Kufr Aqab, occupied East Jerusalem – Construction never ends in Kufr Aqab. Cranes and bulldozers are perpetually growling, sifting through concrete and dirt to make room for thousands of Palestinians moving into this densely populated Jerusalem neighbourhood.
Kufr Aqab and Shuafat refugee camp – consisting of eight neighbourhoods that house at least 140,000 Palestinians – have been cut off from the rest of Jerusalem by Israel’s separation wall.
Kufr Aqab and Shuafat refugee camp are neglected by the Jerusalem municipality, but beyond the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Police are absent and municipal services are limited.
“All of these people are living here solely to keep their Jerusalem IDs,” Moien Odeh, a Jerusalem-based legal expert, told Al Jazeera, gesturing to a sea of high-rise buildings in Kufr Aqab.
The lack of available land means that these homes are built higher and higher to accommodate an exploding population, estimated to be about 65,000.
Most Palestinians here are escaping a housing crisis and soaring prices in Jerusalem, while couples with mixed IDs – Jerusalem and West Bank – are forced to live in the area simply to stay together.
Piles of rubbish cover roadsides in Kufr Aqab and overflow from dumpsters, growing larger each day as residents wait for the municipality’s infrequent rubbish collection services.
Munir Zaghayer, who heads Kufr Aqab’s neighbourhood committee, remembers when Kufr Aqab was a scenic and upscale Jerusalem neighbourhood. “We used to have a beautiful life here,” he said.
Zaghayer moved to Kufr Aqab from Jerusalem’s Old City in 1962. Before the wall was built, the population in Kufr Aqab did not exceed 12,000, he said.
However, when Israel constructed the separation wall, the neighbourhood started transforming. Israel had implemented policies more than a half-century ago that would determine Kufr Aqab’s fate.
In 1967, when Israel occupied and subsequently annexed East Jerusalem, Palestinians in East Jerusalem were not granted Israeli citizenship, but were instead issued Jerusalem residency status.
Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs must consistently prove to Israel that Jerusalem is the centre of their life, or else face the revocation of their residency. Almost 15,000 Palestinians have had their Jerusalem IDs revoked since 1967, according to Human Rights Watch.
Following its takeover of East Jerusalem, Israel reduced the land zoned for Palestinian construction to some 13 percent, most of which was already built up. A housing crisis in Palestinian neighbourhoods ensued, followed by routine Israeli demolition campaigns carried out on Palestinian homes and structures, as residents were forced to build without permits.
But in Kufr Aqab, Israel ceased enforcing its municipal regulations once the wall was built, making home demolitions extremely rare. Coupled with the cheaper cost of living, this prompted tens of thousands of Palestinian Jerusalem residents to flock to the neighbourhood. Since Kufr Aqab is still within Jerusalem’s municipal borders, Palestinians moving there can maintain their Jerusalem residency.
Yet the municipality fails to provide basic services to the neighbourhoods beyond the wall, including education, waste removal and road maintenance. The residents receive just two days of running water a week, despite paying municipal and other taxes.
Odeh says Israel’s neglect has reached a “discriminatory” level, noting that as of 2015, the entire budget for improving infrastructure in Jerusalem was 880 million shekels ($256m) – but Kufr Aqab and Shuafat refugee camp were allocated just 800,000 shekels ($233,000) between them.
“There’s discrimination against all Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem,” Odeh told Al Jazeera. “But it’s nothing like what communities face on the other side of the wall.”
When the neighbourhood does receive services, the city hires private sub-contractors, who deliver the services as cheaply as possible. This involves burning rubbish, smoke from which poses serious health risks, and hiring as few workers as possible, Odeh said.
Kufr Aqab resident Hamdi Abu Saada told Al Jazeera that traffic was one of the worst aspects of life here. To visit relatives or go to work in Jerusalem, he must enter the city through Israel’s congested Qalandiya checkpoint, forcing him to endure a two-hour commute each day – even though his workplace is just several hundred metres from his home on the other side of the wall.
“It’s painful,” Abu Saada said. “I live on the 10th floor of my building. I can see everything in front of me, but I can’t reach it.”
At least 2,000 Palestinian couples in Kufr Aqab are living there solely because one of the spouses has a West Bank ID, Zaghayer said.
Palestinians with West Bank IDs are not allowed to cross Israeli checkpoints into Jerusalem or Israel without Israeli-issued permits. Kufr Aqab, like other Jerusalem neighbourhoods cut off by the wall, is a place where Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs can live with their West Bank spouses without endangering their residency status.
Jihad Hadross, 39, moved to Kufr Aqab from the small village of Deir Ballut in the Salfit district of the occupied West Bank five years ago after marrying his wife from Jerusalem’s Old City. He has been waiting for six years to receive a permit through Israel’s family reunification process that would allow him to live in Jerusalem with his wife. “We live in this place just to wait,” he told Al Jazeera.
When Hadross’ two children, who have Jerusalem ID numbers, become sick, he cannot accompany them to the hospitals in Jerusalem. He has also missed out on countless school events and activities, unable to obtain an Israeli permit in time to enter Jerusalem.
“It’s a very difficult life,” Hadross told Al Jazeera. “But we live our lives with the hope that things will change.”
Other couples in Kufr Aqab have been waiting for up to 10 years for their spouses to receive permission to live in Jerusalem on the other side of the wall, Hadross said.
“It’s a waiting game,” he said. “The Israelis don’t say no to you, but they make you wait for years, with the hope that you will just give up and move to the West Bank.”
Once a couple moves to the West Bank, the Jerusalem resident loses the right to live in Jerusalem.
“I feel very lonely here,” Hadross said, taking a slow drag from a cigarette. “I’m not sure what will happen with us. But I know that I do not want to continue living in Kufr Aqab. No one does.”
According to Odeh, the lack of municipal services and the problems facing couples with different IDs “are all part of Israel’s long-term goal: push Palestinians out of Jerusalem”.
The municipality’s decision not to enforce building regulations in Kufr Aqab and Shuafat refugee camp was meant to create a mass influx of Palestinians to these areas beyond the wall, Odeh said.
Israeli leaders have been discussing for years the possibility of removing these areas from Jerusalem’s municipality.
“Israel wants to make the Palestinian population to be about five to 10 percent of Jerusalem’s population,” Odeh said, noting that this is done through the systematic expulsion of Palestinians from the city’s limits and policies aimed at increasing the number of Jewish residents.
Palestinians in Kufr Aqab fear that if the area is removed from Jerusalem’s municipality, Israel will then make moves to strip them of their Jerusalem IDs.
“Israel wants a land without a people,” Odeh said. “This is why this land is considered Israeli, but its people are not. They want Jerusalem to be a Jewish city”.
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