Change cast in concrete

Times Staff Writer

Jerusalem — ISSA Natsheh watched warily from his West Bank suburb when Israel began building a concrete barrier along the fringes of Jerusalem four years ago.

As the partition slowly took shape, Natsheh grew increasingly worried that he would be cut off for good from the city of his birth. Powerless to stop the construction, Natsheh did what he could: He moved back into Jerusalem.

Two years after the move, Natsheh lives with a wife, three small daughters and a newborn son in a concrete-block shack on a trash-strewn hillside north of downtown. He built the structure without Israeli permission and has covered the front with a black tarp to disguise it so authorities won’t tear it down.

Thousands of Palestinians like Natsheh, lured to the West Bank over the years by family ties, cheap property and fewer building regulations, are scrambling back into Jerusalem.

The unforeseen wave of migration has increased the Arab presence, bolstering a broader trend that has seen the Palestinian population grow to more than a third of Jerusalem’s total. It is one sign of how the barrier is reshaping the holy city and further complicating any effort to settle competing claims to it.

Israel insists that the barrier is aimed at keeping out suicide bombers and that the strategy is working. Officials say it can be dismantled if there is peace.

“The fence is not political. It’s not a border. It’s only a security fence,” said Nezah Mashiah, an official at Israel’s Defense Ministry who oversees the project. A system of crossing points should ensure that people with a right to enter Jerusalem are not impeded, Mashiah said.

But Palestinians are skeptical.

For many, moving back into the city is an act of nationalism, aimed at countering what they view as an Israeli effort to reduce their numbers and undermine their aspirations to make East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state. For most others, even if they want nothing else to do with Israeli authorities, the purpose is access to jobs, healthcare, social security and other benefits Israel provides to Jerusalem residents.

By disrupting traditional commercial links to the West Bank, the barrier is transforming the region’s economy while encouraging even more Palestinians to think about relocating.

The serpentine 90-mile section that roughly tracks Jerusalem’s boundaries on three sides is part of a series of fences, concrete walls and patrol roads being built along the length of Israel’s border with the West Bank, and sometimes deep into the Palestinian territory. The Jerusalem section, about two-thirds complete, is expected to be finished by early next year, Israeli officials say.

Palestinian officials have encouraged Jerusalem residents over the years to stay in the city to maintain their claim. But they have been largely silent, both publicly and privately, about the current migration, carefully avoiding any statements that would imply recognition of the barrier as a de facto border.

There are no reliable figures on how many Palestinians have moved back, but the number appears to be easily in the thousands. Israeli officials acknowledge that some movement has occurred. Because these Palestinians have a right to live in Jerusalem, the officials say, they have not tried to stop the migration, even though the influx could end up strengthening the Palestinian stake in the city.

In a report last year, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies called the barrier “the most significant change that has taken place in the city since its reunification” after the 1967 Middle East War.

Family’s trade-off

NATSHEH’S family planted roots in the West Bank suburb of Al Ram 34 years ago.

For much of the time since then, Jerusalem Palestinians have been relatively free to move between the city and the West Bank, regardless of the municipal borders drawn by Israel. Like Natsheh, 25,000 to 60,000 of the 240,000 Palestinians legally entitled to live in Jerusalem eventually took up residence in the West Bank, according to Israeli and Palestinian researchers.

In Al Ram, Natsheh had a 2,100-square-foot house, big enough for his two wives and all eight of his children.

He was tied closely to the Palestinian cause, and acknowledges that he once served as little more than an armed thug for Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. He was twice imprisoned by the Israelis, once for 10 years after being caught in 1976 with an improvised car bomb and again in 1990, serving four years for arms dealing.

By moving back to Jerusalem, he is in effect opting for a future more closely tied to Israel than to the problem-ridden Palestinian territories. The reason, he said, is quality of life.

“I don’t feel good about it,” said Natsheh, 53. Somber and reflective, he puffed cut-rate cigarettes in a tattered chair on the stoop of his new home and appeared to still be trying to make peace with his decision.

“I am looking forward for my children, for their future. I don’t want them to have a hard life,” he said. “They will stay Arabs, but not in the Palestinian Authority. I have fought. I have seen what could happen to them. I don’t want them to live the same life I went through.”

Life in the West Bank these days means coping with a system on the verge of breakdown. Years of official corruption have severely eroded confidence in the Palestinian Authority, which is mired in political and financial crises and struggles to deliver basic services. Moreover, the power struggle between once-dominant Fatah and the militant group Hamas has sparked factional violence, though far less serious than what is occurring in the Gaza Strip.

Natsheh, like many other Palestinians, has lost hope that either faction can rescue his society. To him, the goal of an independent state seems more remote than ever.

“There is no such vision right now,” Natsheh said.

There are other risks to staying in the West Bank. If Palestinians entitled to live in Jerusalem are found to be living in the West Bank, Israel can strip them of their residency right. Even if that doesn’t happen, Palestinians worry that the barrier will end up being a de facto border, leaving them without access to rights and benefits from the Israeli government.

Natsheh is not an Israeli citizen. But the blue identification card he carries denotes a status distinct from that of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The card allows him to pass through checkpoints with relative ease and to travel throughout Israel, making it easier to find work.

Natsheh, who was jobless even before moving, said losing his Jerusalem residency status would hurt his chances of working in Israel, although years in prison left him without skills or decent prospects.

“I would have to go underground and be in a worse situation,” he said.

Residents also are entitled to the subsidized healthcare and social security benefits Israel provides its citizens. Palestinians in Jerusalem can send their children to Israeli-run schools, although not every neighborhood has one. Many opt for schools run by churches or by the Waqf, an Islamic trust.

One of Natsheh’s children, a 6-year-old stepdaughter, attends a semiprivate Muslim school not far from the family’s home in Jerusalem. The other girls with him in Jerusalem, ages 1 1/2 and 3, have not started school.

Jerusalem residents can make use of Israeli doctors and highly regarded hospitals such as Hadassah University Medical Center.

Even Palestinians who complain that services in East Jerusalem lag behind those on the Jewish side acknowledge that they usually are superior to those in the West Bank.

Hospitals in the Palestinian territory often lack equipment, such as CT scanners, or make do with donated lower-quality gear. Although there are proficient Palestinian doctors, hospital care and follow-up treatments generally are poor.

When Natsheh’s mother, who also moved back into Jerusalem, needed open-heart surgery last year, the family decided to take her to Shaare Zedek Medical Center, a Jewish hospital in West Jerusalem. As a Jerusalem resident, her government insurance helped cover the treatment.

If the family had relied on a West Bank hospital, Natsheh said, he fears she would have died.

So Natsheh eventually will enlarge his shack and bring the rest of his family here, he said. His four brothers in the West Bank also plan to move to Jerusalem.

Even if Israel demolished his concrete-block house, Natsheh said, he wouldn’t move back to Al Ram now.

“If there was no wall, I would have continued to live there,” he said. “The wall made me decide whether to live on the other side as a beggar with no dignity or on this side as a beggar with dignity.”

Living in a shed

LIKE Natsheh, Khaled Dajani acknowledges that his new home isn’t much to look at.

The Palestinian truck driver, who works for an Israeli furniture company, lived in the Shuafat refugee camp north of downtown until the early stages of the barrier construction.

When it became clear that the camp would be one of two Jerusalem neighborhoods cut off by the barrier, he relocated, moving his wife and seven children to the Old City.

Such migration has aggravated shortages of housing and classrooms in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Rents have shot up, prompting some families to move into predominantly Jewish neighborhoods.

Dajani, 41, headed to the cramped Muslim quarter. But with living space so scarce, he ended up crafting an apartment out of a shed that had been used to store pushcarts. He pays $200 a month, a fifth of his monthly salary.

The home is dank and cave-like. The constant dampness has loosened patches of the white paint Dajani applied to the walls and has left the children with an unending string of respiratory ailments.

“It looks like a prison,” he said, pointing to a foot-square grate that is the living room’s only source of sunlight.

Dajani said his decision to move was motivated mainly by a desire to maintain a Palestinian presence on the Jerusalem side of the barrier. He fears the fence will sever the connection between the West Bank and the city.

“I want to show that they are wrong, that they don’t own Jerusalem,” Dajani said, gesturing with thick, work-scuffed hands. “There are still Palestinians in Jerusalem.

“Without Jerusalem we are like dead people,” he said.

A framed photograph of Arafat stared from the dingy wall as Dajani described his motivations in language that would have delighted the late Palestinian leader.

“We want East Jerusalem. We want Al Aqsa mosque,” he said. “This is the capital of Palestine.” He said the barrier was an effort by Israel to slice the refugee camp and its residents off from the city.

Israeli officials insist that Dajani and other Palestinians are drawing the wrong conclusions. Mashiah, the Defense Ministry official, said police had argued that leaving the Shuafat camp and a separate neighborhood, Kafr Aqab, and their 53,000 residents on the other side of the barrier would improve security for Jerusalem.

Israeli authorities have set up a special agency to maintain government services to those two areas once the barrier is finished.

Dajani uses the services Israel provides. When his children are sick, he and his wife take them to one of the hospitals in West Jerusalem or to an Israeli clinic.

And even though he has moved to the Jerusalem side of the barrier, like many others, he is carefully keeping a foot in each world.

Some Palestinians have moved to apartments in Jerusalem while maintaining homes in the West Bank suburbs.

In some cases, parents and siblings stay behind in the family homes. Other people split time between rented apartments in the city and longtime homes in the suburbs.

Dajani decided to keep his home in the refugee camp. One brother stayed behind while Dajani and three others took up residence around East Jerusalem. The separation is jarring, he said, but part of the price of maintaining a claim on the city.

“We want to keep what is ours,” he said.

A ghostly quiet

ABDELMUNNEM abu Farha hasn’t given up just yet.

He has moved his wife, a cancer patient, to a small apartment in the Old City to make it easier for her to get medical tests at the Hadassah hospital. But he hasn’t quit his aluminum products business in the West Bank town of Bir Nabala, on Jerusalem’s northern fringe.

The town sits so close to Jerusalem that you can hear the Muslim call to prayer issuing from a mosque in the city’s Beit Hanina district. Otherwise, the arrival of the barrier last year has brought a ghostly quiet.

A 26-foot-high concrete wall, still under construction here, already has blocked off the main road, which once was choked with customers from East Jerusalem.

Abu Farha, 61, said his shop had lost many customers and that unless Israel unexpectedly changed its plans and made an opening in the barrier for traffic from Jerusalem, there was little chance his business would survive. But he plans to stay until there is no choice but to leave.

Abu Farha’s situation reflects the subtle but important ways in which the barrier has begun to alter the dynamics of the region.

By blocking routes that once knitted Palestinian suburbs into the life of Jerusalem, it already has heavily dampened commerce in outlying West Bank towns, officials say.

The main street of Bir Nabala is a forlorn strip of shuttered businesses: tire shop, gas station, TV repair shop and car electronics store.

Khalil Najadeh, 42, said he sold his Mercedes-Benz taxi for scrap metal because there were almost no fares and nowhere to take them. He spoke near the blocked former entrance to town, where a faded welcome sign urging visitors to “Have a safe trip” seemed like a relic.

Nearly half the town’s 10,000 residents have left, said the mayor, Tawfik Nabali. “There’s nothing left. There’s no life left in Bir Nabala.”

In Natsheh’s former town, Al Ram, officials say the exodus to Jerusalem has left many houses and several schools vacant.

Once-brimming warehouses stand half empty, and just a few stalls are operating at the main vegetable market.

Abu Farha, who was born in Jerusalem, opened his shop on a one-acre parcel in 1973, when Bir Nabala was wide-open and easily reached from the city. He raised his family in a three-story house there, but traveled to Jerusalem frequently to worship and to help tend two family-owned stores.

The stone-sided house sits about half a mile from the new barrier.

“They’re trying to cut this tie that grew over time,” Abu Farha said.

The economic woes of these small towns are also driving Palestinians without Jerusalem residency to West Bank cities such as Ramallah and Nablus, reversing the trend of the 1970s when Abu Farha, Natsheh and many others moved to the Jerusalem suburbs.

Israeli and Palestinian analysts express concern that the barrier could dampen Jerusalem’s economic vitality and regional prominence.

“Jerusalem will turn into a peripheral city, a city with no hinterland, with no suburbs,” said Rami Nasrallah, who heads the International Peace and Cooperation Center, a research group in East Jerusalem that has studied the effects of the barrier.

Abu Farha, meanwhile, finds bitter irony in the rush of Palestinians into Jerusalem.

The Israelis “want to empty Jerusalem,” he said. “But what they’re doing has turned back against them.”


Special correspondent Maher Abukhater contributed to this report.