On one of the worst days of the recent heatwave, close to midday, the Kalandiya checkpoint in northern Jerusalem looks almost like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film: dust everywhere, hundreds of vehicles – mostly trucks – driving back and forth around the checkpoint, people walking here and there without any apparent aim, IDF soldiers, yellow Palestinian Authority taxis waiting, and the security barrier – high, bare, grayish and made of concrete, covered with graffiti in many languages. Despite the implacable heat, some fully covered women hold children by the hand, walking along the fence on their way to the other side.
The purpose of my visit is to take a close look at the Arab neighborhoods beyond the security barrier, a no-man’s-land in Jerusalem’s backyard.
On the other side of the checkpoint, attorney Moien Odeh waits in his car to give me a ride to one of those neighborhoods, Kafr Akab. Odeh has just come back from a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on Salah a-Din Street, where he submitted an appeal in the name of Kafr Akab’s residents against the lack of municipal garbage removal there.
According to recent research by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and several NGOs, the level of neglect in these neighborhoods in terms of municipal services and general conditions has reached a critical point.
“Municipal services are virtually absent, and no one takes responsibility for law enforcement, safety or emergency services, overcrowding and poverty, and, perhaps the worst, totally unsupervised construction,” states the most recent report by Ir Amim, an NGO that monitors the situation in the Arab neighborhoods.
Indeed, a high-ranking municipality employee who has asked to remain anonymous admits that “the residents beyond the barrier have become like ghosts for the establishment. We don’t see them, so we can imagine they do not exist anymore.”
IN KAFR Akab, a few meters past the checkpoint, the first thing one grasps are the hundreds of brand-new buildings – eight, 10 and even 12 stories high – scattered everywhere, with no apparent consideration for planning or ease of access.
There are no playgrounds, no sidewalks, no road signs or traffic lights; small children play on trash heaps beside the buildings, some of which are already inhabited even though they are still under construction.
The general impression is of a jungle of high walls separated by narrow alleys – none of them paved, many of them ending in dead ends or, more often than not, in steep, dangerous chasms. Roads, schools, electricity, water and sewage infrastructure are either in extremely bad condition or simply nonexistent. In one of the alleys, there is a putrid stream of sewage water.
From almost any point, one can see the long gray snake of the security fence and the new buildings towering over it – a sight that turns the mighty wall into an almost ridiculously harmless barrier.
“Here,” says Odeh, “all the construction is undertaken without permits and fails to meet accepted engineering standards. People are aware of the danger, but when their life is so miserable, they focus on the basics – getting a roof over their heads. They don’t have the luxury to promote things like playgrounds, gardens or sidewalks.”
The construction of the barrier began in Jerusalem in 2004 under prime minister Ariel Sharon, as a security buffer against ongoing Arab terrorist attacks and violence.
Once built, it sectioned off certain areas from the city proper – Kafr Akab and Semiramis to the north of the Atarot (Kalandiya) airfield, the Shuafat refugee camp and its adjacent neighborhoods of Ras Khamis, Ras Shehadeh and Dahiyat al-Salaam. Nevertheless, these areas remained under the capital’s jurisdiction.
Estimates as to the exact number of residents in these neighborhoods vary, but usually put it at a quarter or more of Jerusalem’s total Palestinian population – which would make it about 100,000.
According to municipality and NGO statistics, about 80 percent of construction in the Palestinian sector is undertaken without permits, but the number is higher in the neighborhoods beyond the security barrier.
“Most of the residents there are employed in Jerusalem; they shop in the city, their children attend educational institutions, and they use health and religious services there,” the Ir Amim report states. “These residents are subject to Israeli rule and law, belong to the Jerusalem Municipality and live within the city limits. In historical and political terms, they are Jerusalem residents, but they remain there [beyond the fence] despite the terrible neglect and lack of engineering supervision over construction, because moving away could mean losing their residency rights.”
The situation in the Shuafat refugee camp is even more complex. There, the municipality pays garbage contractors to provide services, but the refuse is not evacuated to an external site. Rather, it is burned in the camp – some three to seven tons of garbage a day – creating a significant environmental hazard.
As for water supply and sewage, services are even worse. The first and only sewage line was installed by the municipality in the 1970s and is now collapsing under the volume of waste, with the result that sewage is flowing through the streets.
“In March 2014, the water supply to homes in the Shuafat refugee camp and the three neighboring areas was disconnected,” says the Ir Amim report. “Only a small number of homes in low-lying sections of the area continued to receive water, leaving tens of thousands of residents without a supply for several weeks.
After three weeks, residents and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the Supreme Court. In its response to the petition, the Water Authority claimed that the low water pressure was due to the fact that the scope of infrastructure in the area had not been expanded to keep pace with the sharp rise in population.”
The lack of construction permits was a factor here as well, the report continues.
“The authorities admitted that the water infrastructure in the neighborhoods required widening the main water pipes, but refused to install additional infrastructure or to connect homes to the grid – claiming that most of the homes were constructed without permits.”
The situation has changed little since then.
Another hazard in these neighborhoods is the rising level of criminal activity.
“If someone tried to rob a shop now, no police would step in to stop him, and there are countless robbery cases,” Odeh explains.
As an example of the slow response, drugs were openly sold near the entrance to the refugee camp starting in 2011, serving dealers and consumers from around the country. The head of the neighborhood committee complained to the police, even providing photographs and information, and testified at a Knesset committee about the situation. However, nothing was done about it until 2014 – and even after the police’s intervention, residents say, the drug trade continued, albeit less publicly.
Meanwhile, this reporter is told, it is unwise to walk in the neighborhoods’ streets and speak Hebrew, due to safety concerns.
A number of organizations are tackling the issue of these neighborhoods’ conditions – among them Ir Amim, which has a field researcher inside the neighborhoods; Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, a nonprofit that was “formed by a group of [urban] planners and architects in order to strengthen democracy and human rights in the field of planning,” according to its website; and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
During a recent JIIS event, former Haaretz Arab affairs correspondent Danny Rubinstein warned that “one mild earthquake could cause the collapse of the buildings, a disaster whose scope we can’t even imagine.”
But despite the municipality’s recent plans to bridge the gap in infrastructure and development in the Arab sector, it seems that for the moment the neighborhoods beyond the security barrier remain a no-man’s-land that nobody dares to touch.
“I represent the residents at court in regard to human rights and civil rights,” says Odeh, who graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s law school, “but I fear that nothing will really change. We don’t have any other choice than to live here, where the apartments are affordable. The authorities can find us easily for what we owe them – taxes – but apparently not for the services we are entitled to get like any other resident.”