Unruly building engulfs East Jerusalem life

Lacking services and oversight, Palestinian areas suffer from straining infrastructure and quality of life.

Refuse collection is a long-standing issue for Palestinian East Jerusalemites [AP]

Every day, investors knock on the door of a small home in Kufr Aqab, a village on the Palestinian side of the separation wall but inside Jerusalem municipal borders. The tidy, one-storey, two-room house is surrounded by new apartment buildings, some reaching nine stories high. Contractors are currently finishing more than 1,000 units in the area; billboard advertisements suggest many more are to come.

The same phenomenon is occurring in other Palestinian neighbourhoods that are technically part of Jerusalem, but separated from the ancient city sites by the huge concrete wall.

Apartment buildings are popping up like mushrooms in these areas. The sound of construction fills the air.

Kufr Aqab – once full of open, green spaces – is now “crowded” and “dirty”, says Amira, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman who lives here. She asked not to be identified by her real name out of fear of endangering her Israeli-issued Jerusalem residency permit.

Residents pay taxes to the state of Israel but receive far fewer services than the neighbouring Jewish districts of Jerusalem. While Palestinians constitute approximately 35 percent of the city’s population, only eight to ten percent of the municipal budget is allocated to their communities. “We have to hire someone to come and take [the garbage] because the city won’t come,” Amira says. “They will pick up everything on the main street but not behind it.”

Refuse collection is a long-standing issue for Palestinian East Jerusalemites; even Israeli officials have raised concerns about the issue, and the influx of new residents means things will only get worse.

Numerous requests for comment from the Jerusalem municipality for this article have been unsuccessful.

Stretching infrastructure

Unplanned growth has already stretched Kufr Aqab’s infrastructure to the point of breaking, Amira and other residents say. “What once was a spacious entrance into the neighbourhood is now a small, rough, tight road that does not allow cars to pass through it. The entrance [has been narrowed] by two new buildings on each side that have taken space from the road to enlarge their buildings,” Amira explains.

We're not working for ourselves - we're working for our people, the residents, to help the person who has water entering his house.

by - Munir Zughayer, local neighborhood committee chairman

Residents say contractors are left to their own devices. And the investors who knock on Amira’s door everyday – asking the family to sell their home so they can tear it down to make way for even more apartment buildings in the already stressed area – are said to be more concerned with turning a profit than making sure that the neighbourhood is livable.

Munir Zughayer, chairman of the local neighbourhood committee, says the building damages infrastructure. “In too many places, [contractors] have built over [water] drains. [The buildings] are pushing [on the sewage system] and it’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” he said. “It’s a mistake to build on it but we don’t have the power to tell people not to build.”

With nowhere to go, runoff pools in the streets, damaging the roads. After heavy snowfall in January, dozens of potholes opened up in the streets. Because the drainage systems are no longer functioning properly, the melted snow ran into a number of houses – Zughayer estimates that more than 40 homes incurred water damage.

Mohammed Reith, a contractor, agrees with Zughayer’s claim that the area’s sewage system can’t handle the influx of residents. Reith estimates that the area’s population has doubled since 2005 and that there remains a huge demand for land and apartments in the neighborhood. “At the moment, the area is not prepared for this number of people.”

It’s not just the streets, garbage, and sewage system. Kufr Aqab, like all of East Jerusalem on both sides of the wall, does not have enough schools. And on this side of the wall, there are no police. Emergency services are also lacking, as Israeli ambulances and fire trucks cannot pass Qalandia checkpoint, which is just outside Kufr Aqab.

“No-one is responsible for security [here] – not the Israelis or the Palestinian Authority,” Reith says. “If there is a problem, no-one will come. The PA needs permission from the Israelis to enter and the Israelis are interested in making chaos [in Palestinian areas].”

Only places to build

But, as Reith and Zughayer correctly point out, the areas on the Palestinian side of the separation wall, such as Kufr Aqab, are the only places in the city that East Jerusalemites can build.

Israel rejects more than 90 percent of Palestinian requests for building permits; structures built without permission in the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem on the Israeli side of the wall are threatened with demolition and steep fines. These restrictions have created a housing shortage that critics say is intended to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem and into the West Bank. Critics call this “quiet transfer.”

Homes in Palestinian neighbourhoods are being demolished to make way for high-rise apartments [AFP]

But the separation wall has actually had the opposite effect. It has fuelled demand for homes on the Israeli side of the wall as Palestinian East Jerusalemites fear losing their residency and access to health care, schools, jobs, and their families. The wall and checkpoints have also made commuting more difficult and time consuming, so many Palestinians prefer to live inside the enclave created by the wall, in order to shorten their travel time.

As the wall has pushed Jerusalem ID holders into a confined space, prices have skyrocketed. But most Palestinian East Jerusalemites cannot keep up with the rising rents, nor can they afford to buy homes in this increasingly expensive market. So they move to areas such as Kufr Aqab, where apartments cost a third of the asking price on the other side of the wall. Because these areas remain a part of Jerusalem, the Palestinians who live there can keep their residency.

However, Israel says it has no development plans for the area. And many residents are concerned that Israel will redraw the municipal lines of the city, excluding Palestinian areas beyond the wall and revoking residents’ Jerusalem IDs. This fear isn’t unfounded – Israel unilaterally redrew Jerusalem’s lines following 1967’s Six Day War.

In the meantime, Zughayer and other members of the neighbourhood committee are trying to force the city to take responsibility for the municipal areas on the Palestinian side of the wall. They have sued for better garbage services. And because there are not enough traffic lights in the area, locals have pooled their money to build roundabouts. Zughayer intends to pass the bill along to the Jerusalem municipality.

Zughayer says their work is “an example of regular people who aren’t battling with weapons but are battling with their words for our rights. We’re not working for ourselves – we’re working for our people, the residents, to help the person who has water entering his house.

“As long as the municipality is taking the taxes, we have to get our rights as human beings, to have everything like we are in Israel – streets, garbage, schools. We live like we’re in the middle of Africa, not in a democracy. Where is democracy? Where is it?”

Follow Mya Guarnieri on Twitter: @myaguarnieri

Source: Al Jazeera