RAS KHAMIS, Jerusalem — When Jamil Sanduqa was a year old, his parents moved out of their squalid one-room apartment in Jerusalem’s Old City to the outlying neighborhood of Ras Khamis, located on the outskirts of Shuafat Refugee Camp in northeast Jerusalem.
“Since then I haven’t left. I’ve been dealt a life sentence,” joked Sanduqa, a 38-year-old snake catcher who makes his living as an usher on children’s school buses.
His sense of imprisonment is not unfounded. As of 2007, the neighborhood of Ras Khamis and three adjacent neighborhoods (Shuafat Refugee Camp, Ras Shehadeh and Dahiyat As-Salam) have been cut off from the city of Jerusalem by the security barrier, which separates an estimated one-quarter of the city’s Arab residents from their place of work and study. An estimated 55,000 Palestinians live in Ras Khamis and its surrounding neighborhoods, all lying beyond the concrete wall.
In order to enter Jerusalem, Sanduqa — who pays his municipal taxes to city hall — must cross through a recently constructed checkpoint and present his Jerusalem residency card. A separate pedestrian passageway leading out of the neighborhood was sealed in 2012 following a terrorist attack that killed an Israeli border patrol soldier and injured another.
When Mayor Nir Barkat stresses the importance of a united Jerusalem, he does not have Ras Khamis in mind: In December 2011 he shocked right-wing members of the government when he publicly declared that neighborhoods beyond the barrier should not remain part of Jerusalem.
“I recommend deploying along the barrier as it is,” Barkat was quoted by Israeli newspaper Maariv as saying. “We should give up municipal areas beyond it and annex areas trapped in the Israeli side which are currently not under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem municipality.”
Members of Knesset from the right fumed over Barkat’s statements. Then coalition chairman (and today deputy foreign minister) Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) accused the mayor of undermining Jerusalem’s territorial integrity, enshrined in the 1980 Jerusalem Law stipulating that “the integrity and unity of greater Jerusalem … shall not be violated.” MK Aryeh Eldad of the now-defunct National Union party went further, dubbing Barkat’s statements “an act of treason” under a law banning actions that bring about the transfer of sovereign Israeli land to a foreign state.
But Barkat’s remarks would hardly have surprised observers of the political reality in East Jerusalem. As the barrier neared completion, municipal budgets for welfare, education and infrastructure were dramatically slashed to neighborhoods beyond it. Service providers, as well as ambulances and fire trucks, stopped venturing beyond the checkpoint. City hall handed over the collection of garbage to private contractors.
In July 2012, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported, the director general of Jerusalem’s municipality Yossi Heiman met with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Eitan Dangot, requesting that the IDF take responsibility for civil affairs beyond the wall. The municipality’s recent commitment to provide names to all streets in Arab East Jerusalem by the end of 2014 explicitly excludes neighborhoods on the other side of the barrier.
“City hall has internalized the message coming from the Israeli government whereby these neighborhoods are not part of Jerusalem, and is acting accordingly,” council member Yakir Segev told Israeli news website Ynet in January 2010. “The Palestinian Authority is the one renovating roads and operating social services.”
“These neighborhoods are beyond the reach of Israel and certainly that of the municipality. Practically speaking, it’s Ramallah. Aside from the half-delirious right, I don’t know of anyone who is seriously trying to apply Israeli sovereignty to these areas,” said Segev, a member of Mayor Barkat’s party.
Today, basic services to these neighborhoods are far from functional. The Palestinian Authority dares not send in its own security forces; and with no political decision stating otherwise, mail, water and sewage are supposed to be provided by Israel, of which more later.
“The PA would love to receive this place. It will provide all services,” Sanduqa said. “Why did [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon build the wall? He wanted to hand us over to Abu-Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas]. We will be the first [territorial] installment [in a peace deal].”
Stuck in municipal and political limbo, residents have created neighborhood committees — funded by the Palestinian Authority and the European Union — to intercede with Israeli authorities. Sanduqa heads the council for Ras Khamis, whose population he estimates at 17,000-20,000.
The security and municipal situation has dramatically deteriorated since the completion of the barrier around Ras Khamis in 2007, Sanduqa told The Times of Israel. Criminality has skyrocketed, with police rarely entering the neighborhood. Ras Khamis now boasts the city’s largest drug trafficking station, located in an abandoned Coca-Cola factory surrounded by mounds of burning garbage just 100 yards from the checkpoint. Nine murders have taken place in the area since 2007 compared to zero in the 40 years from 1967, when Israel gained control of the territory in the Six Day War.
“If there is a family feud here, it feels like Syria. It is as though it’s the Al-Nusra Front fighting the rebels. No one here uses pistols, only M-16s and AK-47s,” Sanduqa said. “We’ve sent letters to the internal security minister and to the [police] district commander. No one wants to deal with it.”
Everything is a struggle for Sanduqa and his eight colleagues in the neighborhood committee. They have been battling Israel’s Postal Company for six years in court to install post office boxes in the neighborhood. The company insists on stationing them on the “Israeli” side of the checkpoint. The water company has reneged on a decision to affix water meters to the apartment buildings, most of which are 8-9 stories high, and — with no zoning for the entire neighborhood — constructed illegally. Residents are forced to order water trucks from the nearby neighborhood of Anata and pump it up to large tanks placed on their roofs.
When construction workers building the security barrier accidentally destroyed the neighborhood’s sanitation system, sending raw sewage into the streets of Ras Khamis, the Defense Ministry refused to pay. Sanduqa and his colleagues raised NIS 50,000 ($14,000) and laid new pipelines. When the road to Anata needed repair during Ramadan, Sanduqa collected funds at the local mosque.
“People donated ten, fifteen shekels,” he recalled.
Education is even more problematic. Ras Khamis’s single municipal primary school can accommodate only 800 pupils. A UN school run by UNRWA in the nearby Shuafat Refugee Camp accommodates others. But 3,500 more children from neighborhoods beyond the barrier are forced to travel to the checkpoint every morning, where buses hired by the city disperse them to private and public schools across town. Sanduqa has appealed to city hall to pick up the younger children from a spot inside the neighborhood, so far to no avail.
The deteriorating conditions in Ras Khamis have caused many local residents to relocate to the nearby Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, or farther afield, to the village of Ein Neqouba west of Jerusalem. These residents have sold or rented their homes to Palestinians from Nablus, Jenin and Hebron, who Sanduqa says have contributed to the neighborhood’s rising crime rates.
“Nobody knows who they are or what they want,” he said. “They may be fleeing problems in their cities. From here to Jenin [in the northern West Bank] there’s not one single checkpoint which can stop them.”
But the biggest concern facing residents is the looming threat of house demolitions. Late last year, demolition notices were posted by the municipality on the walls of apartment buildings constructed over the past three years.
“We are tough people here, but the threat of demolition is really scaring us,” said Abu-Ahmad, 58, whose new home recently received a demolition notice.
The Jerusalem municipality told the Times of Israel in an email response that its policy toward neighborhoods beyond the security barrier is no different than that governing neighborhoods located within it.
But that claim does not convince Jamil Sanduqa. He said Ras Khamis reminds him of a neighborhood in a Syrian comedy he used to watch as a child called “Grab what you want neighborhood.”
“That’s how I view this place. Everyone does what they want,” he said. “We call ourselves ‘the center of human refuse.’”