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Palestinians struggle to remain in 'unified' Jerusalem

As Israelis march today to celebrate the ‘reunification’ of Jerusalem, Palestinian East Jerusalemites struggle against skyrocketing rents and building restrictions to remain in municipal borders. 

Garbage piles up in the Kufr Aqab neighborhood of East Jerusalem (Photo: Mya Guarnieri)

Every day, investors knock on the door of a small home in Kufr Aqab, a village on the Palestinian side of the separation wall but inside Jerusalem’s municipal borders. The tidy, one-story, two-room house is surrounded by new apartment buildings, some reaching nine stories high. Contractors are currently finishing more than 1,000 units in the area; billboard advertisements suggest many more are to come.

The same phenomenon is occurring in other Palestinian neighborhoods that are technically part of Jerusalem, but separated from the ancient city sites by the huge concrete wall.

Apartment buildings are popping up like mushrooms in these areas. The sound of construction fills the air.

Kufr Aqab – once full of open, green spaces – is now “crowded” and “dirty,” says Amira, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman who lives here. She asked not to be identified by her real name out of fear of endangering her Israeli-issued Jerusalem residency permit.

Residents pay taxes to the Jerusalem Municipality but receive far fewer services than the neighboring Jewish districts of Jerusalem. While Palestinians constitute approximately 35 percent of the city’s population, only eight to ten percent of the municipal budget is allocated to their communities. “We have to hire someone to come and take [the garbage] because the city won’t come,” Amira says. “They will pick up everything on the main street but not behind it.”

Refuse collection is a long-standing issue for Palestinian East Jerusalemites; even Israeli officials have raised concerns about the issue, and the influx of new residents means things will only get worse.

Numerous requests for comment from the Jerusalem Municipality for this article have been unsuccessful.

Unplanned growth has already stretched Kufr Aqab’s infrastructure to the point of breaking, Amira and other residents say. “What once was a spacious entrance into the neighborhood is now a small, rough, tight road that does not allow cars to pass through it. The entrance [has been narrowed] by two new buildings on each side that have taken space from the road to enlarge their buildings,” Amira explains.

Residents say contractors are left to their own devices. And the investors who knock on Amira’s door everyday – asking the family to sell their home so they can tear it down to make way for even more apartment buildings in the already stressed area – are said to be more concerned with turning a profit than making sure that the neighborhood is livable.

Munir Zughayer, chairman of the local neighborhood committee, says the building damages infrastructure. “In too many places, [contractors] have built over [water] drains. [The buildings] are pushing [on the sewage system] and it’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” he said. “It’s a mistake to build on it but we don’t have the power to tell people not to build.”

With nowhere to go, runoff pools in the streets, damaging the roads. After heavy snowfall in January, dozens of potholes opened up in the streets. Because the drainage systems are no longer functioning properly, the melted snow ran into a number of houses – Zughayer estimates that more than 40 homes incurred water damage.

Mohammed Reith, a contractor, agrees with Zughayer’s claim that the area’s sewage system can’t handle the influx of residents. Reith estimates that the area’s population has doubled since 2005 and that there remains a huge demand for land and apartments in the neighborhood. “At the moment, the area is not prepared for this number of people.”

It’s not just the streets, garbage, and sewage system. Kufr Aqab, like all of East Jerusalem on both sides of the wall, does not have enough schools. And on this side of the wall, there are no police. Emergency services are also lacking, as Israeli ambulances and fire trucks cannot pass the Qalandia checkpoint, which is just outside Kufr Aqab.

“No one is responsible for security [here] – not the Israelis or the Palestinian Authority,” Reith says. “If there is a problem, no-one will come. The PA needs permission from the Israelis to enter and the Israelis are interested in making chaos [in Palestinian areas].”

But, as Reith and Zughayer correctly point out, the areas on the Palestinian side of the separation wall, such as Kufr Aqab, are the only places in the city that East Jerusalemites can build.

Israel rejects more than 90 percent of Palestinian requests for building permits; structures built without permission in the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem on the Israeli side of the wall are threatened with demolition and steep fines. These restrictions have created a housing shortage that critics say is intended to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem and into the West Bank. Critics call this “quiet transfer.”

But the separation wall has actually had the opposite effect. It has fuelled demand for homes on the Israeli side of the wall as Palestinian East Jerusalemites fear losing their residency and access to health care, schools, jobs, and their families. The wall and checkpoints have also made commuting more difficult and time consuming, so many Palestinians prefer to live inside the enclave created by the wall, in order to shorten their travel time.

As the wall has pushed Jerusalem ID holders into a confined space, prices have skyrocketed. But most Palestinian East Jerusalemites cannot keep up with the rising rents, nor can they afford to buy homes in this increasingly expensive market. So they move to areas such as Kufr Aqab, where apartments cost a third of the asking price on the other side of the wall. Because these areas remain a part of Jerusalem, the Palestinians who live there can keep their residency.

However, Israel says it has no development plans for the area. And many residents are concerned that Israel will redraw the municipal lines of the city, excluding Palestinian areas beyond the wall and revoking residents’ Jerusalem IDs. This fear isn’t unfounded – Israel unilaterally redrew Jerusalem’s borders following the 1967′ Six-Day War.

In the meantime, Zughayer and other members of the neighborhood committee are trying to force the city to take responsibility for the municipal areas on the Palestinian side of the wall. They have sued for better garbage services. And because there are not enough traffic lights in the area, locals have pooled their money to build roundabouts. Zughayer intends to pass the bill along to the Jerusalem Municipality.

Zughayer says their work is “an example of regular people who aren’t battling with weapons but are battling with their words for our rights. We’re not working for ourselves – we’re working for our people, the residents, to help the person who has water entering his house.

“As long as the municipality is taking the taxes, we have to get our rights as human beings, to have everything like we are in Israel – streets, garbage and schools. We live like we’re in the middle of Africa, not in a democracy. Where is democracy? Where is it?”

This article was originally published in Al Jazeera English.


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    1. Danny

      “As long as the municipality is taking the taxes, we have to get our rights as human beings, to have everything like we are in Israel – streets, garbage and schools. We live like we’re in the middle of Africa, not in a democracy. Where is democracy? Where is it?”

      Why do they continue to pay taxes? For the right to live in THEIR city?

      They should stop all payments to the corrupt administration of Nir Barkat, and instead work to set up their own independent municipal administration of East Jerusalem.

      Let Nir Barkat go f*&% himself!

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        I am sure you are aware that Arab residents of east Jerusalem are entitled to vote in munipical elections and have representation on the city council (they would have about 1/3 of the seats if they had a full voter turnout) and would have a major say in who the mayor is. Since they don’t vote, saying it represents a rejection of “Zionist control of the city” then why are they whining that the municipal gov’t isn’t responding to their demands?
        They are complaining “where is democracy” yet they refuse to participate in the democratic game.

        Reply to Comment
        • While it is true that elections partly drive the distribution of services, there is supposed to be a equal protection lower bound, for a minority on a council may in itself be blocked. In the present case, that lower bound seems near zero.

          Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        >Why do they continue to pay taxes? For the right to live in THEIR city?

        No, silly. They should pay taxes to have streets in proper conditions, with lighting and all; to have their garbage collected and to have public schools available for their children.

        As a matter of fact, only very small percentage of E. Jerusalem population pay any taxes at all.

        An acquaintance of mine, who resides in a neighbourhood near E. Pisgat Zeev laughed out loud when I’ve asked him about the municipal tax. His family (8 ppl.) resides in a three-story building of which only two rooms on the 1st floor are registered, so instead of paying about $5000 every year, they pay only $700. Obviously, if they are paying only 10-15% of taxes they are supposed to pay, they can’t really hope to get more than 5-10% of budget, can they?

        I have an idea for you. Donate municipal tax for one family every month.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          Have you read the article? E. Jerusalem residents do pay their taxes and GET NO SERVICES IN RETURN.

          They should stop paying taxes to the city and instead create a shadow municipality for East Jerusalem. Who knows – the world might very well recognize it as the legitimate municipality in E. Jerusalem.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Israeli Arabs in general and E. Jerusalmite in particular pay no or very little taxes, which is why they are getting no or very little services.

            Reply to Comment
          • Joe

            Can you supply me with evidence of that, please? Interested to see any evidence whatsoever that backs up your claims.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ulix

            You’re asking him for evidence? HIM?

            Reply to Comment
          • Amram Bozouglo

            They don’t like to hear the truth…They pay zero zilch nada taxes.yet they want us to collect their garbage for them.Take take take and give nothing in return.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      Yep, Israel will redraw the borders of Jerusalem in the next few years to exclude the villages that are outside of the wall. The borders of Jerusalem are pretty arbitrary in any case and you are completely right that it is wrong for Jerusalem to claim these neighborhoods while being unable to provide services.

      Reply to Comment