Jerusalem – After months of unrest, municipal officials in Jerusalem have begun a widespread crackdown on the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, enforcing the finest points of the law in what rights groups have dubbed an act of “collective punishment”.
Small businesses have been shuttered for unpaid bills, or for lacking the proper licenses. Livestock have been confiscated. One resident of the Old City, Sa’eed Shaloudi, was even ordered to remove his home’s water heater because it was installed without permission.
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Akram Jadallah, a resident of Beit Hanina in northeast Jerusalem, was two payments behind on his arnona, a bimonthly municipal tax levied on property owners here. Late payments are not uncommon in Israel; cities have the right to seize the property of delinquent landowners, but punishments are typically light – a small monthly fine for all but the worst offenders.
In East Jerusalem, though, residents say back taxes and insurance payments have been used as a pretext to seize dozens of cars. “They towed my car, and I couldn’t get it back until I paid the taxes and the towing fine,” Jadallah said. “I don’t think they do this in Talpiot,” a Jewish neighbourhood in the west.
Mayor Nir Barkat denied that the crackdown was targeted at Palestinians, insisting that the law is applied equally. “The mayor has a clear policy of enforcing the law in all parts of Jerusalem,” Brachie Sprung, a spokeswoman for Barkat, told Al Jazeera. “People who live in West Jerusalem pay for things they do illegally, and the same applies in the east.”
Indeed, the citations are not spurious: Some residents interviewed for this article acknowledged they were breaking the law. The problem, they say, is that these laws were not previously enforced.
On November 11, for example, police issued dozens of parking tickets in Shuafat. Many of the offenders were parked on the curb, a virtual necessity in a neighbourhood with narrow streets and a shortage of municipal parking lots. “It’s the first time they’ve ever done this,” said Mahmoud Abu Khdair, who received a 500 shekel ($130) fine.
Last week in Silwan, meanwhile, dozens of police officers set up checkpoints and stopped Palestinian drivers to issue tickets for various offences, many of them minor. A foreign motorist was allowed to enter the neighbourhood unimpeded.
It seems that the municipality is basically using collective punishment against some of the most disenfranchised members of Jerusalem’s population.
East Jerusalem has been convulsed by months of unrest, dating back to the July murder of a Palestinian teenager, an act of revenge for the killing of three Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. The murder set off a week of riots in Shuafat, his neighbourhood. Protests have continued almost every night since, with local youth throwing stones at police and firebombs at passing vehicles.
Nearly half of the city’s light rail cars are out of service due to damage. Four people were killed in hit-and-run attacks over the past month, and a Palestinian man attempted to assassinate a right-wing Jewish activist.
More than 1,300 residents of East Jerusalem have been arrested since the summer, 40 percent of them children, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, an advocacy group. Neighbourhoods have been blanketed constantly with tear gas and foul-smelling “skunk water”, the scent of which lingers on the streets for days.
Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deployed 1,000 additional police officers to the city, but the reinforcements have not stopped the unrest. The increased enforcement in East Jerusalem began around the same time.
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem called the steps “draconian” and “selective enforcement” aimed at punishing the entire population of certain neighbourhoods.
“It seems that the municipality is basically using collective punishment against some of the most disenfranchised members of Jerusalem’s population,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem.
Residents of East Jerusalem say they have been subject to decades of municipal neglect since Israel occupied the territory in 1967. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), another local NGO, issues an annual report on East Jerusalem, and indicators in this year’s report were typically grim. “The Israeli government has not allocated the necessary resources to develop East Jerusalem. As a result, there is a severe shortage of public services and infrastructure,” the group said.
Seventy-five percent of residents live below the poverty line; schools have a shortage of 2,000 classrooms; one-third of students do not complete 12 years of schooling.
Basic services, from health clinics to post offices, are scarce. Building permits are expensive and difficult to obtain, giving the east an exponentially higher population density than the predominantly Jewish western parts of town. While most of the illegal construction documented by the municipality actually takes place in west Jerusalem, most demolitions occur in the east.
“The municipality is interested in us, at last,” Abu Khdair joked. “Maybe now they’ll come to fix the roads.”