Al-Ram appears similar to most other mid-sized Palestinian suburbs. It’s lined with fruit and vegetable markets, clothing stores, hair salons, and hummus and falafel restaurants. It also hosts a large soccer stadium and the Palestinian Authority Jerusalem Affairs Ministry. But what distinguishes al-Ram from the rest of the Palestinian territories is it has a reputation as a refuge for drug traffickers and illegal weapons traders.
According to residents in the town of some 70,000 to 80,000 north of Jerusalem, drugs of all types including synthetic cannabis, also known as “Mr. Nice Guy,” heroin, cocaine and hashish, and weapons such as powerful M16s, AK47s and a variety of handguns can be found in al-Ram’s alleyways.
“We have everything illegal here – you name it and we have it,” said Muhammad, a shop owner on the main commercial strip in al-Ram.
Yaseen, a waiter at a restaurant, said he avoids certain parts of al-Ram out of fear for his safety.
“It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say we live in a type of anarchy,” he said.
The PA, which maintains limited authority over the town, is aware of al-Ram’s popular image and wants to change it.
Maj. Saed Naasan, who heads al-Ram’s sole police station, said that his team of police officers have made significant progress in fighting crime over the past two years, reducing the incidence of drug- and weapons-related crimes by some 50%.
The major difference-maker, he said, was that Israel allowed the PA to deploy armed police officers in al-Ram for the first time ever in April 2015.
“Since we have had a formal police presence here, we have arrested a number of criminals,” Naasan said. “Most of them are no longer operating in the middle of the streets.”
As a part of the Oslo Accords, al-Ram was designated as a part of Area B of the West Bank, which meant that Israel and the Palestinians would be jointly responsible for the town’s security. In the years following the agreement, Israel neglected much of the criminal activity in al-Ram and only permitted the PA to maintain an unarmed, civilian-clothed police force in the central parts of the town – a recipe that the PA Police says encouraged drug lords and weapons traders to set up shop.
However, since Israel permitted a formal police presence, uniformed police officers who share five hand guns, five kalashnikovs and 650 bullets – per Israeli restrictions – have been deployed in the town.
According to several members of the al-Ram police force, they have recently carried out a number of arrests and confiscated weapons, drugs and stolen cars.
In July 2016, the small team of officers carried out one of their most complicated operations, uncovering and arresting a group of some 15 suspected drug dealers.
“We would not have been able to break up that nest of drug dealers without the police force there,” said Mustafa Falana, an official in the PA Police’s anti-drug unit.
Nonetheless, Naasan said that while he and his team have made gains against crime, the area remains severely underserved.
He said that one of the most challenging obstacles is that his police force has an insufficient number of police officers.
Israel has only permitted the al-Ram police station to employ 30 police officers, well below international standards.
According to a recent report by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, al-Ram needs 422 police officers to meet those standards.
In addition, the PA has only deployed 19 police officers to al-Ram even though Israel permits 30 in the town.
“There is a major shortage of police cadres,” PA Police spokesman Louay Zreikat said when asked why the PA has not sent the maximum of 30 officers to al-Ram.
Even if there were enough police to patrol the city, the PA also does not have jurisdiction over a number of al-Ram’s residents, who hold Israeli residency cards, Naasan added.
According to the Oslo Accords, east Jerusalem is not under the PA’s jurisdiction.
While al-Ram is not part of the Jerusalem municipality, many residents have the blue Israeli identity cards, making the PA powerless to enforce its laws over them. The total number of al-Ram residents with Israeli identity cards is not publicly available.
“When we arrest criminals with Israeli identity cards, we hand them over to Israel,” Naasan said. “We are not able to ensure they are brought to justice.”
Jabr said that the difference in laws between Israel and the PA often results in criminals being set free.
The last aspect that makes policing al-Ram so difficult, says Naasan, is that police often cannot access parts of the city without coordinating with the Israeli Army.
The areas in al-Ram that are 200 meters from the security wall are off-limits to the police without prior IDF coordination.
More than half of the town is surrounded by the wall.
“We often are informed that criminals are in certain locations and we request coordination to go,” Naasan stated.
“But by the time Israel grants approval, the criminal has already left.”
According to Naasan and several other police officers in al-Ram, Israel usually takes three to four hours to respond to coordination requests, and in some cases, much longer.
He added that about half of the coordination requests are denied.
More recently in times of emergency, Naasan said, he and his team have started to take matters into their own hands and acted without prior coordination.
“In some cases when we feel that someone’s life is in imminent danger, we have gone to some areas that require coordination without approval,” he said. “We only do this because we want to make sure nobody dies.”
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories was asked to respond to all of the points raised by the PA Police in this report.
After a week of contemplation, COGAT ultimately decided not to respond to any of the questions posed to it, citing the sensitivity of the issues.