The municipality is hiring more sanitation workers and putting in more garbage cans. But east of the separation barrier, the situation is dire.
By Nir Hasson | Apr. 15, 2014

The cleanliness or lack thereof of Jerusalem’s streets was a key issue in the mayoral election six months ago. Moshe Leon, the candidate who failed to oust incumbent Nir Barkat, considered the subject Barkat’s soft underbelly.

“When the residents come first, the city will be clean” was the first line in Leon’s platform, which promised hundreds of new sanitation workers. Leon was right about the general feeling: Although the city is developing with its new roads, marathons, Formula One races and other events, the older streets, playgrounds and commercial centers have been overlooked.

In those places there’s plenty of dirt. Even Barkat admitted during the election campaign that the city wasn’t clean enough. He said his attempt in his previous term to address the problem by privatizing sanitation services was stymied by the Histadrut labor federation. Barkat promised real change for his new term.

To keep track of the situation, the city notes the number of complaints to the municipal hotline. Unfortunately, lots of Jerusalemites are used to the dirt or have low expectations, so they don’t call.

In some places, all you need to do is follow your nose. This is true of East Jerusalem, particularly areas beyond the separation barrier. In those areas, where between 70,000 and 100,000 people live, municipal services have collapsed, including sanitation and garbage collection.

The Arab community there has grown rapidly and the streets are built without planning. In those neighborhoods there are very few garbage cans and the local contractors hired by the municipality can’t keep up.

As a result, garbage is everywhere — piles that are often set on fire and cause a terrible stench. In other East Jerusalem neighborhoods the situation is better, but it’s still easy to distinguish the two halves of the city by the amount of garbage and the number of trash bins and sanitation workers.

To try to get a better handle on the situation, Haaretz did an unofficial online survey of 119 people; about one-third gave their names. Almost half — 57 people — said Jerusalem was “dirty” or “very dirty.”

Most said the garbage was mainly in the parts of Jerusalem where they don’t live; only 25 said their own street was dirty or very dirty. Most mentioned East Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and the city center. Most also believe that Jerusalem is dirtier than other cities — 53 replied that it was much dirtier, 44 somewhat dirtier, and three thought it was Israel’s dirtiest city.

The good news for Barkat was that people were likely to think that the situation had improved over the past year — 29 said better, six worse. Most replied that there had been no change.

Dogs a problem, too

To their credit, Jerusalemites blame themselves as well as the municipality. Many complain about the lack of a cleanliness culture and disrespect for the public domain. Many mention dog owners who don’t clean up after their pets. Then there are Israelis who pollute the parks.

“The time has come to levy fines not only for parking but for throwing out garbage in public areas, as in every properly run city in the world. This includes dog owners,” wrote one respondent.

In addition to the familiar trash — cigarette butts, plastic bags and wrappers — there’s the sticky black dirt that adheres to the white paving stones in and around the Old City. The large playgrounds at Liberty Bell Park suffer from the winds that spread garbage around, while at Independence Park the crows empty out the garbage cans onto the ground, looking for food.

“Jerusalem isn’t dirty,” says Amnon Merhav, the municipality’s director general, who took over two months ago. “There are areas that are more than reasonably clean; for example, the Mahane Yehuda market, and there are areas that are dirty.”

Merhav notes two key problems: Jerusalem is a historic city without modern planning, and some neighborhoods, especially Arab and ultra-Orthodox areas, are crowded.

“Because of its unique character and its thousands of years, Jerusalem looks a little less good. It’s impossible to compare it to other cities,” Merhav says. “Nor do I rush to blame the residents. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. If the level of cleanliness were higher, people would have more incentive to maintain it.”

There are 1,100 employees in the city’s sanitation department, whose budget will be 390 million shekels ($113 million) this year. The budget is ample thanks to a government grant, awarded in part because of the December snowstorm.

The municipality points to reforms that will improve the situation — dozens of new sanitation workers and inspectors, more garbage cans and neighborhood cleanup campaigns. Also, the city will be divided into sectors; this will prevent the absurd situation in which a worker from one department cleans the park and a worker from another cleans the sidewalk next to the park.

“We have areas with planning before Herod’s time, and it’s impossible to bring in garbage trucks and sweepers,” says Merhav. “But even in the Ramot neighborhood, which was planned in the 1970s, there was a shocking planning failure: They built it without garbage rooms.”

According to Merhav, “We’ve added seven new garbage removal routes and we’ve hired 100 sanitation workers in the past year …. We’re also adding garbage cans in the streets, training sanitation volunteers and increasing enforcement. We won’t be satisfied with fines; we’ll also file indictments. I think the improvement will be dramatic in a year or two.”