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East Jerusalem’s Shu’fat Refugee Camp: “For All Practical Purposes, Ramallah”

From routine clashes in the streets, to the talk of “final status issues” by international diplomats, Arab East Jerusalem continues to be at the center of the struggle in Palestine/Israel. In recent years, there have been some particularly prominent foci: right-wing Jewish settlers and the demolition of Palestinian homes in Silwan; evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah; Israel’s apartheid wall in Abu Dis. Off the radar, however, there are many localized battles as Palestinians face an intensified Israeli regime of control and colonization.

One such place is the Shu’fat refugee camp. While the fact that it is the only Palestinian refugee camp in East Jerusalem makes it unique, Shu’fat’s reality reflects a number of key Israeli strategies in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as a whole: it is surrounded by illegal Jewish-only colonies, choked by the wall and checkpoints, and considered “separate and unequal.”

The camp dates back to 1965, when it was established on land from Shu’fat village. At the time, the refugees were being relocated from a camp in Jerusalem’s Old City, but its residents originally came from dozens of villages in pre-1948 Palestine. UNRWA lists around 11,000 registered refugees in Shu’fat camp, but the population is now around 20,000. The area of the camp also has more than doubled in size over 40 years. As residents within the Israeli-defined Jerusalem municipality, most Palestinians living in Shu’fat camp hold Jerusalem ID (although some Palestinians with West Bank ID live in the camp). Yet conditions in the camp are a world away from the streets of West Jerusalem—overcrowding and sewage problems being just two examples.

On opposite sides of the camp are the Israeli settlements of Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill. To the east, Shu’fat camp and the neighboring Palestinian village of Anata are hemmed in by an Israeli-controlled road, a military base, and the municipal boundaries of the enormous settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. Visit the camp today, though, and the most striking definition of the camp’s outer limits is Israel’s apartheid wall. Despite the fact that the camp is part of the Jerusalem municipality, the wall’s route has been designed to leave Shu’fat on the “wrong” side, meaning the camp’s residents share the same fate as some 50,000 Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs who now must cross military checkpoints in order to enter the city.

Shu’fat resident Dr. Salim Anati. (Photo Ben White)

Dr. Salim Anati, director of Shu’fat’s Al-Quds Charitable Society for Disabled and Special Education, lives in the camp with his wife and six children. His community center is going through a financial crisis, and is now open only three days a week. Sitting in his living room, I see a bag of clothes that he’s collected to take to the center.

Discussing the route of the apartheid wall, Salim explained that Israel’s “great project is to make a continuity of settlements on the east side of Jerusalem, linking up Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill. Shu’fat camp is a problem for this plan, because we are in the middle. So we’ll be on the wrong side, though many of us have Jerusalem ID. But in a few years, Israel can turn around and say that those on the other side of the wall are no longer part of the city. The wall,” he observed, “is intended to be a border.”

Furthermore, construction work is proceeding on a new “crossing point” checkpoint outside the camp—the checkpoint was closed at night for three weeks in April for “structural improvements”—further consolidating restrictions on Shu’fat residents’ freedom of movement. According to a report this year by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the expansion of the Shu’fat checkpoint will mean it operates like the massive ones at Qalandiya, Zeitoun, and Gilo. Even the existing checkpoint is bad enough: as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) noted this year, it is “frequently closed arbitrarily” and the site of “incidents of harassment.”

While, on the one hand, Shu’fat camp is being excluded and cut off from the city, Israeli authorities remain keen to flex their muscles in demonstrations of authority. One such example was a large-scale raid in February that went on for days, carried out by hundreds of police officers, border forces and municipal officials. Over the course of the operation, dozens of Palestinians (as many as 90, according to UNRWA) were detained, on charges including non-payment of taxes and stone-throwing. Local estimates were that of all those picked up during the first evening, all but one was under 18 years old. Salim Anati described how a cousin was in a shop buying chicken when soldiers came by, saw him, and took him. “For two days, the family didn’t know his whereabouts,” Salim said. “Then he was accused of throwing stones, and his family had to pay NIS 3,000 for his release.” For Salim, the raid was all about “wanting to show that they are the main power and can do what they want.”

Amir Cheshin, former senior advisor on “Arab Affairs” under Jerusalem mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert, wrote that the raid reflected “sheer stupidity,” and that while the camp is “in Jerusalem and under Israeli sovereignty,” Shu’fat is, in fact, considered “external to the city.” This interpretation is supported by the kind of remarks made in January by Yakir Segev, the Jerusalem city councilman responsible for the East Jerusalem portfolio, when he described Palestinian areas east of the apartheid wall as “no longer part of the city.” The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted Segev as saying that the hall was built for political and demographic reasons, not just for security, and that “the State of Israel has given up” with these neighborhoods “outside the jurisdiction of the state, and certainly the municipality.” He added that “for all practical purposes, they are Ramallah.”

In the spring of this year, when the talk was of a U.S.-Israeli “rift” centering on Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem, the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were keen to drive home the same message: that Jerusalem is an “open” city, with equal rights for all, Jewish and Arab alike. This has been thoroughly debunked, however, particularly by the fact that Palestinians with East Jerusalem ID are prohibited by law from leasing Israel Land Administration-owned property—a category that includes the vast majority of land zoned for housing in West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem settlements.

Yet the Israeli government and Zionist lobby lie about “united Jerusalem” also is exemplified by the Shu’fat refugee camp, where thousands of the city’s residents are being walled out by a barrier ostensibly intended for “security purposes” and face an uncertain future for themselves and their children. From Shu’fat’s vantage point, it is easy to see why Salim Anati describes the peace process as “a joke.”

“To be honest,” he said, “I am deeply upset—and I have lost my hope. I don’t think I will live in a free country. I remember my parents having this hope, and they died. My conclusion is that no one wants us to have our freedom—especially Arab countries. It’s just propaganda, all this talk of human rights and independence.”

From within one of many walled-in enclaves in occupied Palestine, this pessimism seems only justified.

Published first in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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