The Walls Within Walls of ‘Undivided’ Jerusalem
The enormous barriers that snake through the Holy City are proof that it is deeply fractured. They are also part of an obvious strategy aimed at forcing Palestinians out.
JERUSALEM—This Holy City claimed by Israel as the 4,000-year-old undivided capital of the Jewish people, but embraced by Palestinians as their once and future capital, too, is at its heart a network of walls: the ramparts of the Old City, the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish temple, and the enormous serpentine concrete walls that segregate the peoples of Jerusalem today.
It is these last walls that enclose and isolate the Shuafat Refugee Camp, which is currently claimed by Israel as part of its “undivided” Jerusalem.
Founded for Palestinian refugees on what was then the Jordanian side of a city divided in the wake of the 1948 war, and occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, Shuafat is the only Palestinian refugee camp in the city, and towering concrete slabs sever it from the East Jerusalem community that shares its name.
The walled-off camp where some 70,000 people live today sits next to a neighborhood that’s a center of residential life in Palestinian Jerusalem and that even has a stop on the city’s light rail between Jewish West Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the occupied East. But because of the walls, they might as well be miles apart.
Last week, American and Israeli officials gathered across town in a sleepy West Jerusalem district on Israel’s 70th anniversary to open an embassy that implicitly at least recognizes life in Shuafat as Israeli. At the same time, as Gaza raged and more than 60 people died in the crosshairs of Israeli snipers, business here in Shuafat, such as it is, carried on as usual.
“Today in Shuafat there is nothing,” said Mohammad Abu Shukra, a 27-year-old doctor standing outside the clinic where he works. In a place where confrontations with Israeli security forces often display the simmering rage against the daily restrictions imposed by occupation, life in the streets of the Shuafat camp bustled in the shadow of the walls that surrounded it. Among its crowded apartment blocks, the camp’s narrow alleys often are the scene of pitched battles between young Palestinians and the Israeli military. But on this day, kids home from school were just kicking soccer balls around.
“People are tired,” said Abu Shukra. The daily restrictions and pressures on Palestinian life, and the protests in Shuafat, have their own rhythm, divorced from symbolic gestures like the opening of an embassy.
Camp residents are not the only Palestinians segregated by checkpoints. Along a congested road that USAID billboards during the early days of the Obama Administration dubbed “the Jerusalem-Ramallah Highway,” is the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kufer Aqab. In recent months both this neighborhood and the Shuafat camp were put under Israeli military jurisdiction rather the Jerusalem municipal police, intensifying the differences between rule in East and West.
The towering apartment buildings made from concrete or Jerusalem stone sprawl on both sides of the road, becoming more densely packed as they approach the wall and the checkpoint that separates the city from West Bank. Ramallah, administrative center of the Palestinian Authority, is far more easily accessible than the Palestinian neighborhoods on the other side of Jerusalem’s concrete walls.
The imposition of travel permits on West Bank Palestinians since the 1990’s has created acute difficulties for families that have people in both the West Bank and Jerusalem. In order to stay together while not losing their Jerusalem residency, couples and families have been snapping up apartments that rise above concrete slabs to look onto an abandoned airfield on the fringes of Israel’s declared capital.
Disillusioned with their own leadership, it is grim reality rather than official recognition that increasingly pushes Palestinians to action. Protests like the ones at Al Aqsa Mosque last year, when Israel tried to impose security measures on the holy site’s entrances, and those after the brutal killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir in 2014 sparked much greater local outrage than the U.S. embassy move.
The slightly built Khdeir was just 16 when he was snatched off an East Jerusalem street and burned to death by Israeli “nationalists” as an act of revenge for the killing of three Israeli teens. He had had nothing whatsoever to do with that. The incident provoked a popular revolt by Palestinians in the occupied east of the city that spread to the West Bank and Gaza in the lead-up to what became the bloody Gaza war in the summer of 2014.
The U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “is just a piece of policy, the decision was made 50 years ago,” says Iyad Abu Khdeir, 48, a relative of the murdered teen. The real impact for him was created by the expansion of U.S. military and economic support since 1967, helping Israel occupy the territories it conquered in that year’s war, including East Jerusalem.
Until recently, Palestinians gathered en masse for protests around Al-Aqsa Mosque, The Damascus Gate of the Old City and Salah Al-Din Street, the commercial heart of the East that charts a path to historic Old City. But since the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem in December, Palestinian protests at such larger than life historical sites have been small and symbolic. Rather, when the moment comes, it is the Shuafat Camp and the working-class neighborhoods of Issawiya and Silwan where settler encroachment, the violence of security forces, denial of infrastructure and home demolitions that most often spark protests and clashes.
According to Jeff Halper, the director of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the carving up of occupied East Jerusalem is part of a process intended to ensure a large Jewish demographic majority in the city. He describes the walling off of Palestinian neighborhoods in the East during the mid 2000’s, at the end of the Second Intifada, as an attempt to create a demographic border. The intention, he says, was to put as many Palestinian Jerusalemites on the other side of a wall as possible in a bid, eventually, to remove Arabs from the city.
The Netanyahu government would dearly love to take away the residency permits of the 130,000 Jerusalemite Palestinians living on the West Bank side of the wall, but the courts haven’t allowed that, says Halper. He notes that as an alternative, the government is now trying to bring as many West Bank Jewish settlements into the city’s municipal boundaries as possible while making neighborhood’s cut off by the wall into separate municipalities.
Halper sees the demographic remapping of the city as the ongoing political legacy of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced by Israel’s military and pre-state militias in the lead up to the Israeli declaration of independence and in the war that followed —the Nakba, or “Catastrophe,” as they call it.
“The contemporary face of the Nakba is giving Jerusalem a vast Jewish majority,” he says. “You can’t push them out like in 1948, but you can create this apartheid system where they are locked into certain enclaves.”
Whether a militarized police or soldiers, Israeli security forces make their presence felt in Palestinian neighborhoods on both sides of the wall, and parents like Iyad and Kefah Khdeir worry constantly that their children will be targeted because of their nationalities.
“It’s been happening a lot recently,” says their daughter Thawra, 23, as we talked in their home overlooking dusty hillsides spotted with vegetation on the edge of their East Jerusalem neighborhood adjacent to, but walled off from, the Shuafat refugee camp. Harassment and arrests of Palestinians men here are ongoing, says Thawra. “I’ve been working in the [Israeli] ministry of justice as a student job,” she says. “We get a lot of calls from police officers about arrests and I see that a lot of those names are people from this neighborhood.”
Thawra studies journalism at Hebrew University, which was a founding academic institution of the Zionist project in Jerusalem 100 years ago, but recently has seen increased enrollment from Palestinian students. Despite her strong sense of nationalist politics, she knows studying at a top tier Palestinian institution will still cause barriers in an Israeli controlled labor market.
Thawra speaks fluent English and Hebrew and almost every day travels to a campus that overlooks the Palestinian neighborhood of Issawiya. Pinned between the university and the wall, random checkpoints that cause sporadic clashes with Israeli security forces can fill this urban valley with the burning smell of teargas, but it usually dissipates before it gets to the classrooms on the hill.
The Palestinians’ Bir Zeit University, established in 1924 near Ramallah, is “a really good school, but you come back here [to Jerusalem] and have to take more classes to get their degrees recognized,” says Thawra.
Navigating the limitations of life in your home city when it has been promised and redesigned for someone else is a defining fact of survival for Thawra and Jerusalemite Palestinians like her. It is a constant choice of when and where to fight the restrictions of occupation and when to deal with it as needed to get ahead.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thanks U.S. President Donald Trump for “recognizing reality” by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But the reality is that this Jerusalem is not “undivided,” far from it, is and if anyone needed proof of that, the walls are there for all to see.