The Shuafat refugee camp encapsulates Israeli rule in east Jerusalem. All the maladies of the occupation are concentrated there, and it’s also a “prequel” revealing the direction the occupation is taking. The region, which includes five subdivisions, was created over the years in a gradual process in which residents of the refugee camp abandoned it due to congestion and terrible sanitary conditions, preferring peripheral areas – Ras Hamis, Ras Shehadeh, Dakhyat al Salaam, Anata and the refugee camp which gave the region its dubious name.
Even today most Jerusalemites have no idea that there is a refugee camp within the city’s jurisdiction and tend to argue with you when you tell them so. Not only is it Jerusalem’s most neglected location, but since it was fenced off and hermetically sealed it has become an ex-territoria, an enclave that the municipality and the state ignore, abandoned to its fate. Because of the vacuum of governance, its alert residents, some of whom are criminals, have exploited the situation to build illegal structures, some with several storeys, aware that city inspectors do not enforce the law there.
Recently the name of Shuafat hit the headlines because of the grave lack of water, an almost surreal situation in Israel’s capital in the early 21st century. Because of the region’s topography, water never reaches the higher areas, while in other places it flows at low pressure, in tiny and irregular amounts – depending on the height of the land.
This intolerable situation came to the Supreme Court’s attention following a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights. The state’s response was the most surprising aspect of the judicial deliberations, and it raises questions about the future of Israeli rule in east Jerusalem.
While the state’s attorneys admitted a problem exists, they maintained it results not from poor water flow or changes in the water supply but from infrastructure that collapsed because of the chaos prevailing in Shuafat.
They argued that the water system was designed to supply water to a given number of people, but the population has soared (to between 60,000 and 80,000 people, no one really knows) because of wide-scale illegal construction, and numerous illegal hookups to the city’s water system.
This argument and its implications are noteworthy because of the political conclusions they lead to. First, the position of the state’s attorneys isn’t eyewash. It’s impossible to overlook the number of new high rises built on every empty plot and on the roofs of old buildings, all quickly occupied by West Bank residents who move to the area after noticing that the police never set foot there. Jerusalem still attracts West Bank residents, and scores of them have moved into Jerusalem’s jurisdiction, hoping one day to receive a blue ID card: the construction surge has also created vigorous economic activity. The existing infrastructures, that were run-down at the best of times, couldn’t handle the load and collapsed.
And yet that position, though factually correct, elicits two important points for discussion.
The first question is: how was the situation created? The Shuafat refugee camp wouldn’t have grown so large, with so much illegal construction, if the municipality/ state hadn’t sat idly by. Massive construction began immediately after the separation barrier went up, when Shuafat’s residents saw that City Hall had abandoned the place and no longer entered there – not to collect garbage, not to repair streetlamps and of course not to enforce the Planning & Construction Law. The state attorney’s position, which accuses residents of creating the situation, is ludicrous since City Hall has the fundamental and primary responsibility for the current situation. Its neglect enabled the massive influx of residents that led to the infrastructures’ collapse.
Politically, the second question is more interesting: does the state admit it’s powerless to impose order in Shuafat, to the extent that it’s unable to supply water? Why does it continue retaining an area no longer in its hands? Why not simply abandon Shuafat and return it to the Palestinian Authority? Though it’s unsure whether the PA can handle the current chaos, it will certainly be motivated to halt the decline and limit future construction. Evidence of this is visible in the Palestinian section of Anata where life goes on normally, and the infrastructures meets local needs.
These are rhetorical questions, of course. We know that the state will never cede this area of Jerusalem, since political considerations supersede humanitarian ones. But still, the questions need to be asked frequently, to highlight the lack of logic and pointlessness of the ongoing situation.
Again, what’s important to understand in the matter of Shuafat is that it’s not an isolated, unusual phenomenon but a “prequel” for what is anticipated to happen in the city’s eastern half. Sooner or later, infrastructure will collapse because appropriate investments for its natural population growth haven’t been made. Demographic growth among Arab citizens has set off social processes that Israeli law can’t halt, particularly in terms of unlicensed construction.
The lack of outline plans, and outdated plans, have created a closed circle: on one hand, residents build without building permits because City Hall refuses to give them permits, yet on the other, City Hall contends there are no approved outline plans because the huge extent of unlicensed construction means it cannot draw up plans.
Blaming the residents is pointless – for if the municipality can’t or won’t approve plans, if it doesn’t create a planning horizon, and residents have no idea when plans will be approved, it’s only natural that people who need housing and have a privately owned piece of land will build on it – even without a permit.
Shuafat Refugee Camp mirrors what is likely to happen across east Jerusalem – sooner or later. Shuafat is the writing on the wall: what’s happening there now will happen in east Jerusalem as a whole. City Hall has lost control of the processes unfolding there, and matters will only end in an explosion.
A normal government would long ago have concluded that it would be better to transfer the area – lock, stock and barrel – to the Palestinian Authority. And sooner rather than later.
The author is a former Meretz party member of the Jerusalem municipal council.