Danny Rubenstein
December 19, 2007 - 4:07pm

The separation fence surrounding eastern Jerusalem winds north of the city among the crowded houses of the Dahit al-Barid neighborhood. The wall is not finished and, in a few places, there are openings enabling passage (which confirms the graffiti drawn nearby by an Israeli tagger, "Yoram Arbel was right," i.e., this is not how you build a wall).

One of the passages is via large drainage pipes, a meter or more in diameter, built under the road and the wall. If there is not a strong flow of rainwater or sewage, one can cross through them easily, and that is what many do every day: young and old, students, merchants and whole families.

Last Friday morning, Aziz Shakher, a merchant coming from A-Ram, passed through. He has a store in the Old City, and instead of taking a circuitous route that could take hours, via the Qalandiyah crossing, he takes a shortcut through the drainage pipes.

On the other side of the wall, in A-Ram, there is a new high-rise building. Through the windows of one apartment, laundry lines are visible, but most of the other windows are sealed with blocks. It is quite clear there are not many residents in the building. Aziz Shakher says that apartments rent here for around $150 a month, while a few meters away from there, when you enter Jerusalem, the rental rate for a similar apartment soars to $700.

Living in a city

The phenomenon is well-known to the Palestinians. In all of the Arab neighborhoods that surround Jerusalem, and primarily in the northern part of the city on the road to Ramallah, there are thousands of empty apartments. Large buildings, mostly new, stand empty. Jerusalem Arabs don't want to live outside the wall, and in recent years they have swarmed, en masse, into the city. They do not want to stand for hours at checkpoints and are afraid that if they remain outside the city, one day their Israeli identity cards will be revoked.

The situation has reached the point where thousands of the city's Arabs submitted requests for full Israeli citizenship to the Ministry of Interior. Many received it (Jerusalem Arabs are defined as "permanent residents" in Israel, and not citizens, and they have full rights in Israel except the right to vote for the Knesset and to carry an Israeli passport).

Ziad al-Hamouri, the head of the Jerusalem Center for Economic and Social Rights, says that around 6,000 Jerusalem Arabs have obtained full Israeli citizenship. How many Arabs with Jerusalem documents moved inside the city because of the wall and the fence? Around 30,000, Al-Hamouri says. Others cite much higher numbers.

A pamphlet prepared by Israel Kimhi, of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, on the separation fence's impact on the city and its residents stated that the large and inexpensive inventory of apartments around East Jerusalem would prompt a substantial increase in the Palestinian population living adjacent to the fence surrounding the city. It is already happening. In the distant rural areas of Hebron, Jenin and Nablus, a dire economic situation prevails, whereas adjacent to Jerusalem, there are more options for earning a livelihood.

Occasionally, you can enter the eastern part of the city and find work. And in general, it is better to live next door to the relatively wealthy 250,000 Jerusalem Arabs than it is to live in the poor villages of Samaria and Hebron Hills. Jerusalem Arabs move rather freely, buy goods and services from their neighbors on the other side of the fence and, that way, part of their wealth trickles down to those around them as well.

The separation fence does not overlap with the municipal boundary of Jerusalem (which, in many respects, is also the official border of the state of Israel). In the built-up areas outside the fences live an estimated one-third of Jerusalem Arabs who hold blue, Israeli ID cards; at least 80,000 people. All of them must endure the tribulations of the checkpoints and, if they had the option, they would move somewhere inside the city. There is, therefore, constant pressure from the Arab population seeking to move inside Jerusalem, and thus the housing crisis in the eastern part of the city grows. If and when the construction of the fence is completed, the pressure will increase significantly. The happenings in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem are described very well by Abd al-Rabo, a correspondent for Radio Palestine. He is 46 and comes from a family of refugees from the Beit Jubrin area. His family lived in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and in 1967 was evicted from there to the Shoafat refugee camp on the eastern edge of the city, inside the Jerusalem municipality's area of jurisdiction.

The camp is the most densely populated residential area in the city. High-rise buildings were erected there, almost all of them without permits. Al-Rabo lives today with his wife and six children in a two-room apartment that belongs to his parents. His oldest daughter is 20 and he has a 19-year-old son, both of whom are students; they cannot continue to live in the crowded apartment.

Three years ago, al-Rabo rented an apartment in the adjacent Shoafat neighborhood. But he had a hard time paying $700 a month and moved a year later to a similar apartment in Isawiyah, on the slopes of Mount Scopus, where he paid $400 a month. The problem in Isawiyah was that, approximately twice a week, a checkpoint of policemen and soldiers was set up on the only road leading to the neighborhood, which delayed passage to the city. The children were late for school regularly and al-Rabo couldn't get to work on time.

After a year, he looked for and found a comfortable apartment in Beit Hanina. The price was $650 a month. But after he agreed on the price, the owner, a known Palestinian public figure, came to him and said he had to cancel the deal. His brothers and sisters also live in the building and they have young daughters. It would be uncomfortable for them to have al-Rabo's son living next door to them. It could create tensions and problems.

Al-Rabo launched an extensive search. In the Old City, they are asking around $600 for a miserable storage room transformed into a moss-covered apartment. In Shoafat and Beit Hanina, they were asking him for between $800-$1,200 for an apartment with a living room and two bedrooms. He is also willing to rent an apartment in the nearby Jewish neighborhoods.

A house in Neveh Yaakov

This is, perhaps, the most dramatic social change now taking place. Hundreds of Arab families, perhaps even more, have started renting and even buying apartments and homes in the Jewish neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. In a large apartment building at the entrance to the French Hill neighborhood, Arabs occupy 15 out of 22 apartments. Half of them are Israeli Arabs who came from Nazareth and Shfaram to study and work in Jerusalem, and they paved the way for Jerusalem Arabs to rent apartments. In a French Hill cafe last week, I found a copy of the newspaper, Al Quds, which the owner keeps for his Arab customers. The phenomenon is also familiar in neighborhoods such as Pisgat Ze'ev and Neveh Yaakov, home to a weaker Jewish population, economically speaking. Renting an apartment in Neveh Yaakov costs $500, whereas in nearby Beit Hanina the price is sometimes double; nothing will stop the Arabs entry into Neveh Yaakov.

The Arabs are not eager to move into Jewish neighborhoods, nor are the Jews in any hurry to rent or sell apartments to them. But Shakher, who went through the drainage pipes of Dahit al-Barid last Friday, taught me the popular proverb "al-mal badel al-ruah" which translates as "the material is as important as the spiritual." Or, in other words, relevant to our subject: Money is likely to win out over prejudices and hatred. In the Jewish sections of French Hill, Pisgat Ze'ev and Neveh Yaakov, local committees have been formed to bar the entry of Arabs into the neighborhood. The local papers deal with this issue incessantly. Synagogues have distributed fliers against the entry of Arabs and here and there, there were even threats against residents who rented or sold apartments or houses to Arabs. Al-Rabo says the guards at the entrance to the Givat Ze'ev mall treat Arabs rudely. They insult them. There were instances of violence. Jewish young people beat up some Arabs (phenomena that do no occur in the large Malkha Mall and in other places in western Jerusalem). But none of this helps. The Arabs are coming into these neighborhoods in increasing numbers. Fathi Abu-Shukri, the owner of the well-known hummus restaurant who opened a nice new branch in Beit Hanina, says that, despite all the difficulties, he would eagerly buy a home in Pisgat Ze'ev.

For the Jewish residents of Neveh Yaakov, renting an apartment to Arabs is an excellent deal. For the $500 they get each month, they can rent a large, beautiful apartment in Ma'aleh Adumim or in a peripheral neighborhood of western Jerusalem.

Another phenomenon that complements the social changes effected by the separation fence is the move by Jerusalem Arabs into Israeli territory. At first, Jerusalem Arabs filled almost to capacity all of the developed areas in the rural sector of western Jerusalem.

The village of Beit Tsafafa, for example (between the Katamonim and the Gilo neighborhoods), has been transformed into a crowded Arab neighborhood where village residents rent hundreds of apartments and houses to Arabs from the eastern part of the city. Jerusalem Arabs are renting apartments and homes also in Abu Ghosh and Ein Rafa, alongside the main highway to Tel Aviv.

Eastern Jerusalem residents, primarily young people, who work in the Tel Aviv area and in the north, have moved to Jaffa, Ramle, Nazareth, Shfaram and Umm al-Fahm. They can do so, even though the Interior Ministry is unwilling to change the place of residence recorded in their identity cards.

The separation fence in Jerusalem happens to have helped reduce the number of terrorist attacks inside Israel, but the price is high: The creation of a crowded, poor city with no buffer zone, a sort of "end city" (according to Israel Kimhi), serving a limited metropolitan space, which somewhat resembles the divided-corridor city that Jerusalem was in the 19 years between the War of Independence and the Six-Day War.


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