Betwixt and between

The small neighborhood of Sheikh Sa'id is caught in a legal and political tug-of-war.

Sheikh Said resid. 298 (photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
Sheikh Said resid. 298
(photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
Every day at 8 a.m. dozens of people gather at the improvised checkpoint that divides between Sheikh Sa'id neighborhood from Jebl Mukaber village in east Jerusalem just a few miles away from Armon Hanatziv. Some young and some middle-aged, professionals and laborers, children and grandparents, they wave the permits that are supposed to grant them permission to enter Israel. Despite valid permits, they are not allowed in. Since the early days of the second intifada, this site, with its mound of dirt, has served as a widely used, quasi-official crossing-point between the two neighborhoods. But for the past month, border policemen stationed at the checkpoint have been telling residents that the crossing is closed "because it's not an official crossing." It wasn't an official crossing before then, either, yet hundreds of residents crossed every morning and evening, in full view and with the tacit permission of the Israeli authorities. The small neighborhood of Sheikh Sa'id has become the scene of a legal and political tug-of-war and the 1,500 or so residents are being pulled apart in the middle. "You have to go to a-Zaytoun crossing point," a young soldier explains to Muhammad Sabarni, an elderly man from Beit-Umar, who is late for a court appearance in Ramallah. Sabarni didn't not know that Sheikh Sa'id crossing point is no longer operating. "How exactly should I get to a-Zaytoun?" he asks the soldier. "It's 25 km. from here and there's no road. I will miss my trial for sure now," the old man says. Jebl Mukaber is one of the numerous east Jerusalem villages annexed by Israel immediately after the Six Day War. As then demarcated, the borders included six neighborhoods of Jebl Mukaber within Jerusalem and left one neighborhood, Sheikh Sa'id, on the "other" side of the Green Line, in the West Bank. As reported by In Jerusalem ("Breaking the barriers," March 31), until recently, the Green Line had little effect on the lives of the residents of Sheikh Sa'id. Most residents of the other neighborhoods of Jebl Mukaber hold blue ID cards, which grant them Jerusalem residency status. Most of the residents of Sheikh Sa'id hold orange ID cards issued to West Bankers, but they also had Israeli permits to go into the city and a long-guaranteed right to Jerusalem services and utilities. And even when, as the second round of violence began, the authorities erected a dirt barrier at the entrance to Sheikh Sa'id to prevent vehicles from the Palestinian Authority from entering Israel, the villagers continued walking though the barrier on foot. Thus, Jebl Mukaber functioned as one organic entity - until construction of the security barrier, which, as initially planned, would have cut Sheikh Sa'id off from both Jerusalem to the west and the West Bank to the east. The residents appealed to the justice authorities against the proposed route. In March, the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, headed by Judge David Gladstein, granted the appeal of the Sheikh Sa'id neighborhood committee and five residents of the village, cancelling the requisition orders that had been issued to build the barrier. In his ruling, Gladstein, head of the Appeals committee, ruled that the planned route of the security barrier would cause disproportionate harm to the daily lives of the residents and would have to be rerouted. The court further recommended that the barrier be built east of the neighborhood, in a manner that would enable residents to continue to gain access to east Jerusalem. Surprisingly, this ruling, ostensibly so decisive, set off a series of legal moves and countermoves. The Defense Ministry appealed the ruling and turned to the Supreme Court, contending that Judge Gladstein did not have the authority to rule on a location that is in the West Bank and out of the bounds of the State of Israel. The ministry also insisted that it would continue to pave a proposed road that would link Sheikh Sa'id with the Sawahra al-Sharkiya, in the West Bank. Fearing that the link would be cited by the authorities to deny their affiliation with Jebl Mukaber and Jerusalem, the residents also appealed to the High Court of Justice. The court united the two petitions and heard arguments from both sides. No ruling has been handed down yet, but the court has handed down an injunction prohibiting any further work on the road. Despite the on-going legal arguments over the letter of Judge Gladstein's ruling, the spirit of that ruling - that the Israeli authorities should enable the residents to continue to gain access into east Jerusalem - is very clear. Yet, for nearly a month, passage between the neighborhood of Sheikh Sa'id and Jebl Mukaber has been forbidden. Says Abu-Rami, a resident of Sheikh Sa'id, "We are the same village, the same families. I can see my uncle's house from here, it's just a five minute walk but now, in order to get there, it will take me at least one and a half hours." On the other side of the crossing, a truck loaded with grocery products waits for a permit to enter the village. "Sometimes, the soldiers prevent us from going inside the village and the whole village remains without milk or flour," says the truck driver, who refuses to give his name. "No decision has been made regarding Sheikh Sa'id," says Muhammad Alayan, a lawyer who is a resident of of Sheikh Sa'id and the holder of an Israeli (blue) ID card. "Yet the fabric of life in the village has already been broken. There are between 1,500 and 1,700 people at Sheikh Sa'id and all of them have family just across the road, businesses, jobs. Now we can only wave at each other, but not visit - how ridiculous is that?" Munir, a soldier who identifies himself as "a commander of the checkpoint," listens to the conversation. When asked why despite their "tasrih" (permit to enter Israel), the villagers cannot cross, he responds tersely, "These are the orders that we carry out. We notified the residents that they need to go though the official crossing at a-Zaytoun." Veteran peace activist Hillel Bardin attempts to intervene on behalf of an elderly women who has a medical appointment in Jerusalem, but receives the same answer from the soldier. To many of the residents of Sheikh Sa'id, the actions of the Israeli authorities appear vindictive, as if to punish them for their victory in the Israeli courts. "We used the system respectfully, and the system treated us respectfully," said a villager, who refused to give his name. "But the Israelis are angry that we won. All these years they never cared that the crossing wasn't 'official.' Why do they care now? Because they want to show us that they we shouldn't try to assert our rights. That we don't have any rights." Sarah Kreimer, associate director of Ir Amim, an Israeli non-profit group working for 'sustainable resolutions' for Jerusalem, raises other possible explanations. "The actions of the border police over the past month," Kreimer says, "and particularly over the past week, are an attempt to create a reality consistent with the policy that Sheikh Sa'id is part of the West Bank and not part of Jerusalem. That isn't the way the people live, that isn't their human reality, but by cutting them off, the authorities are trying to make it so." She adds further, "The authorities are trying to make the municipal borders function as a political division between Jerusalem and the West Bank. In this regard, Sheikh Sa'id is an anomaly." The Defense Ministry did not respond to this report by press time.