Stuck between Israel and the PA, Shuafat refugee camp seethes

Neither the Jerusalem Municipality nor the Palestinian government is in charge, leaving 80,000 Palestinians to stew in a fetid, crime-ridden neighborhood north of the city

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian youth throw stones during clashes with Border Police in the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem following Friday prayers on November 7, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Palestinian youth throw stones during clashes with Border Police in the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem following Friday prayers on November 7, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s hard to describe the Shuafat refugee camp as anything but a ticking time bomb. It seems to be the most dangerous place in the West Bank and East Jerusalem these days.

Located roughly 400 meters away from the residential buildings of Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood and a few hundred meters away from the neighborhood of French Hill, it’s where stoning attacks occur on a daily basis and where violent clashes took place on a larger scale last summer.

Shuafat is the point of origin from which Hamas member Ibrahim al-Akari set out last November to perpetrate one of the recent “lone wolf” vehicular assaults, killing a Border Police officer and wounding 14 people. Local residents estimate the number of weapons held by people here is the thousands. The level of crime is also unusual compared to any other place in Israel or the West Bank.

But Shuafat stands out above all for its squalor, its stink and its poor standard of living.

Approximately 80,000 people live in Shuafat and the new neighborhoods that have been built around it, in terribly overcrowded conditions. Most of the new buildings that can be seen from the road leading down toward the Dead Sea were constructed illegally and built very high, with no access roads. This new-old Palestinian city, in a continual state of expansion, is surrounded by walls and fences. While most of the residents have blue Israeli identification cards, only some of them have Israeli citizenship.

This city, such as it is, is divided into four main neighborhoods or sections. The original refugees, whom the Israeli government moved there from the Old City’s Jewish Quarter after the Six Day War, live in Ras Khamis. At the time they were moved here, the site had only 450 housing units. Over time, the refugees moved eastward toward the hillside, where most of the camp’s residential buildings are today. They are accorded special refugee status according to the UN’s definition, and the area where they live is not under Jerusalem’s municipal jurisdiction. Responsibility for the camp rests with UNRWA.

The Shuafat Refugee Camp from the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev, in northeast Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/Flash90 )
The Shuafat Refugee Camp from the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, in northeast Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/Flash90 )

But the new neighborhoods, where roughly half the inhabitants live — Ras Shahada and Dahiyat al-Salaam — were constructed by the Jerusalem municipality. The people who live here are not necessarily refugees, but Palestinians who came from the camp or from areas in the West Bank such as Hebron and Nablus. The proximity to Jerusalem and low prices of apartments brought quite a few families to live here, opposite the Mount of Olives. Because this area of land belongs to Jerusalem, the municipality is supposed to provide for the residents’ problems of sanitation, electricity, education and so on. But despite the municipality’s efforts, the solutions it provides are partial and limited at best.

A long traffic jam stretches in the mornings along the main road that divides the camp’s residential buildings from the new neighborhoods, or between the area that is Jerusalem and the area that is not. The cars wait to reach the checkpoint at Shuafat’s entrance. There are hardly any properly paved roads or sidewalks. A young girl walking to school in the road — there was no other place for her to walk — was hit by a car and killed here a few weeks ago.

The odor of refuse, which is piled up in every corner and set ablaze, is perhaps the hardest aspect to deal with. Aware that there is no one to pick up the trash, the residents burn it in the open air, and the smoke hovers everywhere. In the new neighborhoods, which warrant daily trash collection, the municipal contractors remove it only twice a week. At the same time, UNRWA garbage trucks are hardly visible in the refugee camp. When we saw an UNRWA garbage truck in a camp alleyway, one of the neighbors swore to us that the garbage near his home had not been picked up for more than 20 days.

Caught between hammer and anvil

We meet Nur ad-Din at the entrance to his home on the camp’s northern slope, fairly close to the residential buildings of Pisgat Ze’ev. He has been sitting here since morning, looking out over the enormous trash heap in front of his home, from which smoke rises.

“I tell people to stop throwing trash here. This is the entrance to my home. They [UNRWA] do not pick it up, and the pile just grows larger. I warn the people to stop, and I know that I will have no choice but to do something about it,” he says, without elaborating.

Nur ad-Din, 43 and a father of six, was arrested during the First Intifada and served 12 years in an Israeli prison. He has no need to express his frustration and anger in words; one glance at the trash heap near the gate of his home says it all.

“There was a metal bin, but it was too small. Many years have gone by, the population here has grown, and the bin is still the same bin. Garbage collects here by the ton,” he says in the pure Hebrew of a native Jerusalemite. “UNRWA does not pick it up because they say they can’t, that they do not have enough workers and resources to deal with our needs. UNRWA’s manager in the camp, who sits in his office all day, cut off from the people who live here, says that as far as the scope of its work is concerned, nothing has changed since 1967.

“The Palestinian groups do not contribute anything either. Fatah does not exist in the camp; that is a fiction. There is a ‘popular committee’ of the PLO that is supposed to handle the day-to-day issues of the camp, but they do not do their jobs. I went to the institutions that transfer money to the popular committee and asked them to stop their funding because they do not do a thing.”

Asked why the situation here is so dire, he has plenty of answers.

Palestinian youths clash with Israeli Border Police at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp on November 5, following a terrorist attack that day in Jerusalem by a resident of the camp. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/FLASH90)
Palestinian youths clash with Israeli Border Police at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp on November 5, 2014, following a terrorist attack that day in Jerusalem by a resident of the camp. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

“We fall through the cracks. We are not attached to the Palestinian Authority like other camps, where it deals with their issues even on a partial basis. We are attached to Jerusalem, but the residents here do not receive services from the municipality. We do not want the separation barrier. We want the municipality to invest in us. Some of the residents here pay municipal property tax. Here we are caught between the hammer and the anvil. Nobody helps us, and of course that makes many people respond in extreme ways.

“It’s true that there are many educated people and intellectuals from the camp who think positively. They talk about dialogue with the municipality, with the local government in Israel and with the Palestinian Authority. But others, who are not as calm, want to respond with violence, to set things on fire and destroy them.

“I personally think that we need to deal with root causes here, even though many people tell me that our situation has no solution. But in my opinion, if there were cooperation among everyone involved — UNRWA, the Jerusalem municipality, the people who live in the camp — that could lead to change. But until that happens? I am embarrassed to invite people, guests from outside the camp, to my home. Ashamed.”

“Would you like to see something?” he asks. “Come with me.”

About 20 meters away from his home I hear the gurgle of a stream. The flow of water is strong and constant. Nur ad-Din points to an open sewage canal about a meter and a half wide that passes among the residential buildings. This is “Nahal Shuafat” — the Shuafat stream. It is hard to believe. The tiled roofs of Pisgat Ze’ev are almost on top of us, and this is where the camp’s sewage flows, out in the open for all to see.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” he asks. “When we contacted UNRWA, they told us that they were not responsible because it is not in the territory of the camp. The municipality did a partial job, covering part of the sewer and getting it to flow into pipes. But much of it is still flowing freely within the camp. Look — this is where it flows into the wadi. Do you get it?”

It is hard to believe that a place like this exists in Jerusalem in 2015.

“A boy drowned here when he fell into the canal 15 years ago. After that, we put up a stone wall and a fence to block access. But they’re children, and they can get over the fence easily.”

His neighbor, Alkam Suleiman, a sanitation worker at the Jerusalem Municipality, joins the conversation. “We want the Health Ministry of your government, of the Jews, to come and see this. Do you realize what kinds of diseases this spreads? Whenever someone flushes a toilet in Ras Khamis [up the slope], the water passes right here, near my home. In the end, we will have no alternative but to block the canal, and then we will see whether they do not act to solve the problem.”

‘The next intifada will come from here’

Baha Nababta, 28, is a well-known activist of the Emergency Peace Team, which has the job of dealing with emergency situations in the new neighborhoods and in the refugee camp. He and a few of his friends were trained by members of the Jerusalem fire station. They rescued a family from a fire last winter, partly thanks to the training they received. The idea behind establishing the response team was that since Israeli agencies do not enter the camp, the camp’s own residents needed to be able to provide a quick response to fires, medical emergencies and other such events.

The team has more than 20 members, who often provide first aid and rush injured people to the checkpoint, where they meet up with Israeli ambulances (Magen David Adom crews do not enter the camp). They deal on their own with other incidents, from snow removal to helping elderly people in distress.

“The next intifada, if there is one, will come from here, not from Ramallah or Bethlehem,” Nababta says. “Look at Anata, the next village over. The situation there is completely different.”

Indeed, there on the refugee camp’s eastern boundary sits the village of Anata, which is considered to be under the Palestinian Authority’s control as far as civilian affairs are concerned. An operation of the Palestinian Authority’s security services was under way on the day we visited (Tuesday), following a murder that had taken place there. Israel had approved the PA action.

Palestinian protesters stand amid smoke after Israeli forces fired tear gas during clashes in Shuafat, East Jerusalem on July 4, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ THOMAS COEX)
Palestinian protesters stand amid smoke after Israeli forces fired tear gas during clashes in Shuafat, East Jerusalem on July 4, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ THOMAS COEX)

The village is incomparably cleaner than the camp. The investment can be seen clearly. “Their school has a soccer pitch. Why don’t we have one?” Nababta asks, angry. “The number of weapons in our camp is crazy. Four or five people have been murdered since the year began. The number of robbery incidents is crazy. Everybody gets robbed here: stores, elderly men, elderly women. Houses are shot at. Cars are set on fire.

“Once we used to hear about the Juarish neighborhood in Ramle. Here, it’s worse. Israel’s police force isn’t here, the Palestinian Authority’s definitely isn’t, and each person feels that he has to protect himself and have a gun. It’s impossible to say whether the guns are used for nationalistically-motivated or criminal acts. They are used for criminal incidents and at weddings [where guns are fired in celebration] and then for security-related incidents [terror attacks]. A 17-year-old boy was shot two weeks ago. His name was Muntaser. Why? Over a stupid quarrel.

“We have an unusually large quantity of drugs and drug dealers. Everyone knows where they work and where they are. The police do nothing. Drugs, particularly the one known as Mr. Nice Guy [a synthetic cannabinoid], have ruined whole families here. But there’s everything there. There are homes with small laboratories where Mr. Nice Guy is prepared. Do you understand? And again, the police know about them and do nothing. So if Israel doesn’t act in the end, it will pay the price.

“Israel is the one that must decide whether it controls this territory or not. If not, then let them allow the Palestinian Authority to act here, and I promise you that within a week there will be order here. If not, let the Israelis come and impose order, and in that case too, I promise you that the situation will calm down. But they have chosen not to decide. They are leaving the situation as it is, without anyone to make order. And that is deliberate. They enjoy seeing us in this mess of ours. The situation here in the camp is on the edge. And instead of acting here like they ought to do, they do an ‘operation’ and then run off.”

A wider Jerusalem problem

The situation of the Shuafat refugee camp is bad in the extreme. But Jerusalem’s problems do not begin and end here. Ferment against the Israeli authorities, together with quite a bit of talk about an intifada, exists in other parts of East Jerusalem. This differs from the situation in the West Bank, where the idea of a “third intifada” is steadily fading.

Isawiyah, A-Ram, Dahiyat a-Barid, Kafr Aqab, Abu Dis, Izariya, A-Tur — all these East Jerusalem neighborhoods and villages are being mentioned more and more in connection with terror attacks, conflict and violence.

Relatives and friends of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, carry his body to the mosque during his funerals in Shuafat, in israeli annexed East Jerusalem on July 4, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/ Thomas Coex)
Relatives and friends of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, carry his body to the mosque during his funeral in Shuafat, July 4, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/ Thomas Coex)

While most of the ferment has its source in the endless controversy over rights and access to the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the murder of Shuafat teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir last July played a major role in the worsening situation in the city.

All this is on top of the absence of a recognized and strong Palestinian leadership (Monday marked the 14th anniversary of the death of Faisal Husseini, a prominent leader of the PLO who was considered the organization’s leader in Jerusalem) and the problematic economic and social situation of young Palestinians in the city.

The combination creates a feeling of looming threat: if something bad should happen one of these days, heaven forbid, then of all the places in the West Bank, the escalation will most likely come from East Jerusalem.

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