A walk through the narrow alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem can be a spiritual and emotional experience. It can also be very frustrating. Alongside the ancient stone walls and cobble stoned roads, the high arches and tiny nooks and crevices, there is a frenzied bustle, a clamor magnified by the close quarters and trash piled up in dirty corners and strewn haphazardly along the streets.
And people are everywhere –” in the tiny shops lining both sides of the roads, in the homes tucked away in neat neighborhoods to the sides of the market and passersby, making their way to wherever people go. Children weave their way on scooters and bicycles along the busy streets and an occasional car squeezes through one of the few roads large enough for vehicles.
It is a similar image that the West Jerusalem municipality conjured up when it released its new plan for Jerusalem on September 13, which, among other points, calls for the “rehabilitation” of the Old City. According to a report published in the Israeli daily Haaretz on September 14, the plan proposed by West Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky, city engineer Uri Shitrit and head of the planning team Moshe Cohen, calls for “massive intervention” to prevent overcrowding in the Old City.
The report said that government funds would be used to offer alternative housing outside the Old City walls to interested residents. Shufat Refugee Camp, the only refugee camp in East Jerusalem, which the municipality promised to rehabilitate, was proposed as an alternative residence.
Palestinians, who consider Jerusalem as the capital of any future Palestinian state, quickly shot down the plan, dubbing it as just another ploy by Israel to impose its sovereignty over both sectors of the divided city.
“This plan is not new,” says head of the Jerusalem Center of Social and Economic Rights (JCSER), Ziad Hammouri. “This has been Israel’s ‘silent’ plan ever since 1967, and it is aimed at consolidating Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem while creating the least amount of tension.”
Hammouri argues that Israel has pursued a policy of Judiazation of Jerusalem since it conquered the eastern sector of the city in 1967, demolishing whole sectors of the Old City such as the Sharaf neighborhood, which is now the Jewish Quarter and confiscating vast areas of land while making others “green areas.” The end result, he says, is that Palestinians were left with approximately 14 percent of the land of East Jerusalem to live and build on.
This new plan Hammouri believes is aimed at thinning out the Arab presence in East Jerusalem and the Old City in particular to make way for more Jewish settlers, so Israel will be able further tip the demographic scales in its favor. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem already constitute a minority, at approximately 33 percent of the population. According to the JCSER’s statistics, there are around 32,000 people in the Old City, 29,000 of whom are Palestinian. “What Israel ultimately wants is for no more than 15,000 to 20,000 people to live inside the walls.”
The Old City is crowded and Palestinians do not deny it. Because of lack of horizontal space, homes are built skyward, with floor upon floor like card houses. According to West Jerusalem municipality sources, there are 119.5 people per dunam in the Old City, 10 to 20 times higher than in other areas in Jerusalem.
There is a myriad of reasons for this, not least of which is Israel’s policy of demanding that Jerusalemites maintain their “center of life” in the city lest their Jerusalem ID cards be confiscated. When Israel stepped up this policy in 1995, thousands of Jerusalem residents returned to the city and resettled, many in family homes inside the Old City walls.
In addition, with the Intifada entering its fourth year, Israel’s separation wall being erected throughout the Palestinian territories, Jerusalem included, and the increasing economic and political isolation of Jerusalem from the West Bank, there is also a tangible sense of patriotism among the populace.
Abed works in a tiny shop in the heart of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. A few years ago his father decided to build another floor above their own modest house in one of the quarters’ cramped and overpopulated neighborhoods. The house is still unfinished, basically because it was built without the proper licensing and the Israeli police are constantly breathing down their backs with every brick put in place.
Abed’s parents hope that one day their only son will marry and bring his bride to live in the tiny space above them. But what if he were offered a more spacious home outside the Old City and far from the confined area where he was born? “I would not leave for anything,” he says, more defiantly after realizing that his relocation would be part of an Israeli master plan for Jerusalem. “Israel’s only goal is to get rid of the Palestinians so they can have the city for themselves.”
This sense of defiance is felt acutely in Palestinians outside the Old City as well. In the dusty streets of the Shufat Refugee Camp, residents there are convinced that Jerusalemites will resist any “Israeli conspiracy” to push them out of their future capital.
“Since 1967, only the weak-hearted have caved into Israeli plans,” says Sheikh Abdullah Alqam, head of the Jerusalem reform committee and one of the first arrivals to the camp in 1965. “These people can be counted on the fingers of your hands. Our goal is to move closer to Jerusalem’s walls and minarets, not to abandon them.”
Sandwiched between the Jewish settlements of Pisgat Zeev to the right and French Hill to the left, Shufat Refugee Camp has had its own share of problems. With 38,000 people currently living in the camp, on an area no more than 210 dunams, there is hardly any room for newcomers. The streets are infested with refuse and open sewers and residents say the camp is popularly known as “Chicago” because of the rampant drug problem. “You can get everything from marijuana to crystal,” says Ayman Sumeira, head of the Israeli government-run Kupat Holim medical center in the camp.
And, according to West Jerusalem Municipality projections, the camp will fall on the West Bank side of the separation wall, thus further hindering any future growth. Sumeira says Israel has systematically targeted Jerusalemites through means other than brute military force. “People only think of how they are going to get food on the table, how they will pay taxes and how they will get drugs. It is what I like to call a new kind of occupation. They can occupy us without an army.”
By the looks of the camp, this rings very true. Although residents pay the Israeli Arnona tax, which in turn should provide them with municipality services similar to the rest of Jerusalem, they say it takes days for garbage to be collected, and the streets reek of the smell of open sewers. Building is vertical here most of the time for lack of horizontal space and construction licenses are extremely difficult as well as very expensive to come by. According to Hammouri, a building license can cost up to $25,000 to $30,000 and can take three to five years to obtain it, if ever.
For Shufat, this problem is compounded by the fact that the original camp is under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, which means that this area cannot be expanded further than the plot on which it was founded in 1964.
Therefore, any proposed transfer of residents from the Old City to the camp area seems illogical from more aspect than one. Still, Hammouri is not sure that Old City residents, weary of living in cramped quarters and unaware of Israel’s long term plans, will not take the bait. “Because of people’s low economic status and the extreme overcrowding in some quarters, some may fall into their trap,” he says. “Israel has used deceptive ways for years to gain control of property inside the Old City and people are not always aware of what they are facing.”
Hammouri is referring to the Jewish settlement takeover of houses and properties in the Old City, which is currently inhabited by some 3,000 Jewish settlers. “They forge documents, intimidate people and encourage them to sign legal papers. By then it is too late and the owners cannot afford the legal costs of taking the case to court.”
Not surprisingly, Israeli officials in Jerusalem deny there is any foul play where Palestinian Jerusalemites are concerned. “This is sheer nonsense,” says Jerusalem city planner, Uri Shitrit in reference to any plans to transfer Old City residents to other areas. “There are no plans to evacuate residents and certainly no compensation is being offered to those who leave. These methods have been gone for a long time.”
Rather, Shitrit says the plan calls for the rehabilitation of certain quarters and a limitation on further expansion and also includes increased construction in certain sectors of East Jerusalem.
This all sounds good and well, if it were not for other statements, which were released just days after this master plan was announced. On September 24, West Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski announced in a letter to the Israeli housing ministry that he wants to rezone a neighborhood of the Wadi Al Joz region in East Jerusalem for the purpose of settling Jews.
Lupolianski said that this move would, “contribute significantly to the unification of the city because it lies between Mount Scopus and the Old City.”
Already, this area has been severed by the Maa’eleh Adumim tunnel, which connects between this major East Jerusalem settlement and West Jerusalem. The tunnel effectively cuts the city in half and has created a purely Jewish pocket in the midst of East Jerusalem.
With Jerusalem already ringed by Jewish settlements and settlers steadily creeping into the eastern sector, it is no surprise that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are squaring their shoulders for a new demographic battle. Many are optimistic that in spite of the odds stacked against them, they have “steadfastness” on their side.
Abed’s defiance is typical. If his dreams for a family come crashing down with the bulldozers that may demolish his “illegal” home –” part of the municipality plan is to limit construction in the Old City –” he says he still would not abandon ship. “Then, my only remaining choice would be to squeeze in with my family.”