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Economic collapse in East Jerusalem: strategies for recovery (Part II)

Dec. 2, 2016 2:47 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 11, 2016 10:22 P.M.)
Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. (File)

Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law.

This brief by Al-Shabaka Policy Fellow Nur Arafeh focuses on Israel’s deliberately engineered economic collapse of East Jerusalem, which renders the city essentially unlivable for Palestinians so as to ensure Jewish control over it. By so doing, the brief aims to provide those concerned with the fate of the city with the analysis necessary to understand Israel’s aims as well as some of the policy prescriptions to spur economic development. The brief zeroes in on the deterioration of two sectors that have been East Jerusalem’s prime strategic assets -- tourism and the commercial markets of the Old City -- which exemplify the economic collapse. It also explores initiatives undertaken in East Jerusalem to foster
sumud, or steadfastness, that challenge the myriad obstacles imposed by Israeli occupation authorities and concludes with recommendations on how to enhance sumud in the city and restore its capacity for the limited economic development possible under occupation.

The first part of the brief was published on Thursday.

The Strength of Sumud in East Jerusalem

Despite the economic obstacles it confronts, East Jerusalem remains at the forefront of Palestinian civil society’s strategies of sumud. These strategies focus on ensuring that Palestinians remain rooted to land under threat of confiscation; creating socioeconomic conditions that help Palestinians endure Israeli policies; maintaining the political identity and cultural heritage of the city; and promoting community-controlled development.

Several initiatives aim to preserve Palestinian presence in the Old City in the face of expanding settlements. For example, Burj al-Luqluq, a community center founded in 1991, was built in the Bab al-Hutta neighborhood on land that was under threat of expropriation to build a settlement. Other institutions work explicitly to preserve the cultural heritage and Palestinian tourism landscape of the Old City as Israel’s Judaization policies attempt to erase them. For example, the Welfare Association’s Restoration Program in the Old City focuses on the rehabilitation of housing units; the provision of cultural, social, commercial, and health services to improve Palestinians’ lives; and the restoration of historic, neglected buildings for community use. The Welfare Association, among other activities, converted a Byzantine building into the Al-Quds Community Work Center and a public khan into the Al-Quds University Studies Center. These efforts help to ensure an institutional Palestinian presence in the Old City and attract foreign tourists.

Given the absence of governmental and international aid, bottom-up initiatives working to ensure the tourism sector’s survival have always been the norm in East Jerusalem. More recently, Palestinian tourism experts in East Jerusalem, such as the Jerusalem Tourism Cluster, have increased efforts to develop a new tourism paradigm with the goal of challenging the obstacles imposed by Israel on the sector’s development. The diversification of the tourism product is at the heart of this initiative. The idea is to build a unique Palestinian identity for the product while simultaneously developing new types of tourism that are not only about pilgrimage, such as tours that focus on politics, culture, ecology, and recreation. Such a shift could also overcome the seasonality of Palestine’s tourism business.

There are also political tours of East Jerusalem organized by Alternative Tours, for example, which take visitors to the settlement of Pisgat Zeev in East Jerusalem, where they have a view of the Wall and the Shuafat refugee camp so that they become more informed about Israel’s illegal settlement policies.

To ensure the sustainability of such tours, these initiatives seek to involve the Palestinian community beyond those Palestinians who serve as tour operators or otherwise work in the tourism sector. Future plans focus on developing community tours and tourism cooperatives that foster interactions between tourists and locals. These initiatives also encourage partnerships among sectors that are directly or indirectly linked to tourism, such as the commercial, cultural, religious, IT, and educational sectors.

Dalia Association, a community foundation as well as a grant-making organization, also promotes community-controlled grant making and development to enhance the accountability of local initiatives and reduce dependency on donor aid. It has focused on mobilizing resources and connecting them to local and international Palestinian communities, based on the principle that each Palestinian community should identify its priorities and choose how to utilize resources. For instance, during the month of Ramadan in the summer of 2016, the association launched the “Jerusalem Fund” program, which focused on supporting Palestinian families whose houses had been demolished and empowering Jerusalem youth through the “Youth Empowerment, Youth Grantmaking” program. Donations were funneled through the fund, and a committee comprised of community residents decided how to allocate them so that they met local priorities.

The Palestinian private sector and Palestinian banks have also recently started to invest in East Jerusalem. The Palestine Investment Fund announced in September that it would invest in developing a tourism infrastructure in East Jerusalem by renovating existing hotels and building new ones. Moreover, while banks in the OPT have not offered any housing loans to Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem since 1967, three banks lately decided to provide such loans from funds they received from the Islamic Development Bank.

Enhancing Sumud in East Jerusalem

While true economic and social development cannot occur without progress on the political front, developing sumud in East Jerusalem can shore up the Palestinian presence and improve Palestinians’ quality of life. Some suggestions and recommendations on how to enhance sumud in the city are made below.

- Envisioning Jerusalem Because initiatives undertaken in East Jerusalem are often fragmented and lack a clear national vision and strategy, it is vital for Palestinians to formulate a plan for Jerusalem by answering the question: “What kind of Jerusalem do we want to live in ten years from now, and what should we do to implement this vision?” Grassroots and community participation in the development of the vision can be ensured by establishing community-based partnerships or networks among East Jerusalem institutions. This would strengthen the institutional fabric and promote cooperation. Measures should also be established to ensure that all actors are held accountable for the implementation of strategies.

- Packaging Jerusalem The development of the tourism sector could be achieved by promoting domestic tourism and marketing East Jerusalem within a Palestinian package, such as one that consists of stops in Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Nazareth. Such work requires networking and partnerships among Palestinian tourist organizations from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the ’48 region. Schools could also be involved in the development of domestic tourism by organizing visits to the Old City and other major tourist sites. These activities would help to develop economic links between the economy of East Jerusalem and the rest of the OPT.

East Jerusalem could also be marketed within a regional package, such as one that includes visits to Amman, Jarash, Petra, Aqaba, Jericho, and Jerusalem. In this way, tourists who are not only traveling for religious reasons would likely stay in East Jerusalem for a longer period, thereby increasing the city’s share of the tourism market and making it a cultural as well as religious destination.

An Islamic tourism campaign could also be beneficial. The PA could work with Asian and African Islamic countries to organize pilgrimage tours to Jerusalem in cooperation with Jordan and Palestinian tour operators in Israel.

However, to achieve the above, it is vital to develop a clear promotional strategy for East Jerusalem, ensure coordination among tour operators in the OPT and ’48 region, and develop a better tourism infrastructure in East Jerusalem by expanding the number of rooms in Palestinian hotels. It is also crucial to improve marketing through the use of digital and social media as well as participation in tourism fairs and conferences. Further, the managerial and technical expertise of those working in the tourism industry should be developed to ensure competitive service quality. The international community could play an important role in funding such efforts.

- Promoting Productivity The productive capacity of the economy of East Jerusalem must be rebuilt to enhance its competitive advantage. This can be done by exploiting its strategic asset -- the Old City -- and promoting the production of high-quality goods. Investments in small-scale industries, especially traditional handicrafts, would go a long way toward meeting this goal.

- A development fund for East Jerusalem should also be created that could serve different functions, including helping merchants in the Old City pay the exorbitant tax bill; financing social welfare programs; providing funds for schools to offset Israeli efforts to cut their funding if they do not use the Israeli-produced curriculum; promoting public and private investment in tourist facilities and housing projects for poor families; developing economic infrastructure; and buying properties for Palestinian institutions to overcome the financial difficulties associated with paying rents. The Palestinian private sector, Palestinian banks, and the Palestinian diaspora, among others, could help establish and finance such a fund.

In addition to the economic measures above, political measures are no less important. International delegations can play a major role by pressuring Israel to reopen Palestinian institutions such as the Industrial Chamber of Commerce and the Orient House, and by investing in the development of Palestinian tourism. Moreover, the international community has a responsibility to hold Israel accountable for its illegal occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem, and help build a new paradigm based on respect for international law and human rights.

Originally published in full on Al-Shabaka's website on Nov. 30, 2016.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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