‘Holding the world in the middle’

Jerusalem neighborhoods on other side of security barrier struggle with the best, and the worst, of both worlds.

E. Jerusalem security barrier at Kalandiya 311 (photo credit: Marc Sellem Israel/The Jerusalem Post)
E. Jerusalem security barrier at Kalandiya 311
(photo credit: Marc Sellem Israel/The Jerusalem Post)
On Wednesday afternoon, thousands of flag-waving revelers will descend on the capital in honor of Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the 1967 unification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War. Cries of “United Jerusalem!” will echo across the city – from Sheikh Jarrah to the Old City, from Kikar Zion to Kikar Safra and the Municipality.
Almost every chance that Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has to address the media, he stresses the unification of Jerusalem and the impossibility of splitting the city. “There is no good example of a split city that works,” he has said over and over.
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But as with many things in Jerusalem, the reality on the ground is much more complicated than the ideals expressed in the mayor’s enthusiastic statements.
The security barrier, the current de facto border between Jerusalem and the West Bank, does not follow the municipal boundaries of the city. In some places it keeps Arab residents of Jerusalem on the outside, and Palestinians who are not city residents on the inside.
Sixty thousand Arabs, most of whom have Jerusalem residency, live in four neighborhoods that are part of municipal Jerusalem, but which are located on the West Bank-side of the security barrier in an area roughly the size of the Old City.
“In reality, these neighborhoods are closer to Ramallah than to Jerusalem,” said Yakir Segev, a city councillor from Barkat’s Jerusalem Shall Succeed party who holds the east Jerusalem portfolio. “I’m not in favor of a Palestinian state or giving up any parts of Jerusalem, but there are areas that are easier to compromise on, and there are areas that are less easy to compromise on. If there’s a neighborhood that’s on the other side of the fence, I’m guessing that if it happens – there are a lot of ifs here and I’d rather it didn’t happen – whoever signs the agreement, it may be easier to chop off this neighborhood for the other side.”
But residents of the four major neighborhoods outside the barrier – Kafr Aqab, Semiramis, Zughayer and Atarot – consider themselves Jerusalemites. The majority hold blue ID cards, work in Jerusalem, have Israeli health insurance and send their children to schools in Jerusalem. They also pay arnona (property tax) to the municipality rather than to the Palestinian Authority.
“It’s not united! You see this border? They already cut Jerusalem!” said Munir Zughayer, head of the local council for the four-neighborhood area, which is referred to loosely as Kafr Aqab.
“When it comes to taxes, you have an ID card, so they say come and pay; but when it comes to your rights, you don’t know if you’ll get them,” said Zughayer, who is from one of the large families after which the neighborhood is named.
Entrance to the neighborhoods is through the Kalandiya checkpoint, or a more roundabout route through Hizme. Because the neighborhoods are not separated by a fence or border from Area A and Ramallah, which are controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the area has become Jerusalem’s equivalent of the Wild West.
The municipality won’t enter the area without a police escort, and the police won’t enter the area without a military escort. Getting the three bureaucracies to coordinate their moves is a Herculean task, so the area is left mostly to its own devices.
Services usually provided by the city of Jerusalem are a haphazard patchwork of private contractors chosen through public tenders. The city legally cannot give contracts to Palestinian companies, so often, as in the case of trash collection, an Israeli company wins the bid and in turn finds a Palestinian company to take care of the work because Israeli workers will not enter the neighborhood.
The byproduct of having a middleman is that less and less money goes directly to the area’s needs.
Most of the area’s streets are unpaved dirt roads that turn muddy in the winter. Potholes in older streets go unfilled.
In September, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad earmarked NIS 1.2 million to pave roads in part of Kafr Aqab, enraging the municipality, which accused the PA of flaunting sovereignty over the area. Residents said the PA paving did not continue. The municipality said a private contractor reports monthly about maintenance work needed on neighborhood roads.
Kafr Aqab’s water and electricity are taken care of by Palestinian companies. Bezeq’s contractor in the area has a limited number of Internet and telephone lines, but newcomers must use Palestinian companies.
Magen David Adom can’t enter the area, so residents call Red Crescent ambulances to transport them to the Kalandiya checkpoint, where they are transferred to MDA ambulances – a process that can take up to an hour if not coordinated correctly.
No police presence means traffic is a free-for-all, with non-functioning traffic lights that sometimes have cars barreling the wrong way down the highway. In the absence of enforced laws, apartment buildings spring up chaotically, slapped together with cement and bricks – and no building codes. Cracked foundations are painted over quickly.
Curiously, the neighborhood’s enthusiastic builders have unanimously and voluntarily held to the zoning law that requires all exteriors be faced with Jerusalem stone.
“Inside the wall in Sur Baher, you can build one extra step [without a permit] and the municipality will demolish it, but here you can build huge 10-story apartment buildings and no one cares,” said Rada G., a two-year resident of Kafr Aqab who moved there with her three children from Shuafat.
“People take meters of the street and just claim it as theirs, so the street is barely wide enough for two cars,” she added. A municipal spokesman said the anarchy and rapid construction made it impossible for the city to keep up with requests for sidewalks, road paving or improvements – or even to know the names of the streets and update maps.
The Jerusalem police are responsible for the Kafr Aqab area, but not for the nearby Kalandiya Refugee Camp, which falls under the Judea and Samaria district. If the police need to enter the neighborhood, “we are almost always accompanied by the army, because there have been instances of lynches, ambushes and rock-throwing in the past,” said Jerusalem Police Spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby.
Ben-Ruby declined to say how long it took to coordinate an army escort for the police in instances where they had to enter the area. “If necessary, the police can enter by themselves,” he said.
Residents cite the burdens of the checkpoints and trash collection as the most pressing issues. According to Zughayer, the city’s contract for trash is to remove around 200 tons a month, while the neighborhood actually produces 600 tons. Because collection is performed by private companies rather than the city, residents’ complaints go unanswered, and sometimes trash goes uncollected for 10 days at a time, causing serious health concerns.
But the security barrier is the biggest frustration, providing a physical reminder of the separation between their neighborhood and what activist organizations refer to as the “center of life” – the city where they work, learn, shop and receive health services.
“The children started recognizing the occupation more when we moved here,” said Rada.
Because Jerusalem residents have blue-ID cards, they can use the Hizme checkpoint – similar to Jewish residents coming from West Bank settlements – rather than the crowded and chaotic Kalandiya checkpoint, where fenderbenders are common.
Surprisingly, the construction of the security fence has actually caused the population to grow.
In the past six years, since the construction of the barrier was completed in the area, the population has risen from 17,000 to 60,000. Part of the reason is the affordability: Prices are drastically lower than east Jerusalem neighborhoods inside the wall.
Indeed, a spacious four-bedroom apartment in Kafr Aqab, with multiple balconies, huge kitchens and marble floors can cost as little as NIS 100,000, compared with NIS 250,000 for a 1.5- room apartment in Shuafat, said Rada, who grew up in the Old City and said she still feels “most natural” inside the Old City walls.
“I don’t feel like we abandoned Jerusalem,” she explained. “This is still Jerusalem.”
Rada said she moved to the area because she wanted to raise her children in a larger apartment. “You’re still satisfying criteria for [Jerusalem] residency, but you’re in no-man’s land,” she said.
To be sure, many of the houses are so lavishly decorated – with arched windows and curving balconies – that stepping outside into the trash-filled street, with sewage running in an open ditch, can be a shock, like stepping across the threshold from First World to Third World.
But Segev said that most of the new residents in the Kafr Aqab neighborhood are not Jerusalemites fleeing high prices, but Palestinians who want to take advantage of Jerusalem services.
“In Kfar Aqab there are twice as many residents than there are supposed to be, so of course there’s a lot more trash and a lot more sewage than there’s supposed to be,” he said.
There are no borders between Kafr Aqab and the Palestinian territories, so the municipality has no way to stop Palestinians from moving into the neighborhood and, because its inspectors never enter the area, no ability to check.
The area has also proved an unlikely solution for “mixed” families, where the husband or wife has Jerusalem residency, but the spouse does not. After family-unification applications trickled almost to a stop following the Second Intifada, families in this situation found that living in Kafr Aqab allowed one spouse to maintain residency while the other could continue working in the Palestinian territories.
While Kafr Aqab’s daily problems increase, residents say they want to know where they stand, because living in limbo between Israel and the Palestinian territories is not a situation that can be maintained.
“If it stays like this, it’s a big problem,” said Zughayer. “Either we’re Jerusalem residents or we are part of a Palestinian state. We have to know. We live under two laws, Palestinian and Israeli.”
For example, he explained, school curriculums for the four municipality schools have to come from Israel, but cannot have references that the Palestinian Authority finds offensive. Though PA security forces are forbidden from entering Jerusalem without cooperation from the Israeli military, this is impossible for Israel to enforce, and the Palestinian police do enter and make arrests.
Hazar, a Kafr Aqab resident who works in the community center, which is funded by the municipality, said that moving from inside Jerusalem to Kafr Aqab required a big identity shift in addition to a physical relocation.
“People try to change their world; they try to find a school or a market in Ramallah [rather than Jerusalem] because the checkpoint makes life very difficult,” she said.
Living in Kafr Aqab, she said, was like the traditional Arabic expression, “holding the world in the middle,” or getting the best of both worlds.
“We’re very close to Ramallah, and we can get services from Jerusalem – we can keep our services and our rights,” she said.
Hazar, like almost all Kafr Aqab residents, was adamant about the area staying part of Jerusalem – not just for maintaining the political residency requirement, but for maintaining her identity as a Jerusalemite.
“But we don’t feel united because there’s a gap between inside the wall and behind the wall,” she said. “How can we talk about a united city if we don’t get the same type of services?” “It’s not that we can’t give them services, it’s that it’s really difficult,” said Segev. “They are our residents. We have to give them the services that we give to all the residents. I know they receive less.... But the municipality can barely get to these neighborhoods because of the fence and security.”