Shuafat refugee camp, occupied East Jerusalem – Three earthmovers continued to take away the debris of over a dozen Palestinian shops that used to line the street at the entrance to Shufat refugee camp in occupied East Jerusalem.
Bulldozers tore through the mangled wire and concrete on Thursday, sending clouds of dust into the air while boys and men watched from behind the red barricade tape set up by Israeli police.
“Only God can help us,” a man said, observing the scene from a chair.
Israeli forces had entered the camp on Wednesday, sealed off its entry and exit points, positioned snipers on rooftops and began demolishing 16 shops, affecting the livelihood of more than 60 families.
Demolition notices had been issued to 20 Palestinian shops only a day earlier.
Established in 1965, two years before Israel extended its occupation to East Jerusalem, Shuafat is the only refugee camp in Jerusalem and is home to 23,000 people.
There hasn’t been a single building permit issued to residents of the camp since Israel’s military occupation began in 1967, forcing them to resort to building without permits and leaving them vulnerable to routine demolitions by Israel, citing the lack of permits.
This demolition is believed to be the largest by Israeli authorities since the camp’s establishment.
Changing the ‘character of the camp’
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) slammed the demolitions on Wednesday, saying they were part of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s plan to end Shuafat’s status as a refugee camp, push out UNRWA, the UN refugee agency, and end the basic services it provides.
Ahmad Abu Holy, head of the PLO’s refugee department, accused the Israeli municipality of West Jerusalem of waging war on the camp “under the illegal pretext of building without a permit”.
Last month, Barkat announced plans to get rid of UNRWA’s services in the city to “end the lie of the Palestinian refugee problem”. He said all services operated by UNRWA in East Jerusalem, such as schools, clinics and sports centres, will be transferred to Israeli authorities.
Without providing an exact timeframe, an announcement was also made that schools serving 1,800 students would be closed by the end of the current school year.
Barkat said the US decision to cut $300m in aid to UNRWA prompted his decision.
Yara Hawari, Palestine policy fellow at Al-Shabaka, told Al Jazeera that Barkat’s statement to lift the camp’s refugee status is clear proof “that Israel is accelerating its plan to drastically alter the geographic and demographic reality of Greater Jerusalem”.
“It has been emboldened to do so by not only the Trump Administration, which moved the US embassy to the city earlier this year, but also by the majority of the international community which continues to be impotent in the face of such political manoeuvres.”
Shuafat is encircled by an eight-metre-high concrete wall, which cuts it off from the rest of the city.
The camp is part of Jerusalem Municipality, yet no municipal or government services are provided, UNRWA has provided most basic services thus far.
“It [the demolition] is to tighten Israeli control over Jerusalem,” said Khader Dibes, a resident, who agreed with the PLO’s statement.
“This is Barkat’s plan to end the services of the [UNRWA] agency. We are determined to keep the presence of UNRWA here so that it provides services.”
Jerusalem municipality workers entered the camp for the first time last month for waste removal, raising eyebrows among many who saw this as a first step towards replacing UNRWA.
In the same month, 50 Palestinian structures were demolished in the occupied West Bank, displacing 43 people. Since 1967, more than 48,700 structures have been demolished in the occupied Palestinian territories.
“If the municipality wants to serve the public, it wouldn’t make a wall, it wouldn’t put a checkpoint to stop me from entering my city, it wouldn’t put obstacles for women and children,” Thaer Fasfous, spokesperson for the camp’s Fatah movement, told Al Jazeera.
“This barbaric demolition is under the excuse of opening up the road but the goal is to control Shuafat refugee camp. Nir Barkat said it – he wants to break our heads.”