Living in Jerusalem, behind the wall

Residents of Kafr Akab struggle to receive equal services.

SINCE IT was separated from central Jerusalem by the security barrier, numerous illegal highrise buildings have been constructed in the Kafr Akab neighborhood. (photo credit: UDI SHAHAM)
SINCE IT was separated from central Jerusalem by the security barrier, numerous illegal highrise buildings have been constructed in the Kafr Akab neighborhood.
(photo credit: UDI SHAHAM)
Crossing the massive checkpoint at Kalandiya, it feels as if one is entering a foreign country. It is only the street signs in three languages – Arabic, Hebrew and English – that confirm the reality that this is still Jerusalem.
Murals describing events from the “Nakba” and graffiti and posters commemorating shahids (“martyrs”) fill the walls all the way from the checkpoint to the center of Kafr Akab, the most northern neighborhood of the capital located behind the security barrier.
Inside the neighborhood there are no sidewalks, almost no streetlights, most roads are not paved and piles of garbage slide from large green dumpsters on both sides of the main street. Although lanes are separated by a concrete barriers, cars drive in both directions.
“Look, drivers are doing whatever they want. They can drive freely in the opposite direction and no one is here to stop them,” says Moien Odeh, an attorney representing the residents of the neighborhood in petitions against the Jerusalem Municipality demanding equal services.
“Since the neighborhood was left behind the wall, police, ambulances, firefighters and municipal-services providers refuse to enter the neighborhood, claiming it is too dangerous,” he adds.
Illegal buildings in Kafr Aqab. (Udi Shaham)Illegal buildings in Kafr Aqab. (Udi Shaham)
In 2004, when the government headed by prime minister Ariel Sharon decided to build a security barrier between pre-’67 Israel and the West Bank, it was decided that Kafr Akab, along with some other Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Shuafat refugee camp, Ras Khamis, Sheikh Sa’ad and al-Walaje, would be left on the Palestinian side of the wall.
Home to some 64,000 Israeli residents Kafr Akab is located 9 kilometers north of Jerusalem’s Old City and borders Palestinian Authority-controlled Ramallah and El-Bireh.
Residents say that until 2004 it was a normal middle-class suburb.
However, since it was cut off from the rest of Jerusalem, housing prices have dropped sharply, attracting Arabs from all over Jerusalem who want to save money and keep their status as residents of the capital – which allows them to work and move freely all over Israel.
Kafr Akab was added to Jerusalem’s municipal jurisdiction in June 1967, when the Israeli government decided to annex east Jerusalem and, on top of the 6 square kilometers of the Jordanian city, it added another 60 square kilometers, including the surrounding villages.
Some say that the northern neighborhoods, such as Shuafat, Beit Hanina and Kafr Akab, were included in Jerusalem in order to also include the Atarot airport, so that a siege on the capital, like the one in 1948, would not result in famine.
Kafr Akab receives its water and electricity from private Palestinian companies. Garbage is collected by a subcontractor hired by the municipality, though residents complain it is not efficient enough.
To resolve the problems created by the lack of services, the neighborhood has formed a committee to take charge and handle the situation.
Mounir “Abu Ashraf” Zghayer, the head of the committee, told The Jerusalem Post at his home in Kafr Akab that because no one comes to enforce the law – neither Israeli nor Palestinian authorities – the residents face a wide range of difficulties from deficient infrastructure to lack of personal safety.
Mounir "Abu Ashraf" Zghayer in his living room in Kafr Aqab. (Udi Shaham)Mounir "Abu Ashraf" Zghayer in his living room in Kafr Aqab. (Udi Shaham)
Zghayer says the lack of law enforcement has turned Kafr Akab into a refuge for criminals.
“Because no one oversees this place, we see an influx of thieves, drug dealers and people bearing firearms. All the criminals possess weapons, and we don’t know who to turn to,” he says. “Fugitives who run away from [the Israel Police in] Jerusalem come here, and people who run away from [the security forces of PA President Mahmoud] Abbas also come.
“This is Israeli soil, we hold Israeli IDs. Who will protect us? Who would accept that a place in Israel would look like this?” he asks.
Because there is no police presence, Zghayer says residents have adopted old-fashioned ways of settling arguments through sulha (Arabic for reconciliation) between the different families.
And because there is no one to inspect the infrastructure, much is not safe.
Zghayer says that since the wall was erected, and due to the shortage of housing in east Jerusalem, tall buildings – which previously were not common in the neighborhood – have been built illegally, due to the lack of inspection.
Illegal buildings in Kafr Aqab. (Udi Shaham)Illegal buildings in Kafr Aqab. (Udi Shaham)
“The municipality never checked if the buildings here were built according to regulations. It endangers the lives of the 52,000 people living in them,” he says. “It will take one small earthquake to level Kafr Akab to the ground.”
In 2015, the committee filed a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that services be provided to Kafr Akab as they are to any other Jerusalem neighborhood.
Through Odeh, the residents asked for the sewage system to be fixed; sidewalks built; bad roads be repaired; and pedestrian crossings next to schools be painted.
Despite the court’s decision in November 2015 that the requests be implemented, the municipality has yet to do so.
Recently, several legislative initiatives regarding the Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods have been raised in the Knesset.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin are advancing a bill that would allow for changes in the municipal borders, thus raising the possibility that a different local council could be established for the neighborhoods behind the security barrier.
Also, MK Yoel Hasson (Zionist Union) has submitted a bill that would transfer all Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods – except the Old City and its surroundings – to PA administration. Hasson stresses that Israel would maintain military control over the area, while the PA would run civil affairs.
Zghayer, however, says these initiatives are racist and promote segregation.
“It will not provide security to Israel. Telling that to Israelis is a complete lie,” he says.
Illegal buildings in Kafr Aqab. (Udi Shaham)Illegal buildings in Kafr Aqab. (Udi Shaham)
Regarding Hasson’s initiative and others suggesting transferring control over east Jerusalem to the PA, he says: “As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘There is no people on Earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power.’
“Abbas is just another corrupt clerk of the Israeli government. They pay his salary. When we have a leader who was elected by our people we will accept him.”
Nevertheless, Zghayer says he truly believes that one day, Kafr Akab will receive the same treatment as other Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Rehavia and the German Colony.
“It is unfortunate that the checkpoint was placed within Jerusalem and not on its municipal border,” he says. “But we will continue our struggle and keep filing petitions to the High Court until we will receive our full rights.
“Our goal is not to show how we achieved a victory over the municipally, rather it is to make our lives better.”
The Jerusalem Municipality responded to Zghayer’s and Odeh’s claims saying that in the past two years it has repaired many roads in Kafr Akab in coordination with the local community administration.
“The municipality recently conducted a thorough examination of roads in the neighborhood, and its results are now being turned into a multi-year plan to repair more roads,” a statement sent to the Post reads.
“The reality that was created in Kafr Akab after the construction of the security wall is making it hard for civil bodies [such as the Jerusalem Municipality] to operate in the neighborhood, because of the need for IDF approval to enter. However, in recent years, there has been an increase of municipal involvement in the neighborhood thanks to close cooperation with the local community administration, which works with the residents to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood,” the statement continues.