the rise in racist movements in the west side of the city; on the other hand, growing economic dependency which fosters mixing in workspaces and commercial areas and increasing similarities in the culture of consumption of the two populations.

The Rise of Bi-national Economic and Consumer Interaction

It is not only in Jerusalem that violence, mixing and similarities are operating on the two populations. In many Israeli cities — though particularly in Jerusalem — demographic and economic processes are creating more and more common spaces for Jews and Arabs. Alongside the relative increase in the Palestinian population of Israel, there are also tangible economic dependencies which are manifested by an increase in the number of Palestinian-Israeli workers in Jewish sectors, coupled with a similar increase in consumption habits and even a reduction in economic gaps. In many Israeli cities, we are witnessing a rise in the number of Palestinian-Israeli consumers in malls and commercial centers, Palestinian workers in different and diverse centers of employment, and Palestinian families and couples who come to relax in parks, beaches and other places of leisure.

Even in Jerusalem, where the Palestinian population has been living under military occupation and an overall sociopolitical division has characterized the two populations since 1967, a similar process can be felt. The consistent demographic increase of Arab Jerusalemites, along with the perpetual emigration of Jewish residents, has led to the fact that today almost 40% of the city’s population is Palestinian, and it is expected that by 2030-35, the percentage will rise to 50%. The impact of this increase can already be felt today in the quantity of Palestinian workers and consumers in the western part of the city.

The Separation Barrier’s Unintended Consequences

Additionally, the construction of the separation barrier between East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 2005 has helped to accelerate this process. Whether the initial goal of the barrier was to provide security for Jewish residents or to seize Palestinian land and the eastern side of the city from the West Bank, it had a number of unexpected consequences. The first effect of the barrier was the internal migration of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents who remained outside the barrier to within the borders of the municipality in order to avoid losing their residency status.

The second effect was the change in the daily behavior of many Palestinians as a result of the difficulties the barrier placed on their lives. Subsequent to the construction of the barrier, choosing to go to either Ramallah or Bethlehem for work, education, shopping or leisure became constricted and less taken for granted. I would estimate that during this period, from among the residents of the east side of the city who remained on the “right side” of the border, the number of workers, consumers and students arriving in West Jerusalem rose daily. This phenomenon was expressed in the last decade by the dramatic rise in the number of students in Israeli institutions of higher education such as the Hebrew University and various colleges across the city.

There was also a rise in the demand for Hebrew studies as well as a relative increase in Palestinian workers in different sectors in the western side of the city such as transportation, retail sales, pharmacy and more. Malls constructed during the last decade in Mamilla, Talpiyot and Pisgat Ze’ev have become popular destinations for Palestinian consumers, and a significant number of Palestinian workers have been employed in the stores. In Mamilla, for example, in 2014, around a quarter of the consumers and two-thirds of the facility workers arrived from East Jerusalem. Following the violent events in the summer of 2014 (the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir and Operation Protective Edge), Palestinians temporarily ceased coming to Malha Mall entirely as a result of fear and a popular boycott, the economic consequences of which were immediate; the central stores in the mall reported a 15% decrease in revenues. This statistic testifies to the manner in which East Jerusalem residents have become a potent purchasing force, not only in the Mamilla neighborhood, which is situated on the seam line between the two parts of the city, but also in shopping centers located in the heart of West Jerusalem.

A Clear Ethnic Hierarchy Exists within the Israeli Economy

The strongest dependency between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem exists in the labor market. Since 2011, almost half of the labor force of East Jerusalem has been employed in the Jewish sector of West Jerusalem and other cities throughout Israel. Today, this represents approximately 30,000-35,000 Palestinians who descend on, and spend the majority of their waking hours in, Jewish spaces. The proportion of East Jerusalem workers to the number of work locations has rendered this labor force decisive in terms of its sheer presence and importance in the economy of the west side. Despite the fact that the Israeli employment market represents the principal source of their livelihoods, the prevailing labor arrangements and levels of income are, for the majority, determined by a rigid ethnic hierarchy. Whereas the majority of Palestinians work at low-level or, at most, midlevel positions, Jews occupy the overwhelming majority of junior- and senior-level managerial posts. The distribution of Palestinian workers points to an unambiguous ethnic hierarchy. According to the Israeli social security authority data from 2013, within Jerusalem, Arab workers are represented beyond their proportion in the labor force of the more traditional economic sectors: 75% in the hotel industry, 66% in construction, 52% in transportation and 32% in industry1. Moreover, East Jerusalem residents are virtually absent from advanced economic sectors such as the public sector (12%) or financial services (5%). These statistics shed light on the darker side of Palestinian economic dependency on the Jewish market, as well as the manner in which the labor market duplicates and even reinforces the power relations of the two populations.

However, it is worth noting that in the last decade, a moderate trend has emerged whereby a minority of Arab workers has climbed the employment ladder to mid-level and junior managerial posts in certain sectors. For example, in the retail sector, more and more youth from East Jerusalem are working as salespeople and managers in clothing, shoe and cosmetic stores in the western side of the city. In light of the upsurge in the consumption market of East Jerusalem, businesses and networks in West Jerusalem have been deliberately searching for Hebrew-Arabic bilingual salespeople capable of servicing both communities. This tendency has significantly elevated the proportion of workers from East Jerusalem in Jewish stores; for instance, around 80% of workers in the American Eagle clothing chain in West Jerusalem are from the eastern side of the city. Their presence as workers in the retail clothing sector has created new power relations among employees, where in many cases Palestinians are the ones who run the store yet remain under Jewish bosses. In many such circumstances, the Palestinian workers have higher education attainment than their Jewish counterparts, which is a result of the lack of suitable employment opportunities available to educated members of the Arab public. All the same, the comingling of young workers who are often of the same age and who share a common popular culture represents a slight change in the ethno-national interactions of Jerusalem workplaces.

This phenomenon of advancement in the workplace also exists in hospitals, private medical clinics and pharmacies, where the proportion of Arab workers has been consistently rising along with diverse opportunities for new positions. In fact, the high ratio of Palestinian workers in the health sector of West Jerusalem has often led to resentment and anger among Jewish customers. For example, in TEREM, the leading private emergency health service in Jerusalem, around 50% of the medical teams are Arabs. This means that during the weekend, due to the Sabbath injunction against working that religious Jews adhere to, one would be hard pressed to find a Jewish medical team in one of TEREM’s clinics. Thus, many Jewish residents of the city receive services or consultation from Arab nurses and doctors. Reactions to this change in power relations at the personal level have been expressed in racist remarks or the refusal by Jewish patients to accept treatment from Arab doctors. In such cases, which are rare, hospital administrations have had to intervene to protect Palestinian medical teams. Even here, however, the economic interests and social relations formed between members of the medical teams turn the workplace into a safer and relatively contained space for the workers.

The Occupation and Polarized Relations of Power

There can be, of course, no illusion that the national question, the occupation, and the polarized relations of power between the two sides allow the real building of communal trust, intimacy or togetherness. In the end, the majority of interactions between the two citizen populations are conducted in West Jerusalem, where Jews are the home owners, employers and sovereigns, and the Palestinians’ current positions are as guests, visitors, or daily laborers. Moreover, throughout the last decade, it has become dangerous for Palestinian residents to linger in West Jerusalem due to frequent outbursts of racist violence emanating from marauding Jewish youth. Even on the other side, in East Jerusalem, most Palestinian encounters with Israelis are conducted with army and security forces or settlers, which are inherently premised upon hostility, fear, control and protest.

These basic conditions only serve to highlight the manner in which workplaces and malls in West Jerusalem constitute a sort of bubble that allows one to escape the immediate political context, even if temporarily and artificially. The increasing interactions and comingling of the two populations in workplaces has taken place against the backdrop of a global cultural transformation that has, to a large extent, blurred the external differences between populations, particularly among male and female youth. The culture of global consumption spearheaded by international brands (e.g., clothing and hair styles inspired by popular singers and athletes from around the world), along with spending time together in spaces where globalization has stripped areas of their local characteristics and centered them around consumption, blur, even temporarily, the gaps between populations and allow common residency disconnected from the violent context which engulfs the city.

The logic of the market operates differently from that of ethnonationalism; it seeks economic and spatial assimilation and integration, creates common spaces even in a city where hostility and violence are so ingrained. In a cautious assessment, it can be argued that in light of the fact that Jerusalem has already witnessed three intifadas, terror attacks, checkpoints and mass arrests, it is the labor market that has succeeded in holding together the two parts of the city and prevented a total devolution to all-out Belfast-style warfare. However, alongside the bridging mechanisms of the market, both the Israeli and Palestinian communities are undergoing ethno-religious radicalization which seeks separation and is fundamentally opposed to coexistence. Lehava is one outcome of this process, and the economic integration of Palestinians in West Jerusalem is one of its greatest adversaries. The doubling down of these two logics — ethno-nationalism and neoliberal economics — is thus creating a harsh reality where life in Jerusalem is replete with numerous internal contradictions.

1 Although the Arab population of Jerusalem consist 37% of the total population, due to the very low level of Arab women participation in the workforce (18%) the overall share of Arabs at the total workforce of Jerusalem is only 25%.

Grufi, R. (2014) Racial Violence in Jerusalem: The Israeli authorities: Between security discourse, inflammation and bleat. Jerusalem, Ir Amim.
Kimchi, I. (Ed.).(2006)The security fence around Jerusalem: Implications for the city and its residents. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. (In Hebrew)
Shtern, M. (2015) Labor integration amidst explosive reality: East Jerusalemites in the local labor market. Jerusalem: The Jerusalem institute for Israel studies. (In Hebrew)

The Israeli Social Security Institution.
The Israeli Central Statistical Bureau.
The Jerusalem Master Plan for Transportation – Census data.
Interviews with managers and employees in various economic sectors in West Jerusalem.