Neither here not there

A look into the life of Palestinians in small villages on the Israeli side of the security barrier.

Palestinian farmer, West Bank_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Palestinian farmer, West Bank_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last December, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat ignited a firestorm when he tossed an idea into the audience at a National Defense College alumni event: a land swap, the Jerusalem neighborhoods on the Palestinian Authority side of the security barrier for the Palestinian territory on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.
Ultimately, Barkat will have no effect on a change in Jerusalem’s borders – this decision lies with various government ministries and the prime minister. But it was still a revolutionary statement, because it was the first time Barkat offered a possible solution for the severe lack of services for the Arab residents along the seam.
According to a municipality source, Barkat has recently backed off from this idea. Instead, the city will focus on “increased cooperation” with the Civil Administration to provide basic services that are lacking in Jerusalem neighborhoods on the PA side of the barrier, such as education, trash collection and building infrastructure, the source said. But Barkat’s suggestion highlights the challenges of providing services along a complicated border, where small villages with unique situations can easily be forgotten.
In a city where nothing is ever simple, it’s no surprise that Jerusalem does not have clear-cut borders. The various lines demarcating the capital – the municipal boundary, the security barrier and the Green Line – have created a complicated patchwork of communities with strange political statuses.
On the PA side of the security barrier, there are approximately 60,000 Arab Jerusalemites who have blue IDs and the same status as Arabs living in east Jerusalem. On the Jerusalem side of the security barrier, around 15,000 Palestinians who have green Palestinian IDs live in small pockets of land but get their services from Ramallah. Most of these Palestinian residents live in Beit Iksa, near Ramot.
The rest of the Palestinians live in 10 “hamlets” of Palestinian villages on the Jerusalem side of the security barrier. These hamlets are home to a total of 4,000 people, neighborhoods of around a dozen families that are spread out across the Jerusalem envelope.
Halilei is one of those communities that has fallen between the cracks. The neighborhood of 500 used to be a part of El-Jib, a Palestinian town near Givat Ze’ev. The first Palestinians moved into the Halilei neighborhood in 1965, living next to the Jordanian military base. When the security barrier was built in 2004, Halilei was cut off from the rest of El-Jib and isolated into its own autonomous village.
Halilei is considered Area C, meaning Israel controls all of the security and administration, the same status as Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Technically, the neighborhood should have Area B status, meaning Palestinian control for civil matters and Israeli control for security, according to Shaul Arieli, a security expert who was the head of the Interim Agreement Administration under the Rabin government. But these neighborhoods are so small that no one really bothered to change their status from Area C to Area B, Arieli explains.
SANDWICHED BETWEEN the Jewish settlements of Givat Ze’ev, Givon and Givon Hahadasha, you can reach the quiet agricultural neighborhood of Halilei by turning at the gas station at the entrance to Givat Ze’ev. The tidy villas and apartments of Givat Ze’ev are quickly replaced by dusty, rutted roads and half-finished buildings with crumbling concrete. Hatem Seun, originally from Jericho, is in the midst of building a two-story dream house in the middle of Halilei. From his courtyard, he has a sweeping view of the idyllic farmyard, stretching out to the horizon, with stone terraces that haven’t changed much in the past hundred years. The only thing that has changed in the past decades is that now most of the hilltops are dotted with neatly organized redroofed Jewish developments. The wide-open vista has a pastoral peacefulness.
But for the past seven years, Seun’s home has been a mess of exposed concrete and wires. Halilei’s biggest problem, residents say, is that they cannot get building permits to build homes for their expanding families. When Seun received a stop work order on his house, which he was building without a permit, he stopped immediately.
A half-finished house was preferable to a pile of rubble courtesy of the Israeli army’s Civil Administration, which is responsible for law enforcement in the territories, he said. He fixed up one of the rooms on the bottom floor and lives there.
“We’re not here and not there,” says Abu Daya Najah, a community patriarch known as Abu Sufiyah, as we sit underneath Seun’s half-finished balcony. “I don’t feel like a Jerusalemite or like a Palestinian. We’re inside the Israeli state but we have no rights.”
In order for any decisions to be made, including trash collection, creation of a nursery school, road paving, permits, Halilei residents appeal to representatives of the Palestinian Authority at E-Ram, which represents the district that includes Halilei. They must also receive approval from the Civil Administration’s District Coordination Office for the Jerusalem Envelope, which is located at the Kalandiya checkpoint.
The approval from the PA is symbolic, explains Arieli, since Israel controls the territory. However, for nationalistic reasons, Halilei residents won’t undertake any projects without approval from both bodies.
“No one says ‘we’re responsible for you,’” Abu Sufiyah explains.
The lack of building permits means that Abu Sufiyah is forced to live with his 27-member extended family in just five rooms.
The neighborhood’s isolation also makes receiving services difficult.
The residents’ paperwork and bureaucracy is Palestinian, including birth certificates, IDs and cars. A border crossing that is open 24 hours allows residents to cross freely into El-Jib, but only residents of Halilei on a master list can cross back into their neighborhood through the checkpoint.
There are no schools in Halilei, so kids are picked up at 6 a.m. and bused to schools in the Palestinian village of Bir Nabala.
Families wanted to start a private nursery school in the neighborhood and had the money to support it, but couldn’t get permission from the authorities for a suitable building. Magen David Adom ambulances will enter the neighborhood depending on the ambulance driver’s mood, and if the situation is not an emergency, will transfer the sick or injured person to a Red Crescent ambulance to take them to a Ramallah hospital. Police come from Givat Ze’ev to take care of any situation, and to evacuate anyone if the ambulance driver refuses to come.
“I have 23 grandkids, my grandkids ask me, ‘why do they [in Givat Ze’ev] have playgrounds and we don’t?’” says Abu Sufiyah. “I tell them, ‘because we don’t have a government, and they do.’”
POLITICAL BORDERS don’t always match up with the reality of daily life. The father of Zahren Minner was among the original founders of Halilei. Minner suffers from brain cancer, and he holds a special permit allowing him to get treatment in Jerusalem at the Augusta Victoria Hospital near the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. But after his most recent brain surgery, his family, most of whom live in the Kalandiya refugee camp, couldn’t visit him as he recovered at home. Minner requested 10 permits for family members to visit and only received three.
Seun’s wife holds Jerusalem residency, a precious commodity that allows her and their four children to get National Health Insurance and other Israeli services. But after family unification was frozen following the second intifada, the family was split. His wife and their children live in Silwan next to the Old City, while Seun is stuck in Halilei. It’s a 17-minute drive, but he only gets to see his family once or twice a month when they make the trek by taxi to see him.
Legally, the family could live together in Halilei while Seun’s appeal for Jerusalem residency and family unification winds its way through the court system. But if Seun’s wife is caught living in the Halilei house, she would lose her Jerusalem residency.
Despite the difficulties, Halilei is a solidly middle-class neighborhood.
Not rich, Seun assures me, but definitely not poor. Most of the residents have special permits allowing them to work in the nearby Jewish settlements, and they make decent money compared to some of the more economically depressed Arab neighborhoods.
Many of the Halilei residents hold special security clearance cards, which are only available to Palestinians with absolutely no criminal record and no close connections with people suspected of criminal or anti-Israel political activity.
“Since 1978, no one [from Halilei] has gone to prison,” Seun says proudly. “Why? This is a calm place.”
Seun said despite the proximity to Jerusalem, he wishes that the neighborhood were located on the Palestinian Authority side of the security barrier. Being on the Palestinian side would mean they would have easy access to stores, clinics, schools and other institutions.
THE RESIDENTS have excellent relations with all of the settlements surrounding their area, the men say. “We couldn’t ask for better neighbors,” adds Seun. Five years ago, Seun says, Givat Ze’ev floated a proposal to incorporate Halilei as part of the settlement. Becoming incorporated would have allowed Halilei to join Givat Ze’ev’s sewage, water and electricity systems. Givat Ze’ev, in the future, would have the right to claim unused agricultural lands that revert to municipality ownership if they are not tended for a certain number of years.
Halilei residents enthusiastically supported Givat Ze’ev’s proposal, which would have given them a single address for local concerns and made a significant change in the building freeze. By “incorporating” into the settlement, rather than joining the settlement outright, the Halilei neighborhood would have been able to maintain enough autonomy to avoid the decree against selling land to Jews and satisfy PA representatives.
But in consultations with Palestinian Authority representatives at E-Ram, the plan fell apart. Residents realized that by incorporating into Givat Ze’ev, it would make it nearly impossible for people who own agricultural land in Halilei but do not have the highest security clearance card to access their fields. The plan was reluctantly shelved, and nothing has changed since.
“We’re living in buildings that are going to fall down on us, but they’re living in villas right across the highway,” said Abu Sufiyah.
“We need to have equality in the laws – there mustn’t be discrimination. If they can build, then we can build,” he said.
IDENTITY IS a tricky issue for Halilei’s residents. I ask Minner, Seun and Abu Sufiyah over and over – if you could choose, would you be Israeli Arab or Palestinian? Would you want to become part of Jerusalem if it meant giving up your Palestinian identity? Where is your center of life, Ramallah or Jerusalem? The three evade the question each time.
Status is a complicated question, they tell me, reluctant to publicly endorse Israel over their Palestinian identity or vice versa, for fear of estranging one of the sides. Solve our problems first, and then we’ll talk about our existential identity, they say.
“If they gave us permission to build, that would solve half our problems,” says Abu Sufiyah. “Step by step – first building permits, then trash collection, then a nursery school, then a mosque. They could do all that without changing the status,” he says. “We’re in a cage; let us move.”
It’s hard to visualize the cage that keeps Halilei residents hemmed in, since there are no physical barriers between here and downtown Jerusalem. As the cool breeze floats over us, the open, rolling hills bask in the sunshine with tranquility impossible to find in Arab neighborhoods closer to the capital.
I ask one more time before I go. You’re stuck in the middle now, but if you could choose, what would you do? I ask them. Suddenly Seun’s eyes fill with tears.
“I would take the blue [Israeli] ID, just so I could live with my kids,” he says. And then he starts to cry.