Cars heading toward the Qalandiya checkpoint were stuck in near-standstill traffic on a recent sunny morning in Kafr Aqab, Jerusalem’s northernmost neighborhood, located on the West Bank side of the security barrier.
Attempting to bypass the bumper-to-bumper congestion on Ramallah Road, the Arab neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, some vehicles started driving on the opposite side of the road and maneuvering around oncoming traffic, while others honked their horns to no avail.
For several years, Kafr Aqab, a large neighborhood in Jerusalem over ten kilometers north of the city center, has suffered from poor planning, inadequate public infrastructure and rampant lawlessness.
Moien Odeh, a 37-year-old lawyer who has advocated in Israeli courts for improving municipal services in Kafr Aqab, said the cars driving on the opposite side of road illustrate the anarchy in the neighborhood.
“No one is going to stop those cars,” said Odeh, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2011. “So everyone does what they want without facing any consequences,” he said as he watched the vehicles go by.
In September 2017, a truck driving on the opposite side of the road ran over and killed a 30-year-old pedestrian, according to Palestinian Authority Police spokesman Louay Arzeikat.
Israel captured Kafr Aqab in 1967 from Jordan during the Six Day War and shortly thereafter annexed and incorporated most of it into an expanded Jerusalem.
At the time, a few hundred Palestinians, including many wealthy individuals, lived in Kafr Aqab, which was made up of picturesque limestone structures and sprawling olive groves.
Odeh said the Jewish state gerrymandered the majority of Kafr Aqab into Jerusalem in 1967 because it wanted to include the nearby Atarot Airport and the land surrounding it in its city limits. The Palestinian Authority partially maintains responsibility for a small part of the original Kafr Aqab.
But after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, when Palestinian terror groups carried out suicide bombings, shootings and other attacks against Israelis, Israel erected the security barrier and the Qalandiya checkpoint.
The barrier and the checkpoint left Kafr Aqab residents, who hold Israeli residency and pay taxes to Israeli authorities, disconnected from the rest of Jerusalem. It also severed a handful of other neighborhoods from the remainder of the city, including the Shuafat refugee camp, Ras Khamis, Ras Shehada and Dahiyat al-Salam.
“It was beautiful and open in Kafr Aqab, but after Israel built the wall, the Israeli municipality stopped entering and providing basic services,” said Fayez Mahalwis, a 63-year-old resident of the neighborhood, speaking from the lobby of the PA-affiliated Kafr Aqab Municipality.
Israeli officials contend that the barrier has both staved off violent attacks and prevented West Bank Palestinians from entering Israel without permits.
The Kafr Aqab Municipality, based in the small part of the neighborhood that the PA partially controls, provides services to residents under its jurisdiction as well as those with Israeli identification cards, according to officials in the local body.
But with an annual operating budget of some NIS 1-3 million ($280,000 to $830,000), the Kafr Aqab Municipality has struggled to provide sufficient services, said Ashraf Thabateh, a municipality public relations official.
“Even though we are technically responsible for only ten percent of Kafr Aqab, we do not discriminate between Palestinians with different statuses,” he said, sitting in a conference room in the municipality. “We have limited resources, but we provide as much as we can.”
Today, piles of trash lie all around Kafr Aqab, potholes are ubiquitous, several roads are unpaved and sidewalks are scarce, many residential buildings are constructed in contravention of regulations, and there are no post offices or outdoor parks.
Parked cars often block in other vehicles, contractors frequently leave construction materials in the middle of the street, sewage water routinely seeps to the surface of some roads and the sole hospital is a maternity clinic.
Fadl Ajlouni, a 42-year-old car painter from Kafr Aqab, said that following a recent storm he had to cross a small pond of rainwater to exit his home.
“No one came to drain the flood,” he said. “We had to walk through the huge pool of water for two days to enter and leave our building.”
The population of the neighborhood, meanwhile, has swelled to an estimated 60,000-70,000. Its inexpensive housing has attracted many newlyweds as well as families looking to maintain their Jerusalem residency statuses.
Since the 1990s, the Interior Ministry has revoked the residency statuses from East Jerusalemites for relocating to the West Bank, Gaza Strip or abroad, according to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group.
“Families who cannot afford to live in other neighborhoods [in Jerusalem] move here,” Odeh said.
A two- to three-bedroom apartment in Kafr Aqab costs approximately one-third the price of a similar place in nearby Beit Hanina, which the barrier did not cut off from the rest of Jerusalem, according to Odeh.
And more recently, some Israeli officials, including former Jerusalem mayor and newly elected Likud MK Nir Barkat and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin, have floated cutting Kafr Aqab out of Jerusalem.
Odeh said that he worries about the structural quality of the apartment buildings that have recently popped up all around Kafr Aqab.
“These structures were not built according to code,” he said, pointing to the buildings from an adjacent hilltop. “The only ones supervising them are the contractors, whose sole interest is making money.”
Many of the buildings stand as tall as 14 stories and hold dozens of water tanks and heaters on their roofs. A substantial number of the structures sit in close proximity to each other, in some cases a mere couple of meters apart.
Ramadan Dabash, a former Jerusalem mayoral candidate and a civil engineer, echoed Odeh’s concerns about the buildings in Kafr Aqab.
“Many of the structures in Kafr Aqab were constructed with cheap materials,” said Dabash, who said he has examined a number of buildings in the area. “There is a real fear that some of them could collapse if a major earthquake were to take place.”
In 2018, several minor earthquakes shook northern Israel, raising concern about the possibility of a more powerful convulsion hitting the Jewish state in the near future.
An official in the Jerusalem Municipality admitted that much of the construction in Kafr Aqab does not adhere to government regulations, but said the local authority’s limited access to the neighborhood has undermined its ability to supervise it.
“Since the barrier was constructed in the early 2000s, a situation has been created in which it is essentially impossible for us, as a municipality, to carry out our responsibilities in Kafr Aqab,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We have been compelled to become dependent on the security services. Whenever we want to enter the neighborhood, we are required to be escorted by them. We simply cannot move around freely there, and of course, this security reality has negatively affected our ability to provide services and supervise construction.”
The official said that the municipality has resorted to hiring private companies to provide many services on its behalf in Kafr Aqab.
Munir Zughayer, an activist who leads a committee that frequently complains to the Jerusalem Municipality about the state of services in Kafr Aqab, expressed concern about the lack of law enforcement in the neighborhood.
“The police and the other law enforcement bodies almost never come here,” he said. “When a car accident, a robbery, a violent dispute or other incidents take place, we call the police, but they do not dispatch anyone here.”
There is no permanent police presence in Kafr Aqab; many residents said law enforcement rarely enters the neighborhood.
But Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld pushed back on Zughayer’s contention that police officers rarely go to Kafr Aqab.
“We respond to all calls and when necessary, we send our forces, including the border police, into Kafr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp,” he said.
Reports in the Palestinian press in April said that the Border Police had recently entered Kafr Aqab at least twice.
Residents said that the police only entered the neighborhood for a short period of time to hand out fines to businesses, however.
“They did not come to provide us security,” said Yasser Abu Sharkh, a 45-year-old resident of Kafr Aqab. “They only came here to issue fines for tax-related matters and collect funds.”
The official at the municipality appeared to agree with Zughayer’s assessment of the security services’ activities in Kafr Aqab more than that of Rosenfeld.
“The security services unfortunately have not made security in Kafr Aqab enough of a priority,” he said.
Zughayer added that the lack of law enforcement has forced family elders to mediate and resolve disputes.
“The family leaders have undertaken work in brokering disputes, but they are no replacement for a permanent and professional police presence here.”
A number of Kafr Aqab residents also expressed concerns about traffic on the section of Ramallah Road leading to the Qalandiya crossing.
“The checkpoint has made a short distance feel so far,” said Osama Mahlees, a 36-year-old resident of Kafr Aqab. “It often takes more than an hour and sometimes two hours to go two kilometers.”
Cars traveling from Kafr Aqab toward Qalandiya frequently sit in heavy traffic in the morning and afternoon as well as when clashes break out in the area between Israeli security forces and young Palestinians.
Jamal, a 38-year-old merchant in the neighborhood, said the checkpoint has forced one of his children to head out to school several hours before classes start.
“Even though we are not far from my son’s school, he has no choice but to leave early to cross the checkpoint and make it there in time,” said Jamal, who declined to give his last name. “There is jam-packed traffic almost every day. It is not fair because we waste so much time and gas.”
On most days, tens of thousands of cars use the road leading to the checkpoint, including Palestinians traveling from Ramallah to the southern West Bank.
At the crossing, Israeli security personnel usually check that drivers and passengers have permission to enter Israel and sometimes ask follow-up questions before deciding whether to wave them through.
Zaghayer said placing traffic police officers in Kafr Aqab could significantly mitigate the congestion.
“We don’t care whether it’s Israeli or Palestinian police personnel, but we want someone to come here and direct the traffic,” he said. “Just having a few security people organizing the movement of cars would make our lives much easier.”
Asked why the police have not assigned officers to direct traffic in Kafr Aqab, Rosenfeld declined to comment.
Another Jerusalem Municipality official said that the body intends to complete a multi-million shekel project to construct a new road exclusively for public transportation from Kafr Aqab and the Ramallah area to the checkpoint.
“We are building a completely new road for public transportation that will start in the middle of Kafr Aqab and run all the way to the checkpoint,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The road will have sidewalks and street lights, unlike other places in the area, and will significantly decrease the traffic on Ramallah Road.”
He said that the municipality plans to finish construction on the road by the end of the year.
Approaching the courts
In the past several years, Kafr Aqab residents have turned to Israeli courts to compel authorities to improve services in their neighborhood.
In July 2015, Odeh, Zughayer, other residents of the neighborhood and Ir Amim, a non-governmental group that advocates for better services for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to make authorities build sidewalks, paint crosswalks, put up street signs and fix sewage.
Several months later, in November 2015, the court ruled that the Jerusalem Municipality needed to create a plan within three months “to improve and fix roads, including sidewalks and the sewage system” and prepare to implement it within six months.
The local governing body, however, took more than two years produce a plan, bucking the court’s order.
Odeh said that the plan did not come close to meeting what Kafr Aqab’s roads need.
“It’s simply insufficient,” he said. “The municipality has to invest much more if it really wants to help us.”
The plan lists funds that the Jerusalem Municipality intends to spend on improving the road infrastructure in Kafr Aqab in 2018-2024. For example, it states that NIS 705,419 will be spent in 2019, NIS 652,416 in 2022 and NIS 1,128,576 in 2024.
Odeh and his fellow petitioners subsequently turned to the High Court of Justice to demand that the Jerusalem Municipality develop a more substantial plan, but the judicial body did not accept its petition.
“Basically the court said that what the municipality had prepared was sufficient,” Odeh said. “Its decision was a major disappointment for us and we are now looking into other ways to bring better services to Kafr Aqab.”
The Jerusalem Municipality official took issue with Odeh’s description of the plan, arguing that it constituted an “important” effort to improve services in Kafr Aqab.
“We know there are gaps, but the plan is a part of an attempt to provide better services there and the court understood that,” he said, noting improvements have been made to parts of the sewerage system in the past couple of years.
A spokeswoman for the Gihon Water Company, which is responsible for sewerage in Jerusalem, said while the sewerage system in the neighborhood “suffers many defects,” the company installed and upgraded 4.67 kilometers of sewage lines there between 2016 and 2018.
The spokeswoman said that in the areas of Kafr Aqab, where Gihon has carried out work, the number of defects has “significantly decreased.”
Back near Ramallah Road, a young man called out to everyone in his vicinity, asking whether they owned a parked vehicle blocking his car.
Abu Sharkh, the middle-aged resident of Kafr Aqab, said he sees the cars blocking each other every day.
“This shows you exactly how things work here,” he said. “You can do whatever you want and nobody is going to stop you.”
In the background, the man continued to shout at people in frustration, asking if they knew who owned the car that was preventing him from moving his own.