Open-air Prisons in Jerusalem: Shuafat Refugee Camp and Kufr Aqab

Shuafat refugee camp, August 28, 2004. Photo credit: Hozifa Sorour for WAFA.

Israel is cited as maintaining the largest open-air prison in the world in Gaza. Israeli rule over East Jerusalem has created similarly unlivable conditions for Palestinians in the holy city.


Since the first day of the 1967 occupation of Jerusalem, Israeli authorities not only changed the status of Jerusalem, but also perused changing the character of the city – namely, by implementing policies to minimize the number of Palestinians in the municipality, while maximizing the number of Israeli Jews. Significantly, Israeli authorities categorized Palestinians in East Jerusalem as “permanent residents,” a status that makes their presence a revocable privilege rather than an inherent right.

In 2002, Israeli authorities further altered Jerusalem by cordoning off Shuafat refugee camp, Kufr Aqab, al-Walaja and al-Sawahra with the separation wall. These areas nevertheless remained part of the municipality and therefore under full Israeli civil and military control. The wall was built with the dual intention of capturing as much territory as possible (approximately 160 square kilometers) and severing as many Palestinians as possible from Jerusalem.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that as a consequence of these developments about 160,000 Palestinians live as residents of Jerusalem yet are disconnected from the city by a massive wall and web of military checkpoints. Most of these Palestinians live in and around Shuafat refugee camp (approximately 80,000) and Kufr Aqab (approximately 60,000) according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). This report will examine the ways in which discriminatory Israeli policies have over time created conditions in Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab that, in effect, transform these areas into open-air Israeli prisons – a concept typically used to describe the affects of the Israeli siege on Gaza Strip.

Decades of expulsion

In 1948, Zionist militias conquered 78 percent of Historic Palestine by destroying 419 Palestinian towns and villages and expelling approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. Palestinians call this event the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe.” Jerusalem was divided into two parts – East and West. Less than 20 years later, in 1967, Israeli forces occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities redrew the municipal borders of Jerusalem, tripling its size, and annexed the area.

The international community recognizes Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents as protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The UN Security Council maintains that all legislative measures and actions taken by Israel to alter the character and status of Jerusalem are null and void under UN resolutions 252, 267, 471, 476, 478. Nevertheless, in 1980 Israeli parliament passed Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel to formalize its annexation of the holy city in Israeli law.

The 1994 Olso Accords maintained Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab as part of the Israeli municipality, and therefore under full Israeli civil and military control. Consequently, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is prohibited from operating there in any capacity. In 2002, Israeli authorities isolated Shuafat refugee camp, Kufr Aqab, al-Walaja and al-Sawahra with the separation wall.

Shuafat refugee camp

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) established the Shu‘fat Refugee Camp in 1965 in the northern part of the Jerusalem district. The camp was initially envisioned to house about 1,500 Palestinians to address overcrowding in M’askar refugee camp, which served refugees of the 1948 Nakba in Jerusalem’s Old City. However, in 1967, Palestinians again found themselves needing to flee Jerusalem (many for a second time) and some went to Shuafat refugee camp.

The camp is the only Palestinian refugee camp within the Jerusalem borders and today consists of approximately 80,000 Palestinians. UNRWA continues to operate there, administering basic services such as schools, garbage, and some construction regulation, though in all of these responsibilities it is severely over capacity. About half of the population in the camp is registered as refugees with the UN and about half maintain Jerusalem residency. Residents pay taxes to the Israeli municipality.

Map of the Israeli wall in Jerusalem, July 2017. Photo credit: OCHA.

Kufr Aqab

Kufr Aqab village was established in the 17th century, according to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem. It is in the northern part of the Jerusalem district, on the main road that connects the cities of Jerusalem and Ramallah. Prior to 1967, only few thousand Palestinians lived there reports Head of Kufr Aqab’s Neighborhood Committee Munir Zaghayr. Since 1967, the population has soared to 60,000 as Palestinian have sought to avoid the impossible living conditions in more central areas of Jerusalem and maintain residency rights. In 1984, Israeli authorities confiscated 2,037 dunams of land from the village – about 30 percent of Kufr Aqab – to create the Kokhav Ta’acov settlement. The exact proportion of residents of Kufr Aqab with Jerusalem residency cards today is unknown, though some estimate they constitute the majority. Residents pay taxes to the Israeli municipality.

Jerusalem residency rights

While the Israeli government has cut off Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab with the wall, since 1995 Palestinians living there have been affected by the “center of life” policy that is imposed on all Palestinians in Jerusalem. The policy dictates that if Palestinians cannot prove that their everyday lives revolve around the city then they lose their residency rights and must relocate to the West Bank. Even if a Palestinian can meet this standard, Israeli authorities retain the power to revoke residency rights, sometimes as a measure of collective punishment. Between 1967 and 2016, Israeli authorities revoked the status of at least 14,595 Palestinians from East Jerusalem according to the Interior Ministry.

Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab experienced a major influx of residents after the center of life policy was established and the wall was built. Palestinians with Jerusalem residency in other suburbs moved to these areas to protect the status of maintaining their “center of life” in the city, while avoiding the housing crisis in East Jerusalem. The center of life policy also compelled Palestinians with Jerusalem residency married to Palestinians with West Bank residency to live in these areas. It is the only place for their families to remain united without one spouse losing Jerusalem residency rights, or one spouse living “illegally” on the Jerusalem side of the wall. The process for family unification, i.e. to transfer Jerusalem residency to West Bank or Gaza residents through marriage, has been effectively frozen since 2002. In fact, Jerusalem residency is not even automatically transferred to the Palestinian holder’s children.

Military checkpoints

In addition to being cordoned off from Jerusalem with a wall, Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab are strangled with Israeli military checkpoints. This means that to travel within most of the West Bank and access Jerusalem, Palestinians in these areas must encounter Israeli soldiers who, depending on the day or their mood, may check IDs and do bag, car, and body searches, or even conduct interrogations, arrests, and extrajudicial executions.

Shuafat and Qalandia checkpoints are the primary checkpoints in these areas that control Palestinian access to Jerusalem. Resident of Shuafat refugee camp and Chairman of the Committee to Resist the Separation Wall and Settlements Hamdi Diab explains:

Tens of thousands of residents in the camp are allowed to pass to Jerusalem only through a single checkpoint [for Shuafat refugee camp]. The checkpoint is usually crowded and people suffer delays to work, school and universities. Often residents are delayed for over an hour. It is unbelievable that Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs must pass a checkpoint to access their city. It is like big prison.

Likewise, resident of Kufr Aqab and member of the Committee of the Parents of Students Abu Zakariyya el-Sous cites Qalanida checkpoint as causing daily and unprecedented major delays and complications for Palestinian residents. Sometimes Qalandia is entirely closed to Palestinian traffic, he emphasizes, such as when Israeli authorities hope to suppress Palestinian protests in the area or on Jewish holidays.

Precarious development

Israeli authorities have shown themselves to be as committed to expanding illegal settlements as they are to obstructing Palestinian development in Jerusalem. All of the Jerusalem municipality’s urban plans overtly seek to maximize the number of Jews in the city and reduce the number of Palestinians. The situation in Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab is exemplary of this dynamic. Israeli authorities devote almost no money to improving infrastructure for Palestinians in the areas: legal expert Moin Odeh reports that in 2015 out of a budget of 880 million shekel to improve infrastructure in Jerusalem, the Israeli municipality allocated Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab just 800,000 shekel – roughly .1 percent. Indeed, in Kufr Aqab not a single Israeli building permit has been issued since 2001 according to OCHA.

Lack of municipal funding for infrastructure paired with Israeli authorities’ refusal to issue building permits is typical for Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. A key part of this system is zoning just 8 to 13 percent of land in East Jerusalem for Palestinian residential construction. This forces many East Jerusalem residents to build without a construction permit to avoid overcrowding and secure basic needs. Indeed, as many as 20,000 homes – or 39% of all homes in East Jerusalem – lack Israeli construction permits and residents consequently live under constant fear of demolition according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. OCHA reports that as of May 21, 2018 there have been at least 66 house demolitions in East Jerusalem in 2018.

Existing land use designations, East Jerusalem. Graphic by UN Human Settlements Program.

What is unique to both Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab is that because Israeli authorities suspended municipal services to the areas following the building of the wall in 2002, the areas experience fewer house demolitions than other parts of East Jerusalem. However, because the Palestinian Authority is barred from assuming responsibilities in the neighborhoods, residents are left with no choice but to build homes without any regulation whatsoever to account for increasing populations sizes. Consequently, buildings do not receive engineering supervision or adhere to safety standards. UNRWA’s project director in the Shuafat refugee camp Christoph von Toggenburg told Ir Amim in 2013 that in the event of an earthquake he believes about 80 percent of buildings in the camp would collapse. Ir Amim also found that in 2012 the number of building starts in Kufr Aqab accounted for 83 percent of the total number of building starts in the entire city of Jerusalem.

Inaccessible education

The drop out rate from primary and secondary school in East Jerusalem stands at 40 percent, according to ACRI. The state of education in Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab undoubtedly contributes significantly to this statistic, as education is incredibly inaccessible for children in these neighborhoods.

In Shuafat refugee camp, UNRWA maintains two primary schools, but children must leave the area to attend secondary school. In Kufr Aqab village there are 17 schools, but they cannot keep up with the growing population in the area and classrooms are severely overcrowded. El Sous adds that these schools are run by a small group of individuals who are able to receive permission from the Israeli municipality. These people run education “like contractors running a business.” “This issue is very dangerous for the upcoming generations of children growing up in Kufr Aqab,” El Sous says.

In both Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab, most families send children to schools in Jerusalem to avoid the subpar schools and secure further proof that Jerusalem remains at the center of their lives. Of course, this requires students to pass through Israeli military checkpoints nearly everyday. The trip is not only exhausting, but also risky due to the instable security conditions. Students arrive to their educational institutions physically and psychologically exhausted. Many parents accompany young children through the checkpoints everyday to ensure their safety.

Obstacles to health

One of the major challenges that Palestinians in the two areas face is the difficulty in accessing the health services and facilities due to the wall. Israeli authorities do not provide health clinics and hospitals, though UNRWA maintains a single health clinic in Shuafat refugee camp. Consequently, most of the Jerusalemites within these areas seek health services in Ramallah’s hospitals and clinics. For those who pay Israeli taxes and therefore also receive Israeli healthcare, this system results in them paying for healthcare twice. However, especially when sick or in an emergency, it is simply too difficult to cross the checkpoints to utilize Israeli hospitals.

Finally, only a few Palestinian ambulances are allowed to evacuate Palestinians from Kufr Aqab or Shuafat refugee camp and when authorization is granted it is done so for one hour according toOCHA. Israeli Magen David Adom ambulances refuse to enter these areas without a police escort, including in life threatening situations. Sometimes, Palestinian families will transport the sick to checkpoints where Israeli ambulances will pick them up, though the delay in care can prove fatal.

Insecurity

There is no security presence in those two localities. Israeli police and military forces solely enter to raid the areas in order to arrest Palestinians or conduct punitive house demolitions. As noted above, the PA cannot operate in any role in either Shuafat refugee camp or Kufr Aqab according to the Oslo Accords. Shop owner in Kufur Aqab Muhammad Salhab explains: “it is true that commercial activities in the village are strong and there are all kinds of shops and stores, yet the lack of security causes chaos and encourages stealing and other crimes.”

In 2017, Israeli authorities installed the first police station in Shuafat refugee camp. A Shuafat resident explained to the Jerusalem Post: “It’s a mistake, because when I see more police I think, ‘OK, they will close our streets, they will come into our homes, and I will have to leave for work an hour earlier because there will be more checkpoints.’”

Water and sewage

Palestinians residents of Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab suffer from spotty utilities, including water and sewage, despite paying taxes to Israeli municipal authorities. “The street is full of the sewage and the infrastructure is not prepared or built to solve this issue,” says Diab of Shuafat refugee camp. Member of the Kufr Aqab Local Committee Muneer Ashraf adds that water is not provided regularly to Kufr Aqab and people are forced to purchase water containers that are very expensive. Water problems persist in Shuafat refugee camp too, where according to ACRI the existing water lines are sufficient for only 10% of the population.

In terms of garbage, both areas have major issues securing regular garbage collection. ACRI found in 2012 that just 2 million shekel were earmarked for garbage disposal in Kufr Aqab out of a total budget of 328 million shekel. In Shuafat refugee camp, though UNRWA collects some garbage, it cannot fulfill the demand. Residents in both areas resort to burning their garbage, which poses a new kind of environmental hazard at the same time as it physically rids the area of heaps of garbage.

Conclusion

The Israeli government is often cited as maintaining the largest open-air prison in the world in Gaza, where nearly two million Palestinians live besieged by air, land and sea and are routinely shelled and shot by Israeli soldiers. Palestinians there live without adequate infrastructure, including water, sewage, and electricity. However, Israeli rule over East Jerusalem has created over time similarly unlivable conditions on Palestinian refugees in the holy city. Two of the most striking instances of Israeli open-air prisons in Jerusalem are Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab village. It is clear that collectively punishing these two Palestinian civilian neighborhoods is a political move by Israel to rid Jerusalem of Palestinians in favor of implanting more Israeli colonial settlers into occupied territory. The situation is only growing more grave: since Donald Trump was inaugurated some 14,454 settlements units in the West Bank have been approved – more than three times the amount approved in the year and half before his presidency. Moreover, in response to Palestinian resistance to Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocation of the US Embassy there, Israeli soldiers shot and killed at least 125 Palestinians in Gaza, in 2018.

Ahmad Jaradat is the Senior Project Coordinator of the Alternative Information Center (AIC).

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