Pales­tinian vil­lage hang­ing in limbo out­side Is­raeli wall

Though part of Jerusalem, Kafr Aqab lacks city ser­vices and feels aban­doned

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Joshua Mit­nick

KAFR AQAB, East Jerusalem — Strad­dling the road from Jerusalem to Ra­mal­lah, the Pales­tinian neigh­bor­hood of Kafr Aqab is a con­fu­sion of il­le­gally built apart­ment build­ings, pot­holed streets lined with trash and snarled traf­fic.

Loom­ing over it all are the mas­sive con­crete slabs of Is­rael’s sepa­ra­tion bar­rier.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter con­quer­ing the West Bank dur­ing the Six-Day War, 50 years ago this month, Is­rael de­clared some of Kafr Aqab part of a “united” Jerusalem. But to­day the district feels aban­doned by Is­rael to a “Twi­light Zone” ex­is­tence all its own.

This is a place where the po­lice sel­dom come, il­le­gal guns are plen­ti­ful and the sole post of­fice was shut down years ago. Yet most peo­ple, in­clud­ing the head of the Pales­tinian Author­i­tyrun lo­cal coun­cil, have Is­raeli res­i­dency cards and du­ti­fully pay thou­sands of dol­lars in mu­nic­i­pal taxes to Jerusalem.

“It’s com­pli­cated,” said the coun­cil head, Imad Awad. “Two coun­tries are re­spon­si­ble for Kafr Aqab, the Pales­tini­ans and Is­rael. It has two mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, and, un­for­tu­nately, big prob­lems.”

When the Is­raelis ar­rived, Kafr Aqab, about three miles from the cen­ter of Ra­mal­lah and more than dou­ble that dis­tance from Jerusalem’s Old City, was a rus­tic vil­lage of stone houses and olive groves with just a few hun­dred res­i­dents. Like the rest of the West Bank, in­clud­ing the eastern half of Jerusalem, it had been un­der Jor­da­nian rule. The war ended that.

In the weeks af­ter the war, part of the vil­lage was in­cor­po­rated by Is­rael into an ex­panded East Jerusalem — which was an­nexed by the eu­phoric vic-

‘We don’t feel like we are re­ally in Jerusalem be­cause of the wall .... We have no govern­ment.’

— RAED HAM­DAN, res­i­dent of Kafr Aqab

tors and de­clared part of their uni­fied cap­i­tal city. Kafr Aqab lies at the tip of a nar­row cor­ri­dor jut­ting north­ward that was ger­ry­man­dered to in­clude an old airstrip that lies within the city lim­its. Part of the old vil­lage re­mained out­side Jerusalem and lies for­mally within the West Bank.

Pales­tinian res­i­dents of Kafr Aqab and other East Jerusalem neigh­bor­hoods got Is­raeli blue res­i­dency cards and so­cial wel­fare ben­e­fits. Most crit­i­cally, they got the right to work in Is­rael and move about freely. Within years, Arabs from cramped neigh­bor­hoods in the cen­ter of East Jerusalem be­gan mov­ing to Kafr Aqab to buy larger homes at lower prices.

Over the years Kafr Aqab mor­phed from a vil­lage on the out­skirts of Ra­mal­lah to a Jerusalem sub­urb.

But about 15 years ago, in the throes of a cam­paign of Pales­tinian sui­cide bomb­ings, Is­rael built a sev­er­al­hun­dred-mile bar­rier snaking around the West Bank and through East Jerusalem to keep out at­tack­ers. The Jerusalem wall phys­i­cally sev­ered the neigh­bor­hood from the city and or­phaned a pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mated in the tens of thou­sands from most mu­nic­i­pal ser­vices, while leav­ing it linked to nearby Ra­mal­lah.

Though nom­i­nally still part of Jerusalem, Kafr Aqab found it­self adrift, fac­ing a vac­uum of au­thor­ity. That, along with the daily tri­als of cross­ing through the West Bank’s main check­point to the rest of the city, un­der­scored the un­cer­tain po­lit­i­cal sta­tus of Pales­tini­ans as well as the dif­fi­cul­ties of liv­ing un­der Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion.

“We don’t feel like we are re­ally in Jerusalem be­cause of the wall,” said Raed Ham­dan, a 55-year-old res­i­dent of Kafr Aqab.

On the eve of the 1967 war, Ham­dan was a 5-year-old who lived in the Christian Quar­ter of the Old City. His fa­ther worked for the Jor­da­nian po­lice. He re­called nonuni­formed sol­diers hid­ing guns in the fam­ily bath­room. Adults spoke of blood run­ning through the al­ley­ways down from the Da­m­as­cus Gate.

When Ham­dan and his fam­ily emerged from their home, Jor­da­nian sol­diers had been re­placed by Is­raelis greet­ing them with the He­brew “Shalom.”

About one year later, his fam­ily moved to Kafr Aqab. Fifty years later, he lives near Kafr Aqab’s wild­cat apart­ment build­ings and the graf­fiti-cov­ered sepa­ra­tion wall, and com­plains about the ab­sence of po­lice, Is­raeli or Pales­tinian.

“Many peo­ple have guns here,” said Ham­dan. “We have no govern­ment, or rules.”

The neigh­bor­hood lacks suf­fi­cient school class­rooms, am­bu­lances or firetrucks. To reach Is­raeli hos­pi­tals, res­i­dents have to go through check­points.

The ab­sence of any en­force­ment of build­ing and plan­ning codes has al­lowed the con­struc­tion of a clus­ter of medium-rise apart­ment build­ings just a few feet away from one another, over­bur­den­ing the neigh­bor­hood’s sewage sys­tem.

Garbage col­lec­tors con­tracted by the Jerusalem city govern­ment pick up garbage at their whim.

The Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity in nearby Ra­mal­lah has not moved into the vac­uum, though it did es­tab­lish a lo­cal coun­cil in the part of Kafr Aqab just out­side the Jerusalem bor­der.

“Abu Mazen is mak­ing a state in Ra­mal­lah, and he doesn’t care about Kafr Aqab or Jerusalem,” said Jeries Tan­nous, 27, re­fer­ring to Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas by his nick­name.

At a car wash on the main road to Ra­mal­lah, young Pales­tinian men re­mem­bered what things were like be­fore Is­rael built the wall and the loom­ing Qa­landiya check­point, back when trips into the heart of the city took just a few min­utes in­stead of more than an hour.

“It was much bet­ter. There were jobs,” Tan­nous said. “This is a real chaos.”

The an­niver­sary of the 1967 war, known to Pales­tini­ans as the Naqsa, or de­feat, has passed with lit­tle pub­lic com­mem­o­ra­tion in the West Bank.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Pales­tinian peace ne­go­tia­tor, com­plained that Is­rael has pur­sued a “colo­nial set­tle­ment strat­egy” aimed at tak­ing Pales­tinian land over the last 50 years.

“For the Pales­tinian peo­ple, mark­ing 50 years of oc­cu­pa­tion means mark­ing 50 years of op­pres­sion, sub­ju­ga­tion and daily con­trol over all as­pects of peo­ple’s lives,” Erekat said in an English state­ment. “It means 50 years of at­tacks and ag­gres­sion from oc­cu­pa­tion forces and set­tlers against a de­fense­less civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. At the same time, it has also meant 50 years of state­ments and in­ter­na­tional res­o­lu­tions that Is­rael, the oc­cu­py­ing power, has in­sisted on vi­o­lat­ing with im­punity.”

Is­rael, by con­trast, has marked the an­niver­sary of its vic­tory with a month of of­fi­cial cel­e­bra­tions, aca­demic con­fer­ences and me­dia cov­er­age, in­clud­ing tributes to Jerusalem and its Jew­ish holy places. Is­raeli lead­ers vow that the city will for­ever re­main their “un­di­vided” cap­i­tal, but Pales­tini­ans in­sist that East Jerusalem will be the cap­i­tal of their fu­ture state.

Daniel Sei­de­mann, an Is­raeli peace ac­tivist and ex­pert on Jerusalem, said Is­raeli talk of a united Jerusalem is be­lied by the dis­ar­ray in places such as Kafr Aqab.

“The fate of th­ese peo­ple was de­cided by an Is­raeli whim in the week or two af­ter the ’67 war, when, com­pletely and to­tally un­pre­pared, we de­cided to an­nex not only East Jerusalem, but its en­vi­rons. That dic­tate de­ter­mines the fate of tens of thou­sands of res­i­dents to this day,” he said.

“Kafr Aqab is the quin­tes­sen­tial ex­pres­sion of the hol­low­ness of [the] Is­raeli fic­tion of the un­di­vided city of Jerusalem. We an­nexed them by mis­take. We never re­ally wanted them .... We won’t rec­og­nize the to­tal fail­ure of this fic­tion, so we con­demn th­ese peo­ple to live in limbo.”

A spokes­woman for the Jerusalem mu­nic­i­pal­ity didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The signs of an Is­raeli govern­ment pres­ence are few and far be­tween. Along the Ra­mal­lah-Jerusalem road, a small plac­ard in He­brew with Jerusalem’s Lion of Ju­dah mu­nic­i­pal in­signia marks an Is­raeli-funded school.

In re­cent months, blue and white street signs in He­brew, Ara­bic and English have gone up, giv­ing res­i­dents a proper ad­dress for the first time. As the signs have gone up, how­ever, there have been re­ports in Is­raeli news­pa­pers that the govern­ment is con­sid­er­ing re­draw­ing Jerusalem’s bor­ders to cede Kafr Aqab and other Jerusalem neigh­bor­hoods beyond the sepa­ra­tion bar­rier.

Other re­ports have sug­gested there are plans for a new Is­raeli neigh­bor­hood just over the wall, where the old airstrip is lo­cated.

Obei­deh Said, a 47-yearold teacher whose mother was forced out of the Jew­ish Quar­ter of Jerusalem’s Old City in the months af­ter the 1967 war, looked out from her apart­ment over Kafr Aqab’s jagged con­crete wall to the old airstrip.

“Un­for­tu­nately, we hear there is go­ing to be a set­tle­ment there, and this fills us with agony,” she said. “Look at my neigh­bor­hood: There’s garbage, there’s lack of ur­ban plan­ning, and it’s the peak of dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion and un­hap­pi­ness.”

For now, it seems, the school­teacher and most of the neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents are wait­ing for Is­rael to come back to the place it claimed half a cen­tury ago.

Josh Mit­nick For The Times

Ma­jdi Mo­hammed As­so­ci­ated Press

A DUMP­STER overf lows in Kafr Aqab. Garbage col­lec­tors con­tracted by the Jerusalem city govern­ment pick up trash at their whim.

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