Neighborhood pays price of being on wrong side of Israel’s wall
With a fire extinguisher in his hand and a cellphone pressed to his ear, principal Sameeh abu Rameelh battled an electrical fire in his Jerusalem high school’s computer lab while pleading with the fire department to come to his aid.
But when the emergency dispatcher heard that the school was in Kafr Aqab, separated from the rest of Jerusalem by a 36-foot-high concrete wall, he told Abu Rameelh that firetrucks wouldn’t cross Israel’s separation barrier without army protection.
The principal turned to the West Bank city of Ramallah, hoping Palestinian Authority fire crews would help. Sorry, they responded, but they were not permitted to enter Jerusalem.
Eventually, Abu Rameelh said, he and some volunteers put out the blaze. No one was hurt, but the lab, with 40 computers and desks, was gutted.
“We’re forgotten here,” he said.
With Israel’s construction during the last eight years of a barrier to separate it from militants in the West Bank, more than 50,000 Jerusalem residents — almost all Arabs — have found themselves on the wrong side of an increasingly impenetrable line.
They are cut off from most public services, even though they live within Jerusalem’s city limits, hold residency cards and pay city taxes like everyone else.
Kafr Aqab, in the northern corner of East Jerusalem, is one of the largest, most isolated neighborhoods, with an estimated 20,000 residents. Once seen as an upscale Palestinian area, Kafr Aqab today is one of the worst slums in Jerusalem.
There are no police officers, nor is there mail service. The only hospital is a maternity clinic. Trash is piled up along narrow roads with deep potholes. There’s only one traffic light at the busy main intersection, but it broke years ago, residents say, and was never repaired.
Unauthorized midrise construction is exploding because city inspectors almost never visit. Falling bricks from one building project recently forced a neighboring elementary school to seal off part of its playground so students wouldn’t be hit by debris.
Many families with enough money to move have relocated to other parts of East Jerusalem not cut off by the wall. They’ve left behind a neighborhood increasingly beset by poverty and crime.
In the security vacuum, residents try to maintain order themselves, relying on local elders and powerful families to resolve disputes. About two years ago, an armed gang assaulted a school official here and briefly held hundreds of students in a dispute involving an angry parent. Jerusalem police refused to come, and the standoff ended only when other parents rushed to the school and chased off the gang.
Israeli officials defend the wall as essential in stopping Palestinian suicide bombers who once terrorized their citizens. Such attacks have mostly stopped since the barrier was constructed.
At the time it was being built, military officials justified cutting off some Jerusalem neighborhoods, saying they feared the areas were hotbeds of militancy or could be used to gain access to Jerusalem from the West Bank.
Israel promised to make special arrangements for those neighborhoods to ensure city services were not disrupted. That never happened.
Though Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has touted his efforts to improve life in other parts of East Jerusalem, he and other city officials have acknowledged that they are no longer able to provide adequate services to neighborhoods over the wall. In December, Barkat proposed turning over administration of the areas to the army and redrawing the city’s borders to permanently exclude them.
“We must relinquish areas of the municipality that are located outside the fence,” Barkat said in a speech to Israel’s National Defense College. “I recommend keeping the fence the way it is and relinquishing parts of the municipality that are on the other side of the fence.”
Barkat’s plan envisions a trade of sorts, annexing a few pockets of West Bank territory that are now on the Jerusalem side of the wall.
The controversial idea was quickly rejected by other Israeli leaders, who object to relinquishing any Jerusalem land. Palestinians also complained, accusing the mayor of trying to reduce Jerusalem’s Arab population to strengthen the Jewish majority in the city.
“This isn’t about security,” said Ziad Hammouri, director of the Jerusalem Center for Social and Economic Rights. “It’s about demographics and the Judaization of East Jerusalem.”
Barkat spokesman Barak Cohen did not respond to requests for comment.
The Palestinian Authority has given money to some neglected East Jerusalem neighborhoods for schools or roads, both as a gesture of support and an attempt to embarrass Israel. But the authority can barely afford to take care of its own people, much less help out in Jerusalem, where Israel and peace accords limit its ability to operate.
Though Kafr Aqab is cut off from the rest of Jerusalem, its ability to forge ties with the West Bank is also limited. Schools in Kafr Aqab, for example, are prohibited by the city from buying paper and other supplies in Ramallah, which is cheaper and closer, school officials say. Likewise, their sports teams aren’t allowed to compete against Palestinian schools, leaving them to play among themselves, mostly, or not all.
Pharmacies, which are regulated by Israel, can’t restock drugs or bandages from West Bank suppliers even though Jerusalem vendors refuse to deliver to them. Instead, they must go through the checkpoint to get supplies.
For residents of Kafr Aqab, life behind the wall is increasingly difficult. Commuters heading to jobs in other parts of the city have to allow two hours to get through the security checkpoints that regulate access through the barrier. Those injured in car accidents or collapsing with heart failure can be evacuated to Ramallah in a pinch, but such arrangements are usually possible only in life-or-death situations, residents say.
At the 24-bed Al-Quds Maternity Hospital, bandits keep stealing the telephone lines, leaving the facility without service. Israel’s land-line provider, Bezeq, repaired the line once, but now is refusing to send technicians because they said they fear entering the neighborhood, hospital administrator Helmi Barak said.
When a maternity patient had to be transferred to another Jerusalem hospital recently, Barak said he had to run to a nearby drugstore to fax her medical records.
Another time, he said, a woman went into labor seven months into her term and had to be rushed to larger hospital. She ended up in Ramallah because there was no time to wait at the checkpoint. Now the parents are having trouble proving Jerusalem residency because the child was born in the West Bank.
Because no one will pick up the hospital’s medical waste, a staffer must load up his car with old needles, expired drugs and other environmentally dangerous materials and drive through the checkpoint to a Jerusalem dump.
“No hospital in the developed world would be expected to operate without telephone service,” Barak said. “Is this Africa? We pay taxes and are regulated by Israel’s Ministry of Health. Shouldn’t we get the same basic services? I don’t understand how they can provide electricity to army outposts all over the West Bank but not telephone service to Jerusalem.”
Most of the schools in Kafr Aqab receive funding from Israel, but their facilities are mostly converted apartment buildings, hotels or military camps. At one public elementary school, the only place for students to play is a small concrete courtyard. The school had to hold its graduation ceremony in the street several years ago because it couldn’t find a local building large enough for the gathering.
Abu Rameelh, the principal at the semiprivate Dar Al Maarefa High School, said he’s given up trying to maintain ties with other schools in Jerusalem. Though more than three dozen of his students recently passed a qualifying exam to participate in a nationwide math contest, none will be going. Likewise, his soccer team no long plays other schools in the district. Field trips have been scaled back.
Participating in such events means passing through military checkpoints, which sometimes includes sniffer dogs and physical searches by soldiers.
Last year, six buses loaded with enthusiastic first- and second-graders departed for a field trip to a Tel Aviv amusement park. But two of the buses were turned back by soldiers at military checkpoints for unknown reasons, he said, leaving Abu Rameelh to deal with dozens of tearful, disappointed 7-year-olds.
“It’s just not worth it anymore,” he said. “Parents won’t allow us to send children [to the other side of] the wall because they worry about how they will be treated. It’s not easy for kids. There’s a psychological impact. So we just try to avoid it by not going anywhere.”
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