Netanyahu turns on East Jerusalem Palestinians behind the barrier

The Israeli prime minister is threatening to introduce measures that would mean an estimated 80-100,000 Palestinians could no longer enter the rest of Jerusalem or retain Israeli medical insurance and social security benefits.

Basam Maswadeh, Kufr Aqab's village council head, is pictured trying to cross a road flooded with sewage and garbage on October 29, 2015. Heidi Levine for The National.
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East Jerusalem // At first, Fathallah Nabulsi, a retired businessman, is stoic when asked how he will survive if his Jerusalem residency is cancelled and his Israeli identity card revoked.

“We Palestinians can live under any conditions. My question is can the Israelis live under all conditions?” he said. Then, after thinking about it, he added: “I need my identity card. I’m being treated in Israeli hospital. I have a heart condition.”

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is threatening to introduce measures that would mean an estimated 80-100,000 Palestinians living in six neighbourhoods of occupied East Jerusalem could no longer enter Israel or retain Israeli medical insurance and social security benefits.

The steps would be imposed on Palestinian neighbourhoods that lie within Jerusalem’s municipal borders but are beyond the separation barrier Israel erected in 2004.

Medical care is only one area in which these Palestinians depend on their access to the rest of Jerusalem for the basic staples of their existence: jobs, relatives, schools and Islam’s third holiest shrine, the Aqsa mosque, are all on the other side of the checkpoints they would no longer be allowed to cross.

“All of our life will turn topsy turvy and Netanyahu will not care,” says Fadia Abu Shalbak, 30, a resident of the Kufr Aqab neighbourhood whose parents live in a different part of East Jerusalem on the other side of the separation barrier, where her children also go to school. Her husband would no longer be able to access the Israeli wholesalers upon whom he depends for his business, she says.

Israel’s Channel Two television reported last week that Mr Netanyahu raised the idea of revoking residency during a security cabinet meeting two weeks earlier. This would be the most sweeping and drastic step taken against East Jerusalem Palestinians since Israel illegally annexed the area after the 1967 Middle East war, according to Yudith Oppenheimer who directs the Israeli NGO Ir Amim that supports equality in the city.

“He’s saying he wants Jerusalem only for the Jews. If he can revoke the residency of 100,000 Palestinians, why not even more? Even if he doesn’t mean to implement this it’s so dangerous to daily life in Jerusalem. He’s creating more and more despair and distrust. You are pushing people to a dead end situation, people who already live in despair and poverty.”

Channel Two quoted Mr Netanyahu as saying: “We need to examine the possibility of cancelling their residency. There needs to be a discussion about it.”

Officials in the prime minister’s office then confirmed to the Haaretz newspaper that Mr Netanyahu had raised the matter of cancelling residencies during the security cabinet meeting. The next day he also referred to it during remarks at the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defence committee, according to the Times of Israel website.

An Israeli official denied that Mr Netanyahu had made mention of revoking residencies. But when pressed by The National, the official added that during the security cabinet meeting, the premier had indeed said that it was a problem that residents of the neighbourhoods beyond the separation barrier could travel freely inside of Israel using their Israeli identity cards. The official confirmed that Mr Netanyahu had decided a full deliberation should be held on the status of the neighbourhoods beyond the separation barrier. That has yet to be done.

The threat to revoke the residencies comes after Israel’s hardline government has already introduced a series of measures amid a wave of violence that has killed 69 Palestinians and 11 Israelis since mid-September, according to Associated Press.

Palestinians say the setting up of roadblocks and checkpoints in East Jerusalem and the demolishing of Palestinian homes are a form of collective punishment.

Israel claims 43 of the Palestinians killed were carrying out attacks, mostly with knives, on Israeli security forces or citizens. Most of the attacks in Jerusalem have not been carried out by residents of the six neighbourhoods targeted by Mr Netanyahu’s plans.

“The situation is that there is no effective law and order, there is a vacuum and extremist and criminal elements are exploiting this,” said the Israeli official. “It’s unsustainable.”

But that unsustainability is a result of years of neglect by Israel, which levies municipal taxes on residents but fails to provide them with the most basic services, including sanitation, education, planning – all of which are provided to Jewish neighbourhoods, Ir Amim and Palestinians say. In the Ras Khamis neighbourhood, with a population of more than 30,000, there is only one municipal school, established in a building that previously functioned as a goat pen and which until recently had a pollution-emitting factory alongside it, Ir Amim said.

The sense that the residents of the neighbourhoods beyond the barrier literally do not count in Israeli eyes is brought home by the inability of municipality officials to respond to queries on how many Palestinians live there. Ir Amim’s estimate is 80-100,000, or at least ten per cent of Jerusalem’s total population.

Driving through the Kufr Aqab neighbourhood, there is raw sewage and rubbish in the streets, jarring potholes, broken traffic lights and high rise buildings erected without any standards or inspection. A heavy rain flooded the streets. The Jerusalem municipality says it cannot provide services because it is unsafe for its personnel to travel there.

A small part of Kufr Aqab falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA) ministry of local government. Basam Maswadeh, who volunteers for the PA as Kufr Aqab’s village council head, said he tries to also provide some help to the parts of the neighbourhood for which Israel is supposed to be responsible. But he said he has scant resources and no authority to do this.

“How can you live here with this rubbish and lakes in the streets?,” asked Mr Maswadeh, who himself lives in the Israeli-administered part of Kufr Aqab and works as a building contractor inside Israel. “Every morning you open the window and smell fresh sewage.”

High rise buildings have sprung up all around because of a housing shortage stemming from Israeli curbs on Palestinian building in the areas inside the security barrier. Pointing to them, Mr Maswadeh said: “I don’t know if these are strong enough. They may collapse.”

“If the Israelis take away people’s identity cards, what will they do without work?” he asks. “It will only increase crime and drugs. It will turn people into criminals. How will they live? They will have to steal because they want to live.”

Sameeh Abu Rmeileh, chief administrator of the Dar Al Maarefa school in Kufr Aqab, added: “The Jerusalem municipality has deserted us to refugee camp conditions and now Netanyahu wants to say ‘you are no longer Jerusalemites’ and extract us from our city. How much uglier can this get?’’