JERUSALEM -- As checkpoint experiences go, the one at Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem is an easy one. Relatively speaking, anyway. For 45 minutes one recent morning, I breathed the gas fumes as the line of vehicles inched forward. Aside from an Arab selling coffee in plastic cups to the drivers, there was little action. The school children in uniforms in the car behind me fidgeted; their parents looked exhausted. I watched some Israeli soldiers take the keys from a few drivers of the omnipresent white van-taxis. (One soldier kept calling a particular driver a "liar" in Hebrew, but I couldn't make out what the driver was or was not lying about.) Muddy taxis streamed in, dropping off workers who travel daily to Tel Aviv for coveted jobs with Israeli employers. My turn came, and a soldier yelled at me for pulling up without his permission before letting me pass without incident. I hit the gas and bounced out of East Jerusalem on the pockmarked road, squeaking past the traffic light at what my Palestinian host calls the "apartheid crossroads" -- so named, she says, because the light stays green for those coming from the Arab roads for all of 4 seconds at a time.
As the Israeli elections approach and fighting between Israelis and Palestinians continues, East Jerusalem's Arabs find themselves locked in an odd position: Unlike Arabs who live inside the pre-1967 borders -- known here as the Green Line -- they are not full citizens; but unlike Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they are allowed to travel inside the Jewish state. They also enjoy better schools and health services than other Palestinians. Their unusual status is the result of the unique problems posed by the geography of Jerusalem, which the Israeli government regards as part of Israel proper though much of the city lies on the Arab side of the Green Line. But now evidence is mounting that the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are becoming radicalized, raising the question of whether Israel has made a strategic mistake by continuing to relegate them to second-class citizenship.
Beit Hanina is one of several neighborhoods that make up East Jerusalem, according to the Israeli boundaries. It's home to many upper-class Palestinian families; my host's apartment is furnished with paintings, and her tiled bathroom is far nicer than many you might see in decaying Tel Aviv buildings. Out her window, looking southwest toward the city, one can see a handful of classy apartment buildings rising from the trash strewn in the foreground; a haze rises above the slums of Arab East Jerusalem in the background. Beyond lies the Old City; further on is West Jerusalem, which has been part of Israel since the country's founding in 1948. Before 1967, Jordan controlled the city's eastern side, including the Old City. After Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, it issued Israeli identification cards to all of the inhabitants, giving them traveling privileges but not the right to vote. The state also began building Jewish settlements, such as Ramot, whose lights I could also see from my host's window.
After more than 30 years of a reunited Jerusalem, the city is now less united than ever. More than half of Jerusalem's roughly 670,000 residents live in the eastern section, but the social and political gaps between the city's citizens and noncitizens -- that is, between Jews and East Jerusalem Arabs -- are growing. In August, Israeli security officials broke up a Palestinian terrorist cell operating out of East Jerusalem that officials said was behind some of 2002's most deadly attacks, including the explosion that killed seven people at Hebrew University and a bombing that killed 11 at a Jerusalem café. As part of its response, the army demolished the homes of several of the bombers -- the first time that had occurred in East Jerusalem.
This series of events shocked Jerusalem residents: East Jerusalem Arabs had largely stayed out of both intifadas, perhaps because their traveling privileges have allowed some to continue making a living. A Palestinian pharmacist in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Jos told me that such privileges are now more valuable than ever because of Israel's ban on any Palestinian under the age of 35 leaving the West Bank or Gaza Strip. In addition, several Arab residents of Jerusalem told me that they are glad to be on the Israeli side of the line -- and wary of someday having to live under a corrupt Palestinian Authority. "I drive to Tel Aviv or Haifa if I want to take my kids on a vacation," one Palestinian storekeeper told me. "Driving through the West Bank is too difficult."
East Jerusalem's demographic numbers have also been making news here recently. Last week the city released a population survey, and, as is usually the case with Israel's demographic counts, it did not lack for highly charged political implications. The numbers showed that 41 percent of all births in the city these days are to Palestinian mothers, a dramatic figure when one considers that the Arab population in East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem is still less than one-third of the city's total. The survey also showed that between 1967 and 2001, Jerusalem's Arab population grew by 214 percent while the Jewish population grew by just 130 percent.
So what is to become of Jerusalem's Arabs? These days Israel's right is split between those who want to keep the city "united forever" -- as part of a Greater Israel that would stretch from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean -- and those who want to redraw Jerusalem's boundaries so as to exclude the vast majority of Arabs from the city. Neither of these options, of course, is particularly realistic. When negotiations do (someday) begin again, there would seem to be only one pragmatic choice: for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a Palestinian state and for the nearby Jewish areas to be annexed into Israel proper.
Until that day arrives, however, Israel has a problem: The once-subdued Arabs of East Jerusalem, who have long lived peacefully as second-class citizens, grateful for their ability to work in Israel, are increasingly discontent. And their numbers are ballooning. What has Israel done to ease their lives? Not close to enough. A 45-minute wait just to leave their home towns through a checkpoint is the norm in many of the Arab areas of the city. The roads in East Jerusalem are falling apart. The smell of sewage is part of the atmosphere. The construction taking place is unregulated and dangerous. Parents fear that their children will become victims of the drug addicts who rove the slums or become the targets of Israeli soldiers' harassment. The Israeli government admits that there is a billion-shekel ($20 million) gap between the budgets for East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem.
That last figure is a particular injustice considering that, in order to keep their coveted East Jerusalem IDs, residents must pay the Israeli government a considerable yearly upkeep tax. Noting the abundance of trash piles and sewage outside her apartment, my Palestinian host, an American-born aid worker, expressed sarcastic appreciation that her tax money is going to good use.
All this in a city, one must remember, that is dizzyingly complicated and ethnically intertwined. (If the Israeli government were to sign a treaty with the Palestinians tomorrow, I would pity the urban planners who would have to redraw Jerusalem's borders.) This is more than just a pressing humanitarian issue -- it's also a matter of the Jewish state's long-term self-interest. Israel has managed to build what are now established Jewish neighborhoods in, around and throughout historically Arab areas of the city, and those neighborhoods are not going to disappear. Now Israel must decide what kinds of neighbors it wants.
Eli Kintisch is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has recently been reporting from Israel.