Jerusalem village's 'nowhere' people in limbo

High Court hears petition submitted by villagers in attempt to correct some of the injustices they say have been done to them over the years.

east jerusalem 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
east jerusalem 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yusuf Dirawi is two years older than unified Jerusalem. He was born in the tiny village of Nueman, near Bethlehem, in 1965 and has lived there his entire life. More than a decade ago, he and most of the other 200 people in his village were informed for the first time that they had been living illegally in their own homes ever since Jerusalem was united in June 1967, after the Six Day War. From that moment on, he and about 90 percent of his neighbors became "nowhere" men, women and children. Now, on the 40th anniversary of the unification of Israel's capital, their circumstances are worse than ever. Earlier this week, the High Court of Justice held its first hearing on a petition submitted by the villagers, their last, desperate attempt to correct some of the injustices they say have been done to them over the years. The judicial process promises to be a lengthy one. In June 1967, immediately after the war, Nueman, along with dozens of other Palestinian communities, was annexed to Jerusalem. Three months later, the army conducted a census in all the territory taken from Jordan in the war, distributing West Bank identity cards to Palestinians living in the West Bank, and Jerusalem identity cards to those living in the areas annexed by Israel. Aerial photographs taken in 1967 show that there were 10 permanent houses and one under construction in Nueman at the time. The house of Dirawi's grandmother, where he was born, was one of them. For some reason, however, the residents of Nueman were not given Jerusalem identity cards. The state has maintained ever since that no one was living in the village at the time of the census and that its current inhabitants, or their parents, moved there some time after unification. According to Dirawi, Nueman was an isolated village in 1967, without roads linking it to other communities. It was apparently difficult for the soldiers to reach the village, and possibly they did not realize it was located within the expanded city limits. Instead, they registered the residents of Nueman, and those of several other villages belonging to the Tamra tribe, according to the home of the tribal sheikh, which was located in the West Bank village of Umm al-Tal'a. For many years, the registration made little difference to the residents. The city of Jerusalem did not levy taxes, collect garbage or provide water and other municipal services. Bezeq did not provide telephone lines. Whatever services there were were provided by the Civil Administration in the West Bank. And, in accordance with Israel's open borders policy, Palestinians were free to travel and work in Israel. The children of Nueman studied in Jerusalem public schools in nearby Umm Tuba and Sur Bahir. The residents built an asphalt road linking Nueman to Umm Tuba from which they could drive to Jerusalem. In 1985, another road was built linking Neuman to the West Bank. Things changed drastically in the 1990s. After the first intifada, the government began to restrict Palestinian access to Israel and started issuing individual entry permits. As time went on, it became increasingly difficult to obtain one. At the same time, the Jerusalem Municipality made its first foray into Nueman. It informed the residents that it was illegal to build houses there since they were illegal residents and the area was a "green zone," where construction was forbidden. It also ordered the children of Nueman (except for those with a parent who had Jerusalem residency rights) to leave the schools in Umm Tuba and Sur Bahir and go to study in the West Bank. In 1993, not long after their troubles began, the villagers asked the Interior Ministry to register them as residents of Jerusalem. The ministry refused. They tried again in 2000 and were again rejected. Soon, matters took another turn for the worse when the government decided to build the security barrier, cutting off Nueman from the West Bank. The section in the area was completed about 18 months ago. The residents now found that they were living in Neuman illegally, could not enter Israel because they belonged to the West Bank and could not move freely in the West Bank because they were living on the Israeli side of the barrier. In 2004, the villagers petitioned the High Court, demanding that the army either move the barrier route 400 meters to leave Nueman on the West Bank side instead of the Israeli side, or grant them Israeli identity cards and all the rights of Jerusalem residents. The state refused to do either. Eventually, the residents' lawyer, Shlomo Lecker, and the state reached a compromise, although the villagers immediately claimed that Lecker had acted without consulting them. One condition of the agreement called on the government to keep a gate in the barrier open at all times, allowing the villagers and their cars access to the West Bank. The ruling was handed down on March 22, 2005. Two years later, the villagers say the arrangement has turned out to be a disaster. On the one hand, they did not know at the time that the government planned to build a ring road around Jerusalem that would slice through their area, and that it planned to build a large new neighborhood in the Har Homa quarter (the "Daled" neighborhood) stretching to within 10 meters of the village. Furthermore, the government is also building a road linking Har Homa to the Jewish settlements of Nokdim and Tekoa, which cuts Nueman off from Umm Tuba and a terminal for goods from the West Bank a few hundred meters from the village. But the massive construction is only part of the problem. The villagers also say that the open gate in the separation barrier does not provide a solution to their isolation. Nueman cannot receive goods and services from Israel, and not only because it is an illegal settlement in the government's eyes, but also because there is no longer vehicular access to it from Jerusalem. At the same time, Palestinians are also barred from delivering goods and services to Nueman because they do not have permits to enter Israel. As a result, there is no garbage collection in Nueman, no emergency home medical treatment, and no quick access to hospitals. Palestinian food wholesalers cannot bring agricultural goods and meat to Nueman because of laws forbidding the import of these commodities from the West Bank into Israel. According to Dirawi, the most devastating blow of all is that Palestinian friends and relatives living in the West Bank are not allowed to visit. They cannot attend weddings or funerals of their loved ones in Nueman. Meanwhile, the villagers tell horror stories of how soldiers at the gate treat them on entering or leaving the village. Dirawi reeled off one story after another. One day, he said, a Palestinian brought 30 cooking gas canisters to the village. When he arrived at the gate, the soldiers allegedly ordered him to remove each one from the truck so that they could make sure none concealed bombs. The driver unloaded his cargo. After he finished, the soldiers ordered him to reload them and then refused to let him into Neuman. Another time, Dirawi's wife, Hilwa, who was born in Umm Tuba and therefore is a Jerusalem resident, drove through the gate into Neuman from the West Bank on her way home. Suddenly, she remembered that she had forgotten to buy bread. She turned the car around and headed for the gate. The soldiers allegedly stopped her and began a slow and painstakingly thorough search of the car. It was an hour before they let her through. Dirawi relates the stories without comment, but it is enough to see the look on his face to sense the humiliation he feels at the treatment he and his neighbors receive. The new petition filed by the residents is another attempt on their part to persuade the High Court to find an alternative to the solution reached two years ago. According to Hebrew University Prof. Amiel Vardi, an activist with the Ta'ayush organization, these two years have proved that the current arrangements are unworkable.