Shuafat: The refugee camp in the heart of Jerusalem

A concrete jungle of massive buildings surrounds dirt roads with no sidewalks, and the smell of burned garbage hovers over the narrow streets.

A general view picture shows the Israeli barrier running along the East Jerusalem refugee camp of Shuafat (photo credit: REUTERS)
A general view picture shows the Israeli barrier running along the East Jerusalem refugee camp of Shuafat
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Only a minute's drive from Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill sits a massive checkpoint separating the city from the Shuafat refugee camp.
Young children coming back from school inside the city walk through a long, narrow corridor that leads to a revolving metal door that takes them inside the camp. At the entrance stands a tall, gray watchtower, covered with color stains and black soot from Molotov cocktails and “color bottles” hurled at it by protesters over the years.
Inside, a concrete jungle of massive buildings surrounds dirt roads with no sidewalks, and the smell of burned garbage hovers over the narrow streets.
Posters praising shaheeds (martyrs) and prisoners are scattered alongside graffiti in the small alleyways of the neighborhood.
It’s hard to believe, while standing in this place, that one has not left the Israeli capital.
CHILDREN HEAD through revolving metal gates this month, to enter a walled-off section of Jerusalem that incorporates the Shuafat refugee camp. (Udi Shaham)CHILDREN HEAD through revolving metal gates this month, to enter a walled-off section of Jerusalem that incorporates the Shuafat refugee camp. (Udi Shaham)
Shuafat refugee camp was built by the Jordanians in 1966 for refugees from villages from the Jerusalem area, such as Nataf, Deir Yasin, Lifta and El-Bureij, who had earlier settled in a refugee camp in the abandoned Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.
After the Six Day War, the camp was annexed to Israel and was included in the newly drawn municipal borders of Jerusalem.
During the early 2000s, as part of an effort to separate Israel from the West Bank by a security barrier, the government decided to construct the segment of the wall around Jerusalem and to cut off the camp from the rest of the city. However, the camp and the adjacent neighborhoods – Ras Khamis, Ras Shehadeh and Dahiyat as-Salam – are considered part of Jerusalem.
Clashes in Shuafat
The tall gray walls that surround the neighborhoods from three directions leave them wide open to the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority in the east, and Palestinians enter them freely.
It is hard to estimate how many people are living in the area of the refugee camp. While the Jerusalem Municipality holds that some 30,000 residents live there, the local estimate supported by different NGOs is that there are around 80,000 inhabitants, including nonresidents who came to settle there.
Since the wall was built, the area has suffered from a lack of essential services from Israeli authorities, whose workers most of the time refrain from crossing the checkpoint – for security reasons, they say.
In 2005, the cabinet issued a decision directing various authorities such as the municipality, the Interior Ministry, and others to make all the necessary moves in order to provide proper services to the neighborhoods left behind the wall.
However, local residents complain about constant water and electricity shortages, the lack of a proper sewage system and garbage removal, and say that municipal officials are seen in the area only rarely – and even then, it is only to issue fines for illegal buildings, which the vast majority of the edifices are, due to the lack of a proper master zoning plan for the area.
But above all stands the lack of any police presence in the area, which leads to a high level of crime and a high murder rate, according to residents.
The lack of proper police supervision in the camp and the surrounding area, combined with the fact that these Jerusalem neighborhoods are open to the Palestinian territories, has attracted fugitives from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and residents say that the weapons possession level in the camp is extremely high.
Israeli policemen patrol a street in the East Jerusalem refugee camp of Shuafat (Reuters)Israeli policemen patrol a street in the East Jerusalem refugee camp of Shuafat (Reuters)
Ismail Khatib, 50, a local activist born and raised in the camp, holds that the Israeli authorities – including the police – have a policy of allowing citizens to possess lethal weapons.
“The Israeli government left us intentionally. They thought to themselves, Let them kill each other. I’ll tell you this: In south Lebanon there are fewer weapons than in Shuafat,” Khatib told The Jerusalem Post at a local small coffee shop.
“They are closing their eyes.... They know what’s going on here,” he said. “Whoever has problems with the law knows that police do not come here, so they come to reside here. Who opened the door to all the extremists who come here? Police and the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency],” he added.
Walking with Khatib around the camp, we arrived at a brand-new medical center in Ras Khamis. The medical center’s nurses and doctors show us the emergency room, equipped with brand-new respiratory machines.
“We mostly get patients with respiratory problems. Most of them are kids, suffering from problems that come from the burned garbage,” one of the nurses tells us.
Continuing our tour, we arrive next to the only state-run school in the area. It is an elementary school for boys – meaning that the rest of the thousands of students need to commute in and out of the camp through the checkpoint on a daily basis to schools inside the city.
Standing in front of the school, Khatib points at a dark alleyway.
“This is a known drug-selling point. People call this area Chicago. Everyone knows it, including police. But instead of closing it and arresting the people involved, police prefer chasing young boys who throw stones at the concrete tower next to the checkpoint.”
According to residents, the lack of a police presence and deterrence lead to a situation in which murders occur frequently.
“A year ago, the situation was such that almost every night we had someone murdered here. Even in New York [at its worst], you didn’t have that same murder rate,” Khatib said.
“People used to lock themselves inside their homes at 4-5 p.m. I am scared for my family and for myself,” he said.
Suleiman Maswadeh, a 22-year-old student and journalist who moved to the neighborhood two years ago due to the lack of housing opportunities in east Jerusalem and the extremely low rental prices, echoes the notion that the lack of law enforcement in the Shuafat refugee camp is intentional.
“Recently I watched an episode of The Wire called “Hamsterdam,” in which it shows the life of the African-American community in the projects. You see there that the police unilaterally decided to allow the people to use and trade weapons and drugs freely.
“Then I eventually realized that it is very similar to the life in the Shuafat refugee camp. Drugs and murder can be found everywhere. Not a week passes without multiple murder cases,” he said.
A Palestinian stone-thrower stands in front of garbage set ablaze during clashes with Israeli police on the outskirts of Jerusalem near Shuafat refugee camp November 5, 2014. (Reuters)A Palestinian stone-thrower stands in front of garbage set ablaze during clashes with Israeli police on the outskirts of Jerusalem near Shuafat refugee camp November 5, 2014. (Reuters)
SHUAFAT REFUGEE camp was known during the violence in Jerusalem in 2014-2015 as a place where many perpetrators come from.
Among them was Ibrahim al-Akari, 47, a Hamas operative who drove his car into two groups of Israelis standing at the Shimon Hatzadik light rail stop on November 5, 2014. Akari killed Border Police officer Jidan Assad in the attack, and wounded 13 others.
But it is not only the terrorism threat that worries Israeli authorities. Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin recently announced a plan to cut off the neighborhoods located behind the security barrier in Jerusalem, and to establish a separate municipal entity for these areas.
Besides the Shuafat refugee camp and its surrounding area, there are also the northern areas of Kafr Akab and Samiramis, which are located south of Ramallah and separated from Jerusalem by the Kalandiya checkpoint.
Elkin holds that because these areas are open to the West Bank, Palestinians settle in them, and due to mixed marriages between Arabs with Jerusalem residency and West Bank Palestinians, the rate of Palestinians in Jerusalem is rising. In an interview with the Post last month, Elkin called it a “demographic threat.”
Maswadeh said that the fact that Elkin refers to this issue as a threat is a racist statement by itself, and also insists that this is a part of a larger move to cut off these neighborhoods completely from the city.
“When they erected the wall, they knew that people would come from Ramallah and Nablus. I refuse to accept the idea that they understood it retroactively.
“They want to use this fact as an excuse to cut off these neighborhoods,” he said.
Khatib expresses similar opinions, saying that Israel is gradually pushing Palestinians out of east Jerusalem into these blocs behind the barrier, and then promotes plans to separate them from the city.
“They are chopping off neighborhoods that used to be connected to Jerusalem in the north, in the south, in the east and in the west, placing different checkpoints for each one.... But they will not allow PA police to enter here [and keep things in order],” he said.
The residents of the camp and surrounding area express their concern that establishing a separate municipal entity there will eventually lead to preventing them from entering Jerusalem.
While Elkin’s plan does not call for such a step, residents have two main concerns: being denied access to the Old City’s al-Aksa Mosque (mainly on Fridays and holidays) and being prevented them from working in Israel – a right to which they are entitled as Israeli ID holders, and which the vast majority of them exercise.
THE CAMP has been a scene of clashes between residents and security forces through the years.
Khatib says he opposes violence in any form, but that the residents are feeling suffocated, and, as he sees it, some are being drawn to these extreme measures.
“Some people here feel that everything was taken from them. I completely oppose it, but it seems like the Israeli authorities are pushing the residents here into another intifada [uprising].”
When Maswadeh thinks of the young children who hurl rocks at the watchtower next to the checkpoint or even about those who wander in the streets the entire day, he says: “These six-, seven-year-old kids that have no after-school programs – they play soccer on the roads, between the burning garbage bins.
“This place is completely neglected. The residents had to file a petition to the High Court of Justice only to have the municipality remove their garbage. This is crazy! “Is this the united Jerusalem everyone is talking about?”
In March 2017 police inaugurated a station at the Shuafat checkpoint which was meant to improve the residents’ quality of life.
Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told the Post that the opening of this checkpoint is intended to serve the residents, and that this move comes while police are regularly operating in the area.
“We are operating at all levels, including the criminal level. We are seizing drugs, recovering stolen possessions and confiscating weapons.
“Police is also taking part in improving the infrastructure in the camp. When there are renovations, such as paving roads, we enter with the workers and provide our assistance.
“When it comes to weapons possession, our operations are based on intelligence. When we have an indication, we go inside and operate. We also have a lot of covert activities that residents might not be aware of,” he said.
Talking about the new station, Rosenfeld said that the police intended to make the life of the residents of the camp easier.
“If, in the past, in order to file a complaint, a resident had to go to a station far away from there, now he can do it there – in Arabic.
“We wanted to make the communication easier between the police and the residents. Now they know that they have an address which they can go to,” he said.
The municipality said in response to this article that the security-related reality created in the Shuafat refugee camp and its surrounding neighborhoods since the construction of the security barrier makes it hard for civil bodies – including the municipality itself – to operate there.
“This is mainly due to the need to be accompanied by security forces. However, in recent years there has been growing cooperation between the local community administration and the municipality, which is working to improve the quality of life of the residents.
“The municipality has invested tens of millions of shekels to improve the quality of life of the residents of the neighborhoods. It has paved new roads, built new youth community centers which operate afternoon activities and have approved a new and improved tender for garbage removal.”
The municipality also said that UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) is the body in charge of education inside the camp. For children and youth in the surrounding neighborhoods (who do not receive assistance from UNRWA), the municipality operates school buses in and out of the area, at a cost of millions of shekels annually.