Page last updated at 08:15 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Holy City facing splits and decline

Rail construction site, Jaffa St, West Jerusalem
Construction work on the train has brought major traffic problems

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jerusalem

Jerusalem is "starting to die" says pharmaceutical worker Dikla Meheraban, 26, amid bustling shoppers and rumbling buses at the heart of the predominantly Jewish west of the city.

The violence of the last intifada has waned, but a gloomy picture of the Holy City has emerged during campaigning for Tuesday's mayoral elections.

Jerusalem residents give their views on the Holy City

Soaring land prices, dirty streets, economic stagnation, job shortages, the flight of the city's young people and secular Jews and the construction of a light rail system that has caused traffic to all but grind to a halt are all common gripes.

It ranked bottom in a recent survey of the quality of life in Israel's 15 largest cities.

The future of Jerusalem, home to some 740,000 people and a pilgrimage site for Muslims, Christians and Jews, is hotly contested.

Israelis see it as their capital, Palestinians want to have theirs here too.

And though many of its residents have great affection for the city, it has a reputation in Israel as a "religious, backwards town", said student Jay Rosen, 27, at a recent debate between the mayoral candidates.

"This is the capital and it needs to start acting like one," said Mr Rosen.

Nir Barkat
Secular high-tech businessman, leading in most polls
Meir Porush
Ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Israeli MP since 1996, former deputy housing minister, Barkat's closest challenger
Arkady Gaydamak
Russian-born tycoon, owner of major Israeli football club, currently on trial in absentia in an arms trafficking case in Paris
Dan Biron

TV executive-turned-bar owner, left-wing candidate from party seeking legalisation of marijuana

While many major world cities are swamped with new arrivals, about 5,000 more people leave Jerusalem than move in each year.

Raffi Radovan, 35, says he and about 10 of his close friends are among those who have left because they say the city is becoming too religious.

He now commutes from Tel Aviv to his job in an art gallery at the Israel Museum.

Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox, or Haredi, community, with its large families and high birth rate, has grown from about a tenth of the city's Jewish population in the 1960s to between a quarter and a third.

But it is its growing influence in the municipality, and the spread of close-knit communities of black-hatted, strictly-observant Haredim into previously secular and mixed neighbourhoods that causes most ire.

Raffi Radovan, gallery manager at Israeli Museum
I feel less and less that this is my city
Raffi Radovan, secular ex-Jerusalemite

Mr Radovan sighs as he talks of the hostile graffiti that appeared on the door of a small artspace he opened and his friend's problems employing Jews in his bar on the Sabbath.

"I feel less and less that this is my city," he says.

Haredim are known for moving en-masse into secular or mixed neighbourhoods by paying above market value for apartments, pushing up prices.

With the new residents come fears that, like in long-standing Haredi neighbourhoods, women dressed "immodestly" (which usually means not covered from neck to ankle and wrist, with trousers considered unacceptable) will be harassed.

They worry too that cars moving on the Sabbath will be stoned, and newspapers and non-kosher food will disappear from the shops - which will be forced to close on Saturdays.

"I just felt that you can't really fight it," said Mr Radovan. "It's them and us - we are all Jewish, but the way we think is different, the way we act, where we shop, it's a totally different culture."

People at bus stop in West Jerusalem
The city's religious make-up is changing

The city - both its residents and the municipality - is the poorest in Israel, according to Israel Kimhi of the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies.

Employment is low among ultra-orthodox men, many of whom study the Torah rather than work. It is also low among women in the roughly one third of the city's population that is Palestinian and Israeli-Arab.

This means less money flows through taxes into city coffers while, Mr Kimhi says, a weak private sectors adds to the woes.

Spending on education per child is about a third - and the cultural budget less than a tenth - of that in Tel Aviv, according to figures quoted by mayoral candidates.

Haredi and secular people on Jaffa St, West Jerusalem
Many Haredis say their needs were previously overlooked

"If the existing trends continue, Jerusalem is going to decline," says Mr Kimhi.

Haredi journalist Jonathan Rosenblum points out that ultra-orthodox Jews are strong contributors to state funds through sales taxes on the products they buy for their often large families.

He disagrees with the widespread perception that the outgoing Haredi mayor has favoured his own community, arguing that its needs were previously overlooked.

And he points out that high apartment prices and lack of jobs also hit young ultra-orthodox couples, who are leaving the city too.

'Hard struggle'

Only a couple of kilometres away, with its potholed roads and scruffy buildings, predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem is more obviously in decline.

Fishmonger and father of six Mazen Hassounh, 43, says he has lost of much of the custom he used to get from Palestinians in the West Bank.

Mazen Hassounh, fishmonger in East Jerusalem
Mazen Hassounh has considered closing his fish shop

The Israeli-built West Bank barrier, which in places cuts through East Jerusalem, has made it much harder for them to visit the city.

And while tourists are slowly returning after the intifada, most stay in West Jerusalem, he says. In some periods he makes a loss.

"It's a hard struggle. Sometimes I think about closing the shop," he says.

In comparison, business is booming for his brother-in-law who sells fish in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority.

At times Mr Hassounh contemplates following the many middle class Palestinians who have relocated there - especially since, during the intifada, Israel put a stop to all official PA activities in East Jerusalem.

While Ramallah's restaurants thrive, "here, after 7pm it's like a ghost city," he says.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem suffer continued under-investment and difficulty getting building permits.

They say that from education to refuse collection, their Israeli-run municipal services are way below the standard in the west of the city.

But most Palestinians in East Jerusalem boycott the mayoral elections, seeing participation as legitimising Israel's occupation of the east of the city in the 1967.

The desire by both Israelis and Palestinians to have their capital in Jerusalem is one of the most explosive issues in peace talks.

But while its residents wait for a compromise to be reached - if it ever is - many on both sides feel they are watching the city drift further from the vibrant, booming capital they want.

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