Go west

The Jerusalem envelope has led to some unintended and paradoxical results.

abu dis 298 (photo credit: Associated Press)
abu dis 298
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Spacious apartments! Best location in town, with spaces for shops and car parks! Jerusalem Towers is the project for you!" This is just part of a massive billboard - located in the center of the Shu'afat refugee camp - advertising a brand new luxury apartment complex. The project is called "Abrag Al-Quds" (Jerusalem Towers) and the word around town in east Jerusalem is that this is the in place to live. It will also probably be the most expensive place. "I assume that the apartments will cost at least half a million dollars each," sighs Munir, a resident of nearby Kafr Aqab, who, like almost all of the interviewees for this report, refused to give his full name. "Abrag al-Quds" does indeed sound like a dream, with underground parking, built-in amenities, great directions, playgrounds for kids and on-site shopping centers. And another luxury apartment complex is also currently under construction in Shu'afat as well. But as well-designed and well-appointed as it may be, is the real-estate market in east Jerusalem really able to sustain apartments that go for between $1,600-$2,000 per square meter in the middle of Shu'afat? According to Alaa, a young architect from Shu'afat, the price isn't scaring-off prospective clients. In fact, he says, the real estate market is booming and potential buyers, businessmen, lawyers and other professionals are clamoring to buy an apartment in Abrag al-Quds or in a similar development project, no matter what the cost. A luxury unattached house in the nearby villages of Semiramis and Beit Hanina costs between 30 and 50 percent less. Ramallah is even cheaper. So why is there a shopping frenzy in less-upscale Shu'afat? In addition to the modern architecture and luxury design of these projects, Shu'afat offers another significant advantage: According to blueprints provided by the military and the IDF, Abrag al-Quds and the other complexes in Shu'afat will remain within the borders of municipal Jerusalem even after the Jerusalem envelope and separation barrier are completed. "Since the beginning of the construction of the separation barrier in the Jerusalem area, the prices in those neighborhoods that will stay within [ the separation barrier], such as Shu'afat, Atarot and Bir Nabala have begun climbing up. The prices for apartments are growing rapidly, and the rent is simply ridiculous now," says Mustafa, a young banker from Semiramis. Mustafa had considered buying an apartment in one of the complexes, but now realizes that he can't afford it. "Rent rates in Shu'afat and Beit Hanina are ridiculous," complains Munir. "You have to pay between $600 and $700 for a three-room apartment, and even at that price you can hardly find one, since the demand is enormous. Those who could afford to buy an apartment have already bought one, and others are looking for an apartment to rent, since they want to stay in Jerusalem." According to the current plan, when completed, the separation barrier around Jerusalem will cut off numerous neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, leaving them on the far side, even though the residents of these neighborhoods hold Israeli IDs and pay municipal taxes. Semiramis, E-Ram, Kafr Aqab are among those neighborhoods that will be "left out," along with many others. Today, the residents of these regions live in a state of uncertainty. They suspect that their life will change forever - and not for better. "The wall is almost finished in this part of town and the effect in E-Ram is unbelievable. The wall will go inside the village, dividing it into two, so now my house will be on the 'Israeli' side next to the airport, while my repair shop will stay on the 'Palestinian' side," said Tareq, a taxi-driver from E-Ram, who provided us with an improvised tour of the region. Tareq says that he has already decided to close the shop. "I know I've already lost it. Almost all of my clients are Jewish, or Arabs from east Jerusalem who will stay on the other side of the wall, and I know they will not cross through the check-point especially to go to my shop. Look at the village - even today it looks like a ghost town. Everyone is thinking how he can save his business and source of livelihood," he says. Increasing concern that people will be cut off from their families who live inside Jerusalem, from schools and universities or from places of business once the Jerusalem envelope is completed is driving the rates for apartments higher and higher. If they are on the "wrong" side of the wall, "will we need to go through a checkpoint each time we go to work or school?" Mustafa wonders. "We read in the newspapers that there will be no difficulty crossing over to the Israeli side via Kalandia check-point, but frankly we doubt that that will be true." To Mustafa it seems that "the Israeli government has decided to get rid of as many Arabs in Jerusalem as possible. They [the Israeli authorities] say that we will be able to move freely, but at the same time they are building a separate Social Security office, Interior Ministry and a post office at the check point. The military authorities say that it's being done for our convenience, but we are just not sure." He adds, "We are not after Israeli IDs but our connection to Jerusalem is unbreakable." Architect Alaa from Shu'afat points to yet another effect of the separation barrier on life in east Jerusalem. "People who can't afford to pay $700 to rent an apartment in Shu'afat or to buy a fancy apartment in one of the projects have begun to look for places to live in the 'Jewish' neighborhoods. Some go to Pisgat Zeev, some to Neveh Ya'akov, some to Kiryat Yovel, others to Armon Hanatziv and other neighborhoods in the south of Jerusalem. "Nowadays you can often find ads for apartments and houses in Pisgat Zeev in Palestinian newspapers, for example in Al-Quds. It will cost you much less than in east Jerusalem," says Munir. "So in fact, one side-effect of the wall is quite paradoxical - instead of segregation between different parts of the town, it brings integration through lack of choice" says Mustafa. He anticipates that Arabs who will go and settle in west Jerusalem will experience some problems "due to the cultural differences and prejudices." Jerusalemites in the west, both Arabs and Jews, are more likely to be concerned about security. After all, the Jerusalem envelope was intended to limit access of potential terrorists into the western parts of the city, yet these potential terrorists could easily blend in with the general Palestinian public. Responding to questions regarding the functioning of the checkpoints and security issues, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmulik Ben-Rubi told In Jerusalem, "When the new terminal at Kalandia checkpoint will be completed, the holders of Israeli ID cards will be able to cross freely into Jerusalem after they pass through the security check. We hope that the security check-up will be done in minimal time with maximum security standards." Ben-Ruby said that the construction of the new terminal will be completed by the end of 2006. However, he was not able to say how long the security check would take or whether the waiting time at the checkpoint will be longer than it is currently. Rami, an elderly shopkeeper, is both resigned and determined. "It's a bit late to struggle against the wall. We need to think of our lives and of how we will remain connected to our city and our families within," he says. "Only time will tell what will happen in our neighborhoods after the wall is complete," he says, but he has no plans to move away. He's seen the British, the Jordanians and now both the Israelis and the Palestinians. "Everything will go, even the wall, and only Jerusalem will stay at the end."