JERUSALEM – A seminal Israeli plan of half a billion dollars to develop Palestinian territories in East Jerusalem and lift people out of poverty will be warmly welcomed by the people who benefit from it.
Israel says it hopes the program will improve living conditions in impoverished Palestinian neighborhoods and give residents access to Israel's robust economy. But the city's long-neglected Palestinian community views the project with deep skepticism and distrust, fearing that Israel, after more than 50 years of occupation, could consolidate its control over the eastern sector.
"All of these projects have nothing to do with improving our lives," said Ziad Hammoury, head of the Jerusalem Center for Social and Economic Rights, an advocacy group. "It's about controlling more and more in East Jerusalem."
The Leading Change program, launched in May, aims to reduce the enormous social differences between the Palestinian neighborhoods and the predominantly Jewish western part of the city. After years of neglect, Palestinian neighborhoods suffer from poor infrastructure, neglect, and below-average public services, and almost 80 percent of the city's Palestinian families live in poverty.
The program will invest 2 billion shekels or $ 560 million in education and infrastructure and help Palestinian women enter the world of work. The money will be spent on a range of programs, including nine pilot projects, over five years to channel further public and private investment.
The program was launched by Israel's nationalist government. It rejects any division of the city, but seems to have come to the conclusion that strengthening the Palestinian territories of Jerusalem is also in the interest of Israel.
"All who truly believe in a unified Jerusalem and seek full sovereignty must act decisively and take responsibility for infrastructure development," said Zeev Elkin, the government's Jerusalem affairs minister, at the project launch in May. It is expected that Elkins Ministry will play a leading role in the implementation of the program, and he is running for the mayor of Jerusalem this year.
The designers of the program say they recognize the political sensitivities but claim the economic benefits. They say that integrating Palestinians will provide more opportunities for Israeli society.
"It's a population like any other, it deserves to receive public services like all," said Shaul Meridor, head of the budget department at the Treasury. "Economically, it is clear to everyone that if we help this population to be in better shape, it will benefit others as well."
Israel conquered East Jerusalem in the 1
Since 1967, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have been eligible for Israeli citizenship, but most have not sought it because they believe that this would mean recognizing Israeli rule.
Instead, they have a resident status that allows them to work and travel freely in Israel. As non-citizens, they do not vote in Israeli elections. Few use their right of residence to participate in local elections, a political statement that denies them the opportunity to influence their daily lives.
The Palestinians make up 37 percent of the population of Jerusalem. Despite Israel's portrayal of Jerusalem as a unit, there are strong differences between Arab and Jewish parts of the city.
Western Jerusalem's clean pedestrian streets and winding bicycle lanes are in stark contrast to the garbage-strewn streets of East Jerusalem. Many Palestinians work on the west side in lower occupations, where salaries are higher and work more. A ring of Jewish neighborhoods Israel has built all over East Jerusalem enjoys the same infrastructure and development as the west side.
One aspect of the new project is the promotion of Hebrew language learning and the promotion of the Israeli school curriculum. The organizers say the Palestinians should open the doors to the Israeli economy. They say the project will also address land use issues, establish trading centers and improve access to public services.
Lior Shillat, director-general of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, called the program "historical" and said it was the first time that an Israeli government invested so heavily in the region's economic development.
In 2014, the government provided a special budget of 200 million shekels (55 million dollars) for the area, a fraction of the current project  The city spends 9 to 11 percent of its budget on Palestinian neighborhoods, not proportionally of their population, said Meir Margalit, a deaf former Jerusalem City Council member. A community spokeswoman said the city has made "unprecedented" investments in East Jerusalem in recent years.
The organizers expect that the new program will bring significant changes within a few years.
Shillat said there is more Palestinians seek Israel more for economic opportunities than the West Bank or the wider Middle East. He said more people would enroll in Israeli universities and colleges, more would apply for citizenship, and half of all employed Palestinian East Jerusalemers would work in West Jerusalem or the surrounding Jewish cities. He said that suspicion could be mitigated as soon as there is a change on the ground.
Mohammad Owaida, a resident of East Jerusalem, adviser to the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and a participant in the project, said he was not concerned about the government's intentions for so long. The project is delivering change.
"I do not care what (Elkins) agenda is, I'm concerned about improving the lives of 400,000 people," he said, adding that most people agreed, but were too scared to speak
Others say it is flawed because its conception does not have a prominent role for the people of East Jerusalem – few of whom hold government positions – though the organizers say they frequently consult with the residents. The solemn launch of the project at the Israeli President's residence included some Israeli dignitaries, but few Palestinian faces.
"It's a great project, but it came too late and did not include local representatives," said Ramadan Dabash. one of a handful of Palestinians ever to run for Jerusalem City Council. "Who knows East Jerusalem like the people living here?"
Critics also say that they have seen past Israeli attempts to satisfy the needs of the Palestinians.
"These are attempts to persuade the Palestinian people in general to give up or dilute their national identity as Palestinians and Israelis," said Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem expert who was very critical of government policy.
His solution to East Jerusalem's problems?