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Hillside at Anata

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A Tale of Two Townships (Tuesday 7 February)

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Monopoly, Jerusalem style

Ma’ale Adummim reminded me of something out of a J.G. Ballard novel. It is a large settlement,  c more the size of a small New Town, built on top of a hill east of Jerusalem, and in many ways it is a nice place. Calling it the Israeli equivalent of Basildon would be an injustice; it is more like an American suburb with its large mall, looping roads and general air of comfort and prosperity. Fountains water the avenues and grass verges of the town and there are several large swimming pools. But, as in any Ballard novel, there are things one sees in the corner of one’s eye that are disturbing and do not fit, something sinister and deliberately blind in the town’s outward calm. The gnarled olive trees by the roundabouts are older the town, hinting at a different sort of place that existed previously. The swimming pools are jarring in the desert landscape – the profligacy with which Ma’ale Adummim uses up scarce water is astonishing. And if you look past the pool and the beautifully engineered highways and connector roads, you can see some small, shabby encampments on the hillsides. These are Bedouin ‘settlements’ of a very different order in the Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank; bleak clusters of makeshift dwellings lacking any obvious access to clean water or public services. An Italian NGO donated a school to one of these encampments, thoughtfully built with materials like tyres that can be easily reassembled if the Israeli army bulldozes the area. Before that, there was nothing.

Not far from Ma’ale Adummim there was another shocking contrast, in the form of the Palestinian town of Anata. In the map of the occupation, it is a bit of an anomaly – part in East Jerusalem, part in Area C, and therefore on the dividing line between second-class and third-class status. It is dusty and shabby, its roads bumpy and potholed; there are no swimming pools or fountains here and I would be loath to trust anything coming out of a tap. At one end of town is a small area on top of a hill, one of the most squalid places I have ever been. It was a cold, windy day, and it was utterly desolate.

For some reason – probably because a military base is directly across a valley from it – the place has attracted the repeated attentions of Israeli army bulldozers in the occupation version of planning control. Apparently the houses here are in breach of regulations – even though the aesthetic appeal of Anata is hardly impaired by another few jerry-built houses – and they have been the victims of selective enforcement. The hillside is littered with incongruous fragments of domesticity – a door handle here, a cabinet there – and the flimsy results of weary rebuilding of demolished structures.  Still, the householders were hospitable people and obviously keen to tell their story. Salim had worked abroad as a civil engineer and returned to Palestine only to become entrapped in the demolitions process, not surprisingly becoming an activist with ICAHD as a result.

NEXT: ‘Administrative detention’




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Settler house in Sheikh Jarrah

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Monopoly, Jerusalem style (Tuesday 7 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA

This was the day of the Greater Jerusalem tour. We had two guides, Kifah (from Fatah) and Inbar (from the Israeli peace movement), who undertook their roles in a mild spirit of peaceful rivalry. The tour was organised under the auspices of ICAHD, and anyone travelling to the area would be well advised to get in touch and go on one of their tours. On one level it is a mainstream tourist trip, on another it lifts the veil on some of the uglier realities of life in the Jerusalem metropolitan area.

The whole idea of a ‘Greater Jerusalem’ is a politically contested concept, another example of how municipal, national and international politics all overlap and blend together in Israel-Palestine. There is no such thing here as neutral town planning; everything has political and ethnic dimensions. There are basically six components of ‘Greater Jerusalem’:

  1. Israeli West Jerusalem which is within the 1949 boundaries of Israel. I did not spend a huge amount of time in West Jerusalem, but what I saw of it was a modern, prosperous international business city of office blocks, government institutions, plush hotels, shopping malls and residential suburbs.
  2. The Old City, an ineradicably multi-faith international zone whoever ends up with sovereign control of the place.
  3. ‘Arab East Jerusalem’ – the suburbs and inner city neighbourhoods that were the eastern part of the divided city between 1949 and 1967. There is a startling difference in atmosphere between East and West Jerusalem, despite the efforts of the authorities to eradicate it. Contemporary Palestine begins at the Damascus Gate (or perhaps a little way inside the Gate itself in reality) – the area is so obviously in an Arab city of mosques and churches and a loud, cosy chaos of small shops and market stalls. It is also tattier looking with bumpier roads and gets a worse deal from municipal spending than the prosperous West or the tourist-ridden Old City.
  4. What I might call ‘technical East Jerusalem’. The borders of the city were redrawn extremely widely after 1967, incorporating an arc of sparsely populated hilly territory into the city boundaries and therefore into direct annexation into Israel. This included a number of Palestinian agricultural villages,[1] but the main significance of this is that it created territory for the construction of…
  5. Jewish settlements built in East Jerusalem.
  6. Jerusalem outside the Wall. Some suburbs of East Jerusalem have been placed on the far side of the separation barrier and included for administrative purposes in the West Bank. One such is the town of Abu Dis (which has a strong link with my own London Borough of Camden), which was regarded as a part of greater Jerusalem historically and by the UN in 1948 but has been carved out of the current definition of the city.

All of these parts of the Jerusalem area are zones of conflict, except for West Jerusalem, and in our day with ICAHD we had an insight into all of them. The first thing to absorb about the situation in Jerusalem is that it is complicated. Jerusalem inherently generates complexity – how could it not? – but it also seems to this observer that the Israeli state, or those parts of it interested in extending its control as far as possible, deliberately creates complexity. The legal and administrative position of Palestinians within East Jerusalem is Kafkaesque, but because the situation bears a superficial resemblance to normal municipal processes and it is difficult to understand, it becomes confusing to analyse and pronounce and one runs the risk of getting an arcane detail of law wrong. That might involve me in mild embarrassment. But getting slight details wrong, or failing to prove something that is common knowledge, can lose people in East Jerusalem their houses.

Palestinian life in East Jerusalem is a bit like the losing stages of a game of Monopoly. Your opponent controls the Greens and Dark Blues, and has put hotels on them. You can get round the board but you have to be lucky, and if you are unlucky with a roll of the dice then you are clobbered and you may well have to leave the game. You have a few safe havens, but your hold on Old Kent Road will not protect you for long from the hazards you face as you try to survive.

There is a semblance of a legal process before municipal bulldozers move in and flatten someone’s house in East Jerusalem; there are fewer safeguards in Area C of the West Bank, where the Israeli military is responsible. Structures built without a permit have demolition orders served upon them following a legal process, and further notices before the bulldozers move in.  So far, this sounds a bit like a regular process, like the Dale Farm evictions in Essex. But beneath the veneer of legality there is a more arbitrary exercise of power going on. Because there have been four administrations in the area in the last century (Ottoman, British Mandate, Jordanian, Israeli) and three wars, proving ownership even of old-established structures is sometimes not easy. The documents for older property could be in the archives in Istanbul. You might have the money and connections to search for them, but let’s face it, the chances are you won’t. A building is guilty unless proven innocent. With newer structures, the municipal authority in Jerusalem is very slow to grant building permits (ICAHD estimates 50-100 a year to Palestinians in East Jerusalem), and given the natural increase in population this tends to result in people chancing it and building without a permit.

There are a few more wrinkles here. One is that there is a parallel system of fines for buildings without permits. One might expect that once a fine is paid – they are charged at a pretty high rate of a thousand shekels per square metre – then the illegal status of the building is purged and the landowner then has valid title. Not so. You can still get your house demolished even after paying the fine. Adding insult to injury, householders are charged for the costs of demolitions, leading some people to dismantle their own houses rather than face the municipal machine.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect is that huge numbers (ICAHD estimates 20,000 or so) of demolition orders have been processed and are outstanding in the East Jerusalem area. The threat of demolition therefore hangs over a significant proportion of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, causing fear and uncertainty to the general population as well as the immediate hardship to people whose houses actually are demolished. The incidence of the bulldozers going in seems entirely arbitrary and unrelated to the length of time since demolition order or to the proposed alternative uses of the site. The photograph (below) shows a building that was demolished seven years ago. The heap of rubble blights the area, and serves as a warning to others not to take their homes for granted.


Another destabilising feature of life in East Jerusalem is the peculiar administrative status of the resident Palestinian population. Despite the proclaimed annexation of the territory, unlike Palestinians living within Israel proper (‘Israeli Arabs’) they are not citizens of Israel but live instead in a kind of stateless twilight. They have residence permits for East Jerusalem (valid only for East Jerusalem) which give them voting rights in municipal but not national elections. The Israeli authorities feel free to revoke residence permits on fairly sketchy grounds, which results in arbitrary deportation. While young Israelis, rather like Australians and Kiwis, can look at an extended period travelling and working around the world as a rite of passage, a Palestinian fortunate enough to do the same is taking a risk with his or her residence permit. As well as municipally approved snoopers, there are private busybodies motivated by ideology or greed looking out for any evidence that your ‘centre of life’ is not in Jerusalem.

Although probably the bulk of semi-plausible cases have been processed, another threat to property ownership emerges from history. In Israel proper including West Jerusalem the state effectively expropriated houses and farms from their owners under the Absent Property Law if those owners had fled in 1948, hence the number of refugees scattered around the Middle East and the powerful symbolism of the key for those Palestinian refugees. In Jerusalem in the panic and bloodshed of 1948-49 there was a ‘population exchange’ with East Jerusalem’s Jews going westwards and West Jerusalem’s non-Jews heading to the east. After 1967, there was an asymmetrical process by which Palestinian claims in the West were still barred but that Jewish claims in the East from the pre-1949 period would be honoured. Settlers have been adept at navigating the legal channels and have seized a number of houses through this mechanism.

A distressing example of this was in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, a very central area of East Jerusalem. The legal circumstances are complicated but the human consequences are clear and brutal, as I saw personally. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (www.ochaopt.org), as part of its analysis of the general situation in East Jerusalem focuses on the situation (see its Special Focus report, March 2011), and so do Palestinian and Israeli activists for justice. In most places, anti-social behaviour by young racist louts would be condemned and punished but in Sheikh Jarrah it has the protection of the authorities. Mrs Al-Kurd, a refugee who was housed in the area by the Jordanians, saw part of her family house previously occupied by her son taken over by settlers. These settlers were not a hard-pressed family, but young ideologues who shout abuse, scrawl obscene graffiti and generally harass an elderly woman who has to go past ‘their’ front door to come and go to her house.

Directly across the road, what should in other circumstances be symbols of Jewish religious observance – something spiritual, noble and dignified – have been turned into emblems of conquest and bullying.


The Old Testament is not an infallible guide to compassion and wisdom. But Deuteronomy 27.17: “Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark” does seem appropriate.

NEXT: A Tale of Two Townships

[1] I am no linguist, but there are some words that seem to translate inexactly between Arabic and English, one of which is ‘village’, which does not have the English associations with small size and rural surroundings but can be used to refer to large urban neighbourhoods like Silwan. Another imperfectly translatable word seems to be ‘martyr’.

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Dystopia in Jerusalem (Monday 6 February)

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Dystopia in Jerusalem (Monday 6 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)

Israeli and foreign citizens are not obliged to cross between Ramallah and Jerusalem via Qalandia, but Palestinians are. If you can, it is usually worthwhile to drive a little around the perimeter of the Wall and cross at a more relaxed checkpoint at Hisma/ Pisgat Ze’ev. It is a privilege that divides the visitor from ordinary people in the West Bank, but it does save time. It also makes the squalor and delay of Qalandia all the more unnecessary. It did not take me long to work out how militants might get weapons through the barrier if they really wanted, and if the thought has occurred to me, it will have occurred to potential terrorists long ago.


There is a good road, built with the assistance of US-AID (Israel is quick to build and maintain good roads that serve settlements but neglects roads that do not), skirting this part of the Wall but further south the alternative roads are very poor and quite dangerous. As soon as one passes through the checkpoint, the environment changes abruptly. On the Palestinian side it is a dry, rocky landscape but on the Israeli side there is a verdant suburb, well-watered shrubbery and lawns among the blocks of flats of Pisgat Ze’ev. This suburb is actually a ‘settlement’ on occupied territory. Settlements, I quickly learned, come in several different shapes and sizes. The most heavily populated are the ones like Pisgat Ze’ev and Ma’ale Adummim, which are designed and built to be as normal and everyday as possible. Were it not for the international dimensions, they would be just like relatively pleasant low-income suburban developments in other Mediterranean countries, such as the vast new sprawls around cities in central and southern Spain. From the ordinary Israeli’s point of view, there is nothing pioneering or strange about living in these places – they are convenient, moderately priced, newly built suburbs to commute from and raise a family in. There is a big difference between these and the heavily politicised, confrontational settlements such as the one in Hebron.


However, counter-intuitively, it is probably the settlement-suburbs of East Jerusalem that are more of a problem for a future treaty based on two states than the outposts of extremists. The Israeli army evicted several thousand politicised settlers when they pulled out of Gaza, and this would be a feasible operation across much of the West Bank. The settlement-suburbs are different in that the numbers of people are so large and the fact that these are not defiant pioneering outposts but suburbs woven into the Jerusalem metropolitan area. The pattern of development of these suburbs poses two threats. One is that they will effectively sever the southern and northern sections of the West Bank from each other, and the other is that by forming a ring around the inner Arab part of East Jerusalem they will prevent any linkage between East Jerusalem and independent Palestine. A viable Palestinian state will have to include at least some of these areas, and the more settlement housing that is built, the harder it will be to get a peace agreement accepted and implemented.


Our first port of call in Jerusalem was at the offices of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) (http://www.icahd.org/), a peace organisation established in 1997. While the late 1990s were springtime for progressives in many European countries, it was a depressing time for the left in Israel. The murder of Yitzhak Rabin and the narrow and surprising victory of Netanyahu in the May 1996 elections (following some cruel Hamas bus bombings earlier in the year) made it seem to Israeli progressives that the peaceful possibilities opened up by the Oslo accords in 1993 were being closed down, and ICAHD was one response, focusing on the large-scale demolitions of Palestinian homes by the Israeli military and the Jerusalem city authorities.


We were met by the energetic, outspoken Jeff Halper, director of ICAHD, who over coffee took us through a rapid history of land, settlement, demolition and abortive peace initiatives. I took from him a sense of the use of complexity as a weapon by the powerful, in this case the Israeli state, against the weak, and a deep pessimism about the long term prospects.


I hope neither Jews nor Muslims will take offence at a porcine metaphor, but it does look a lot like the West Bank is being salami-sliced. East Jerusalem – including some rural areas – is annexed. The Oslo accords divided the rest of the West Bank into three ‘Areas’. Area A (18 per cent of the land area) contains the main West Bank towns and is under Palestinian Authority (PA) civil and security control (although this does not apparently preclude Israeli army operations from taking place periodically), Area B (22 per cent of land area) is under PA civil control but Israeli military, and Area C (60 per cent of land area) is under full Israeli control. Under Oslo this division was supposed to have been temporary, but it has ended up frozen in place. Areas A and B contain most of the population, but these are corralled into 70 islands within the web of Area C which covers main highways, the Jordanian border, settlements and the Jordan valley. The small, urbanised nature of Areas A and B make it difficult to accommodate natural population growth and therefore keeps land expensive in areas where it is permitted to build. Meanwhile, low-cost housing for settlers spreads across an increasing proportion of Area C, while Bedouin villages in the area are bulldozed. Water is an increasingly urgent problem; even in Area A the PA is not permitted to approve digging of wells, while settlements consume water with a western profligacy that defies the desert surroundings.


The future suggested by current developments is nightmarish. Abstract out East Jerusalem, and Palestine is divided into four non-viable fragments (‘cantons’) – Gaza, the north around Jenin, the centre around Ramallah and the south around Hebron and Bethlehem – by Area C. It is not hard to imagine separation barriers going up (probably as deep ditches rather than walls, so as not to spoil the view) either side of the main highway linking Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Without natural resources, without hope of change, the cantons would be social abscesses, with increasingly alienated and badly educated young populations left to fester in poverty and extremism. Meanwhile, the powerful Israeli military-industrial complex could use these essentially captive populations as testing-grounds for military, security and control technologies, and export its expertise to an increasingly violent and divided world. This is not my own despairing vision, but that of some deeply pessimistic Israelis who fear that their situation has nurtured something ugly and sinister.


Mikhal, from ICAHD, then took us on a walking tour of the Old City in Jerusalem. It was somewhat different from what one would find just wandering about, and from the sanitised version that one would get from many tourist expeditions. I had already noticed one particularly striking house in my Sunday’s wanderings – an arched dwelling in the heart of the Muslim Quarter ostentatiously displaying its Israeli identity.



This house, it turns out, is the property of Ariel Sharon, whose interventions in the politics of Jerusalem have more than once involved crude assertion of territorial control (most notably in his 2000 excursion to the Temple Mount). He acquired the property in 1987 .

The Old City is dotted with micro-settlements in this disputed area, often a product of the asymmetrical process of land restitution in Israel in which Palestinian claims in Israel proper including West Jerusalem are disallowed but a Jewish history to a building or land in East Jerusalem can lead to a successful claim.



Everything ends up politicised in Jerusalem, including policing (community police support officers will tend to be settlers policing mainly Palestinian populations), planning control and of course archaeology. Two current projects are particularly worrying to Palestinians and Israeli progressives. One is the excavation of tunnels in the Old City near the Temple Mount, which some fear may undermine the foundations of the mosques on top of the Mount with incalculable consequences for the world political situation. The other, in the shadow of the Temple Mount, is the ‘City of David’, a politico-archaeological project which in turn casts a shadow over the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.


Silwan is the sort of neighbourhood that in most cities would be gentrified – Jerusalem’s equivalent of Friedrichshain in Berlin or Leith in Edinburgh. It is just south east of the Old City, stretching up and down a valley in a higgledy-piggledy sprawl of houses old and new. But it is a troubled place, an inner city confrontation zone between residents on the one hand and settlers and the authorities on the other. Parts of it are scheduled for demolition in the interests of the City of David and the creation of a park – based apparently on a sketchy claim that King David had enjoyed strolling along the valley. Silwan is a tense place; people have no confidence in the authorities, and with reason – their community facilities seem to end up demolished despite attracting the interest of visitors, such as Jimmy Carter, more illustrious than ourselves. It was also the scene of a nasty, filmed confrontation when a settler drove at some local children. Everything in Jerusalem is politicised, and inner city redevelopment, like provision of parks, is a tool of demographic engineering.

But on the Monday afternoon we went to an unlikely part of ‘Jerusalem’. Under its current peculiar boundaries it stretches out into a rural area to the east, where we gain a deeper acquaintance with The Wall.

NEXT: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)

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