We were walking in the corridors of no-man’s land in the Northern corner of Jerusalem municipality at the edge where the Neve Ya'akov settlement ends and the grey concrete wall that separates Jerusalem from where the West Bank begins. Our professor pointed towards a flat concrete court that was overgrown with brush and prickly plants and mentioned, “Arabs and Jews used to play football there. But that was before they built the wall…”
We were standing in the corner of Neve Ya’akov, a neighborhood that is often classified as just a suburb of Jerusalem, which lies across the green line and hugs the curve of the separation barrier. The distinguishing characteristic between the houses on the left and the houses on the right were striking. One side was clearly Jewish, Jerusalem stones turned yellow with time, white water-boilers speckling the rooftops. The apartments on the right were Arab, bright new stories built up to house more families, black water-boilers dotted their roofs.
These areas are smack in the middle of East Jerusalem and called the “Ring Neighborhoods.” By international definition, they are considered settlements, however Israeli legal definitions do not agree. Most Jerusalemites would hear of these areas and consider them as just a normal suburb of Jerusalem. If you ask anyone living there, they will see a huge discrepancy between how they see themselves and how they see settlers who live across the wall in the West Bank/Occupied Territories. Most people living in these areas moved there for the economic benefits of living in Jerusalem, but slightly outside of the city center and the lower housing costs. Just like any story of suburbanization in any city.
However, this is not just any city. This area is clearly demarcated on maps as being across the green line of the 1967 borders established after Israel’s military victory. Where we were standing was once Jordanian land. Off in the distance from a hilltop, we were able to even see the uncompleted construction of the King Hussein’s summer palace. The skeletal structure was left standing as a sort of strange tribute to the king. The surrounding Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shu’afat technically reside under the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, yet often the services that should be provided by the Jerusalem municipality are overlooked and the people who live there hold residential status in Israel, not citizenship. The Jerusalemites are only Jerusalemites--many of them hold Jordanian passports, or simply a travel document, or laissez-passer paper, from the Israeli government. Ir Amim, an organization that monitors the status of East Jerusalem, published a scathing report about the education system and how it is not meeting the needs of its Palestinian students (read here). For more information on the legal status of Palestinians in Jerusalem read here and Ir Amim’s report here.
However, as our Professor was quick to point out, these simplifications between here/there, us/them are not clear-cut. While one may be quick to judge that Jews living in Jerusalem have an easier and better life, that’s not the always the case. These homes in Neve Ya’akov were built in the 1970s in order to house poor Jewish immigrants from central-Asia, and later Russians and Ethiopians after waves of immigration from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia in the 1990s. Called the Bucharim, these communities were not provided access to resources or aware of their rights by the state.They were given housing, and then more or less isolated and forgotten about in this corner. Out of sight, out of mind. Since then the neighborhood, which is connected to the larger Jewish area of Pisgat Ze’ev, has experienced many waves of transformation--mainly towards becoming a ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, like most areas outside of central West Jerusalem. These neighborhoods are under strict building permit restrictions, and it is almost impossible for the younger generations to afford an apartment near their families. However, while no new apartment complexes are being built, you can see a large new school and a brand new yeshiva (place for religious Jewish study). The neighborhood is keeping up with the needs of the religious community, and the growing families (who have an average of 8 children).
The neighboring Palestinian neighborhoods of Shu’afat and Beit Hanina appeared to be much better off. This is noticeable from the road, again looking at the buildings, the homes of Beit Hanina were detailed: porches, porticos, arches, new glass windows that sparkled in the sunlight. These two neighborhoods are relatively rich compared to other Palestinian areas of Jerusalem. However, reality on the ground has shifted since then, especially since the wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank was built. Residents of these neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are also under strict restrictions for building permits and the limbo that they live in impacts their everyday life. A friend of mine from Beit Hanina and I were driving down the road one day on our way towards Ramallah and Qalandia checkpoint and she pointed out the window and said, “That’s where my family’s house is.” And suddenly our view of the tiny cluster of homes and apartments and shops which had been right outside the window of the bus, was cut off by the gray, concrete wall. “We had to move to the apartment where we live now because they said that they were going to continue to build the wall right here and cut us out of Jerusalem.” Her family didn’t want to lose their status as Jerusalemites and be relegated to the chaos of the West Bank, so they began renting an apartment in an area that was clearly within the borders of the wall and Jerusalem. The wall hasn’t been finished being built, and her family can visit their house, but they can’t move back in their for the fear that is hanging over their head that their entire legal status could be thrown into the limbo the moment that the construction begins again.
Since 2000, there is now a wall that snakes through Jerusalem and divides communities from one another. In some places, the wall stands 25 feet, or 8 meters tall, surrounded by barbed wire fences. At other locations, there is a fence. In yet other places, no barrier has yet been constructed, but by tracing dotted lines on maps, you can see the planned construction.
“The real tragedy of all this,” our professor lamented, “is that the separation wall worked. It worked both to prevent suicide bombing and attacks, but there is also an entire generation that grew up separate from one another and never played football together or ran around through a neighborhood together.” This separation fortifies the demonization of the other.
As we walked across the gravel in Neve Yaakov towards the wall, the sickly sweet smell of hot garbage in the nearby dumpster wafting towards us, we discussed the legal concept of proportionality. In discussing the construction of the barrier, there are two main things to keep in mind: the legitimate security concerns of Israel, and the human rights issues of the separation and continued occupation of the West Bank. The International Court of Justice ruled in 2005 that the construction of the wall was illegal as it violates humanitarian law, 14/15 judges. The one dissenting judge claimed that the truth of the security concerns of Israel was not adequately represented in the case nor discussed by the court. As more cases have been brought against the construction of the wall, including the case brought by the village Bil’in in 2007 which argued against the barrier because it would cut off the village from over 1,500 dunams of their land, these have been decided on a case-to-case basis of whether or not the construction of the barrier will harm the lives and human rights of those Palestinians whose villages and neighborhoods and lands will be divided versus the security gains to be made for Israeli society.
We were trying to understand the sociological, political, and economic outcomes of the legal realities. As we were talking about these technicalities a man drove up to where we stood. He works for a company that maintains the wall, he is a Palestinian from Shu’afat. Our professor challenged us to lay aside politics and interpretations and describe what we saw. He asked us to try to understand the ways in which practical life creates demands that can be very separate from ideological sentiments. Someone living in one place or another may not be because they believe politically in the symbolism of living there. For example, a Jew living in one of these northern settlements in East Jerusalem or a Palestinian who chooses to live within the borders of Israel. Neither living situation can be simplified into just a political statement.
The lines of Jerusalem are constantly blurred—even while there seem to be clear separations and divisions and worlds that are isolated from each other, there are always moments of overlap that surprise you. The moment that you think you’ve begun to begin to understand the situation and pack everything in nice, neat boxes and tie them up with a string, something comes along that unwraps everything.
We ended our class standing on a hilltop of Pisgat Ze’ev. The sun was starting to set, the breeze was coming from the Judean desert, and music from a nearby synagogue and celebration of the arrival of a new Torah was drifting our way. Above our heads floated a surveillance balloon: a white tiny zeppelin with a camera attached. Our professor pointed out what it was surveilling, Shu’afat Refugee camp. And just like that, my heart sank.
Piles of apartments were packed into a valley and rose to the top of a hill. Trash was scattered everywhere, windows were broken, dogs were barking. Our professor told us about how this area was cut off completely by Jerusalem by the wall and by choice. Israel’s policy when building the wall clearly decided to not include the refugee camp in Jerusalem municipal boundaries, even though it is technically Jerusalem. The camp is known for terrible crime rates, and neither Israeli nor Palestinian police are willing to go inside. A friend of mine joined a group of activists on a tour for solidarity and wrote about it here, it is well worth the read. Our professor then pointed to the new apartment buildings in Pisgat Ze’ev that have been built whose windows face the refugee camp. These Jews will wake up and look out their window every day and see the tiny enclave encircled by the wall and suffocated by the situation here. The lack of housing in Jerusalem is so bad that people will choose to purchase a home in a settlement that overlooks a dilapidated refugee camp. If that’s not absurd, I don’t know what is.
The organization Terrestrial Jerusalem keeps an eye on all the developments surrounding the use of land, exploitation of policies, and the expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem. Check out their site for good maps.
For more information, or to join a tour of the Northern Jerusalem neighborhoods, see Ir Amim. They organize monthly tours.