The government on Thursday unveiled what it billed as a groundbreaking program to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in long-neglected Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
The “Leading Change” program aims to reduce the huge social gaps between the Palestinian neighborhoods and the overwhelmingly Jewish western part of the city. Palestinian neighborhoods suffer from poor infrastructure, neglect and subpar public services, and nearly 80 percent of the city’s Palestinian families live in poverty.
The program will invest NIS 2 billion, or $560 million, in three core areas: education, infrastructure, and helping Palestinian women enter the work force.
The money will be spent on a variety of programs, including nine pilot projects, in the coming five years, with the aim of attracting further government and private investment down the road.
Various government ministries, along with the Jerusalem municipality, will carry out the program, which was launched at a ceremony at President Reuven Rivlin’s official residence on Thursday.
Rivlin, a proponent of coexistence, praised what he called “the most comprehensive attempt by the government to date to narrow the gaps and to develop the economy” of East Jerusalem.
He said East Jerusalem has experienced “lost generations” over the decades.
“I very much hope that the near future will ensure hope for change, and ensure that we not give up on future generations,” he said.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognized. Israel considers East Jerusalem an inseparable part of its capital, while the Palestinians seek the area as the capital of a future state.
Ze’ev Elkin, the government’s minister for Jerusalem affairs, is expected to play a leading role in implementing the program. Elkin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party who is running for mayor of Jerusalem, said bringing to prosperity to East Jerusalem is an Israeli interest.
“All those who truly believe in a unified Jerusalem and aspire to full sovereignty must act with determination to govern on one hand, and to take responsibility for developing infrastructure on the other,” he said.
While critics are likely to point to such comments as signs of an Israeli power play, proponents say the program recognizes the reality on the ground and gives Palestinians a chance to participate in the thriving high-tech Israeli economy.
Most East Jerusalem Palestinians are not Israeli citizens, and instead hold residency rights that allow them to work and freely travel in Israel.
Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, who critics accuse of neglecting East Jerusalem, said he has done his best to develop the area and blamed the national government for chronically underfunding his city.
He said “Leading Change” would provide just a small percentage of what is needed, but expressed hope the program would raise awareness of the city’s needs.