The Diplomat of Sheikh Jarrah

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In the Jerusalem Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem near Damascus Gate in the Old City you can hear the music of the oud wafting through the air on Friday and Saturday nights for its crowd of hotel guests and regulars. It’s an oasis of peace in tense Jerusalem, the crowd a bit more down to earth than the tonier American Colony further down the street on Nablus Road. The beer is always cold, the staff is friendly and you always get pretzels and olives with your drink.

But for Raed Saadeh, Managing Director of the Jerusalem Hotel, the Municipality of Jerusalem is once again eroding his ability to do business. Not only do they place an ugly metal garbage disposal in front of his establishment which he considers unhealthy and aesthetically unpleasant, but the Municipality plans to close off Nablus Road to allow only public transportation through. In his view, it would make parking difficult for his customers and add to the regulatory burden which already affects businesses in this area of East Jerusalem.

Since 1991, the area has been infested with a parking problem. In 1993, the State revoked the status of the Ramallah bus company and the state run Egged buses took over the Nablus Road bus station across the street. There was still illegal transit available into the West Bank. By 1998, the experiment proved to be a disaster and the municipality removed the Egged buses. The bus companies which serviced areas of the West Bank and the outer edges of East Jerusalem reclaimed the Nablus Road station. The issue of legal and illegal operators double parking and creating street congestion continued to be an issue.

He views the present plan to close off Nablus road to private vehicles roughly between the nearby American consulate and the Nablus Road bus station as a disproportionate response to the problem.

This isn’t just a parking issue – this is Jerusalem after all. Even a run of the mill municipal parking issue has everything to do with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict here.

Saadeh sees these regulatory burdens as part of a broader Israeli policy to weaken the Palestinian urban existence in places like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa and to shift central services to the Israeli centers of town. He sees a trend towards depriving the Arab urban populations of their civil, political, cultural and economic centers. These series of small measures taken by municipalities at the planning level are either weakening or suffocating the income of the residents. Where Jaffa was once the cultural capital of British Mandate Palestine, it is now a marginal neighbourhood of Tel Aviv according to him.

The Municipality in his view is doing the minimum required and creating a void which will impoverish its residents and weaken its businesses. This is the neighbourhood where the Orient House was once open and holy sites like the Garden Tomb, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Mosque of Saad and Said, the White Sisters Convent, Schmidt’s Girls College and many other historical landmarks like the American Colony.

In the 90’s more Jewish housing estates have been established in Sheikh Jarrah and state run institutions have been built there including the police station in 1995.

Much has changed since 1967 when Israel captured the area from Jordan and years later annexed most of East Jerusalem. French Hill, the nearby Jewish neighbourhood now has over 25,000 residents. This population expansion inevitably has an effect on its surrounding neighbourhoods.

As with the rest of East Jerusalem, there are major issues with gentrification, land confiscation, receiving housing permits, recognition of land ownership and approvals for renovations and new construction irrespective of all the issues associated with the Separation Wall and the movement restrictions.

As the urban planners make preparations to make Sheikh Jarrah a marginal neighbourhood at the peripheries, Raed Saadeh, the Diplomat of Sheikh Jarrah, will be there watching them every step of the way.

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