Breaking the barriers

Jews and Palestinians met to mark the first time that an Israeli court has ruled against the separation barrier's route around Jerusalem.

east jerusalem 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
east jerusalem 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After more than two years, the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Sa'ed is finally able to exhale. Earlier this month, the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court granted the appeal of the Sheikh Sa'ed Neighborhood Committee and five residents of the village, filed in opposition to the security barrier. The court canceled the requisition orders that had been issued to build the barrier and the court's appeals committee ruled that the planned route of the security barrier would cause disproportionate harm to the daily lives of the residents, in part because it would separate Sheik Sa'ed from other neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. According to a press release issued by B'tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, this is the first time that a court has voided a section of the separation barrier around Jerusalem. In reaching its decision, the Appeals Committee, headed by Judge David Gladstein, rejected the state's argument that the village's residents constituted a security threat. The Appeals Committee recommended that the barrier be built east of the neighborhood, in a manner that would enable the residents to continue to gain access to east Jerusalem. Jebl Mukaber is one of the numerous east Jerusalem villages annexed by Israel immediately after the Six Day War. "This [annexation] was done very hastily, under pressure that the world was going to force us to give back the West Bank," attests Hillel Bardin, a retired computer programmer from Hebrew University. Perhaps due to this haste, the Israeli authorities didn't notice, or didn't care, that the new border arbitrarily included six neighborhoods of Jebl Mukaber within Jerusalem and left one neighborhood, Sheikh Sa'ed, on the "other" side of the Green Line, in the West Bank. Yet until recently, the Green Line had little effect on the lives of the residents of Sheikh Sa'ed. Most residents of the other neighborhoods of Jebl Mukaber hold blue ID cards, which grant them Jerusalem residency status, and the residents of Sheikh Sa'ed hold the orange ID cards issued to the West Bank, but they also had Israeli permits to go into the city and a long-guaranteed right to Jerusalem services and utilities. Jebl Mukaber functioned as one organic entity, which was just as well since Sheikh Sa'ed sits directly west of the topographic chasm, the Kidron Valley, with nothing but steep slopes on its far side. But after the first intifada, the Oslo Accords, and the waves of terror in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, travel between Israel and the West Bank became difficult and often impossible for Palestinians. As the security barrier was built, life in the tiny village of Sheikh Sa'ed became increasingly untenable. Due to the combination of security, political and topographical circumstances, Sheikh Sa'ed was to be cut off from both Jerusalem to the west and the West Bank to the east. The original route of the security fence would have divided families who, over the years, have spread out into the different neighborhoods of Jebl Mukaber. It would have further prevented children residing in Sheikh Sa'ed from attending schools elsewhere in Jebl Mukaber and kept teachers who live in Jerusalem from accessing the schools in Sheikh Sa'ed where they teach. Access to medical services and hospitals in Jerusalem for residents of Sheikh Sa'ed would have been severely hindered. Moreover, according to Bardin, the main source of income for those living in Sheikh Sa'ed has been in construction - which takes place in Jerusalem. And even the graveyard in which many of Sheikh Sa'ed's deceased are buried would have been off-limits. Once a large community of over 3,500 residents, the population of Sheikh Sa'ed has dwindled to just 700, while the value of the homes in the community has deteriorated to virtually nothing. Ghiath Nasser, advocate in court for the Sheikh Sa'ed Neighborhood Committee was pleased. "This is a victory for humanitarian thinking," he said. The residents were aided in their struggle by Israeli Jewish activists, including Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, and volunteers like Bardin, from neighborhoods close to Jebl Mukaber, such as Talpiyot, East Talpiyot, Baka, Arnona and the German Colony. Bardin acknowledges that "there was a lot of dissension within the Jewish neighborhoods over the decision to help the residents of Sheikh Sa'ed," especially due to incidents in which rocks were thrown and shots were fired from Jebl Mukaber towards East Talpiyot. But he also says that there was a surprisingly positive response, and a group of residents, mostly religious and Anglo, organized the Neighbors for Neighbors community organization. To encourage Jewish support for their plight, over the years, the residents of Sheikh Sa'ed have invited the volunteers to come to see the situation for themselves. After touring the neighborhood, one Talpiyot resident, who refused to reveal her name and described herself as "politically to the right," said that "what happened in Jebl Mukaber is a real humanitarian issue." Although she said that she views the security fence in general as the "beginning of a two-state solution," she also remarked that there was no security issue whatsoever with this particular village. Sheikh Sa'ed residents were welcomed into the homes of the Israelis as well. After the Tel Aviv Magistrate Court's ruling, the residents of Sheikh Sa'ed invited their Jewish neighbors and supporters to celebrate with them. The Jewish residents gathered first on the Haas Promenade, where they were met by the Palestinians, who guided them to their homes in Sheikh Sa'ed. "There were old people, there were young people… we were received with warmth. They welcomed us into their homes; they brought their children to play with our children," said organizer Bardin. Over one hundred Jews showed up to the celebration. Baklava and Kosher-for-Passover macaroons were among the foods served, representing the bringing together of the two communities. Responding to questions regarding concern for his own safety in an Arab village, Bardin answered, "Many Israelis are not aware of the fact… that to go into an Arab village [is not like] committing suicide. In the case of this particular village, most of the residents speak Hebrew, they work with Jews all the time." Added co-organizer Veronika Cohen, Dean of Music Education in the Lubin Academy of Music, "You feel nothing but warmth, and it's a wonderful feeling. It's an experience that maybe every Israeli has to have. If you come respectfully, with an open mind, you are treated as an honored guest." Among the residents of Jebl Mukabber were muchtars, chosen leaders of families, and dignitaries from the village. Nasser, one of the organizers on the Arab side said, "I was very pleased that all of the [Jewish] people came for the party… for two and a half years, they have helped us, been with us." Cohen, an observant East Talpiyot resident, echoed these same sentiments. "We were hoping that [the court decision] would go this way but we didn't think we had a chance. It gives us hope that we should continue fighting because once in a while it can happen." While Nasser views the government's plan for the fence to cut through Jebl Mukaber as undemocratic, he did say, "I do not feel that there is a problem if the fence is around Jebl Mukaber." Above all, Bardin noted, the residents wanted to remain together with their families and in contact with their sources of livelihood. In the meanwhile, Neighbors for Neighbors promised to continue their activities together, including joint music lessons for children, dialogue groups, and petitions and court actions when they feel it necessary.