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Jerusalem real estate may become real problem

Arabs moving into Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem for such comforts as proper running water and regular garbage pickup represent a potentially volatile twist in the dispute over the holy city.
Israel Changing Jerusalem
An Arab woman walks in the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev in east Jerusalem in July. More and more Arabs are moving into Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Sebastian Scheiner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Yousef Majlaton moved into the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev for such comforts as proper running water and regular garbage pickup. But he represents a potentially volatile twist in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the holy city.

The hillside sprawl of townhouses and apartment blocks was built for Jews, and Majlaton is a Palestinian.

Pisgat Zeev is part of Israel's effort to fortify its presence in Jerusalem's eastern half which it captured in the 1967 war.

But Majlaton, his wife and three kids are among thousands who have crossed the housing lines to Pisgat Zeev and neighborhoods like it in a migration that is raising tempers among some Jewish residents.

It wasn't so much the politics of this contested city that drew Majlaton to Pisgat Zeev, however; it was the prospect of escaping the potholed roads and scant municipal services he endured for 19 years while renting in an Arab neighborhood.

"You see that air conditioner?" he said, pointing to the large wall unit cooling his living room. "In the Arab areas, the electricity is too weak to run one that big."

Majlaton, 50, says some Jewish neighbors are warming to him, but the influx bothers others, who say they're thinking of moving out or refuse to sell or rent to Arabs.

Potential partition along ethnic lines?
This is much more than a simple matter of real estate. Demographics could figure heavily in how Jerusalem is partitioned in a future peace deal. If that happens, it is expected the city will be split along ethnic lines — Jewish neighborhoods to Israel, Arab neighborhoods to Palestine.

Palestinians see east Jerusalem as their future capital. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows the whole city will remain united as Israel's capital.

Palestinians have long accused those among them who sell land to Jews of betraying their homeland, and last week similar language was heard from a group of rabbis. Meeting in Pisgat Zeev, they issued an edict denouncing Jews who sell land to Arabs as "traitors" and barring them from participating in communal prayers.

"This is a war, and if the Arabs conquer one neighborhood, they will conquer others and they will strangle the Jews," said Hillel Weiss, a spokesman for the "New Sanhedrin," which takes its name from the supreme court of ancient Israel.

In 2007, the latest year with available statistics, about 1,300 of Pisgat Zeev's 42,000 residents were Arabs. In nearby French Hill, population 7,000, nearly one-sixth are Arabs, among them students at the neighboring Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Neve Yaakov, with 20,000 people, had 600 Arabs, according to the Israel Center for Jerusalem Studies, a respected think tank.

Weeks after the 1967 war, Israel annexed east Jerusalem with its major Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites in a move recognized by no other country. It continues to build housing in sensitive areas in defiance of U.S. protests.

Netanyahu says Arabs have the right to live anywhere in the city, and so should Jews, though the Old City's Jewish Quarter is closed to Arabs.

Jerusalem's mayor and city councilors are all Jewish. Almost all the city's Arabs refuse to vote or run in municipal elections, saying that would be recognition of Israeli rule. But it deprives them of clout in competition for city spending.

Today, while west Jerusalem is overwhelmingly Jewish, the eastern half is an ethnic checkerboard. More than 180,000 Jews live there, most in places like Pisgat Zeev but also in enclaves in Arab areas. Nearly all the city's 220,000 Palestinians live in eastern neighborhoods.

Ironically, much of the Arab migration was set off by the separation barrier which Israel started building through the West Bank in 2002 during a wave of suicide bombings. Its Jerusalem segment meanders to scoop up as many Jewish areas as possible and make several Arab neighborhoods a part of the West Bank.

The wall stranded tens of thousands of Jerusalem Arabs on the "West Bank side," and many moved to Arab neighborhoods on the Jerusalem side for easier access to jobs and schools. But a housing shortage in those districts is pushing the overflow into Jewish areas, residents and real estate agents said.

'There's nothing' in Arab neighborhoods
These areas are "less crowded, you can live in a house, and there are streets, parks and places to play," said Moukhless Abu el-Hof, an Israeli Arab lawyer who owns a home in Pisgat Zeev. "In the Arab neighborhoods, there's nothing."

Jewish resident Shlomi Cohen, 37, said the Arab influx made him sell and move elsewhere in Pisgat Zeev. "If an Arab comes to live in the building and someone wants to buy and he knows there is an Arab there, he will not buy," he said.

Yael Antebi, editor of the Pisgat Zeev community newspaper and a Jerusalem city council member, said Arab and Jewish teens sometimes brawl, Arab youth often harass Jewish girls, and parents fear their daughters will date Arabs.

Majlaton and his wife are both Hebrew-speaking Christians. He said his new neighbors cold-shouldered them when they arrived in 2002, but gradually became friendlier.

He said he has since helped about 30 Arab families to move in and gets calls from prospective renters almost every day.

While his primary motivation was quality of life, he says living in Pisgat Zeev is "a nationalistic act" — a way to cement Arab presence in the city of his birth.

He said Palestinian leaders should follow his lead.

"They should bring all the Arabs to Pisgat Zeev," he said. "I'll help them find homes one by one."