Kufr Aqab is a neglected neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, where couples unable to afford homes have been moving in to build a community. The area was considered less likely to be demolished – but that's no longer the case.
KUFR AQAB, occupied East Jerusalem — Out of a prefab caravan surrounded by the empty shells of half-finished high-rises near the West Bank's separation wall, Saed Abu Osba offers attractive real estate deals.
Colourful leaflets in his office promise a life of comfort in Kufr Aqab neighbourhood: big apartments with balconies, parking lots, abundant green spaces and extra guest rooms. And for regular Palestinians, who cannot afford to have such comforts elsewhere in Jerusalem, the prices are a steal.
But the reality is not as rosy as depicted in the leaflets. Kufr Aqab is a rundown neighbourhood with streets lined with heaps of trash, not trees. The parking lots have yet to evolve from their current status of improvised dumpsites, testimony to the neglect that plagues the entire neighbourhood.
Between Jerusalem and Ramallah, near the infamous Qalandiya military checkpoint, Kufr Aqab is one of the neighbourhoods that was left on the West Bank side of the wall. Instead of coming under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the neighbourhood remained administratively part of Israel-run Jerusalem. Its unusual status has now turned Saed Abu Osba's well-marketed housing deals into a potential nightmare.
About a year ago, Inas Joubran and her husband Abu Jamil bought an apartment in one of the buildings still under construction in the area. They moved in with their three children while bricks were still being laid on the upper floors. It is their first home bought with savings over fifteen years of marriage.
But as they began to settle down, the Israeli government sent them an eviction notice, informing them that their apartment building, along with five other similar structures, would soon be knocked down.
The aim of the demolition, said the government, was to widen the road and ease the flow of traffic around the Qalandiya checkpoint.
“When we first heard about it we couldn't believe it, we didn't believe it would happen," says 33-year-old Inas, adding that the family was first notified of the municipality's intentions last May. "But in September we received an order to take all our furniture out of the apartment. We started thinking what to do, where to go. We put all our savings in this.”
Prior to moving to Kufr Aqab, the couple had been renting an apartment in the cramped Shuafat, the only refugee camp located within the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality.
The upward mobility of Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem came under severe strain due to a rising population, tough building restrictions imposed by Israel, as well as the growing presence of foreign diplomats and international aid organisations.
All this has contributed to home prices shooting through the roof in East Jerusalem, pushing Palestinians to invest in neighbourhoods like Kufr Aqab.
“What you buy here (in Kufr Aqab) for 100,000 US dollars, in Jerusalem [it] would cost half a million,” says Abu Jamil, a butcher originally from a small village near Hebron. “Basically we have to buy here as it counts as a Jerusalem area. It's better and less tense than Shuafat [camp]."
Palestinian families have often no choice but to live here. Since family reunification procedures were stopped by a temporary order in 2003, Jerusalem residents who marry Palestinians from the West Bank are not able to obtain permits for them to live in Jerusalem. The order has been renewed every year since.
Most Palestinians living in Jerusalem do not take up Israeli citizenship and residents were compelled to become “permanent residents” when Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem. Their status, however, can expire if they are unable to prove their continued connection to the city, which includes paying the arnona, a municipal tax that applies to areas under Israeli control. Between 1967 and 2016, 14,595 Palestinians from East Jerusalem have seen their residency revoked, according to interior ministry figures published by human rights group Hamoked, which has called it a “quiet deportation” policy.
More land, fewer Palestinians
Kufr Aqab is emblematic of the effects of Israeli policy in Jerusalem, and of israel's policies towards the city.
In early January, the Knesset passed an amendment to law that would make it more difficult to transfer parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian jurisdiction, essentially making it harder to divide the city. While Israel considers the whole of Jerusalem as its capital, Palestinians claim the eastern sector as the capital of their future state. The status of the city has been one of the thorniest issues around the now-defunct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
The vote on the bill was postponed immediately after US President Donald Trump's declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which sparked a global backlash.
The bill also paves the way for separating neighbourhoods located beyond the separation wall from the city by creating a new municipal body for them under Israeli control. Kufr Aqab as well as Shuafat refugee camp, Al Walaja and parts of Al Sawahra would be affected. Nearly 150,000 people, more than two-thirds of East Jerusalem Palestinians, live in these areas.
According to Jerusalem watchdog Ir Amim, at stake is “the first practical move since the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 to implement the de facto annexation of areas in the West Bank to Israel, while at the same time conducting a massive transfer of Palestinian residents from Jerusalem,” a recent position paper said.
Together with another bill known as the “Greater Jerusalem bill” aimed at expanding the borders of the city to include a number of settlements, “these proposals will decisively undermine chances for a political resolution on the city, rupture the urban fabric, and escalate the conflict in Jerusalem,” said the organisation.
The map of the Municipality of Jerusalem was redrawn at the time of the Oslo II accords in 1995, expanding the city limits. When the wall was erected years later, it cut off Kufr Aqab and other Palestinian neighborhoods from the city.
According to a 2015 report by Jerusalem-based advocacy organisation Ir Amim entitled “Displaced in their Own City”, at least 80,000 Palestinians – between one-fourth to one-third of the entire Palestinian population of Jerusalem – have since migrated to these enclaves. Several rights groups have argued such policies serve Israel's demographic goal of maintaining a Jewish majority in the city.
Two countries, two municipalities, and no services
While to the uninformed eye Kufr Aqab looks like a neighborhood on the periphery of Ramallah, about half of it is administratively part of the Israeli-run Jerusalem municipality. However, municipal authorities provide little in the way of services to local residents here, which translates in potholed streets lined with garbage. It is also a well-known haven for criminals, drug dealers, and uncontrolled construction as there is virtually no law enforcement presence. The part of Kufr Aqab that is not under the auspices of the Jerusalem municipality is in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control.
“We have two countries, two municipalities, and no police,” Emad Awad, the head of the Palestinian municipality of Kufr Aqab, tells TRT World.
“We live here without police since Oslo. The Israelis don't come here, they come only for security reasons. The Palestinian [police force] can't come without co-ordination with the Israelis, and they have to request it each time,” Awad explains. “I always joke that they should request a monthly permit,” he grins. Disputes here are settled by what he calls “volunteer peacemakers,” local influential figures who act as mediators as per local customs.
As the neighborhood has been left to its own devices for years, the municipality-issued demolition orders came as a shock. It is the first time ever demolition orders were issued in the Israeli-controlled side of the neighborhood.
“There's no licence for those buildings. But there's no licence anywhere, we don't get permits since 1999 in Kufr Aqab,” says Awad.
Abu Osba and other residents believe demolitions to be a tactic to make the process of ceding Kufr Aqab to the Palestinian Authority easier, when the time comes.
So far in 2017, 58 homes have been demolished in East Jerusalem for lacking building permits, leaving 155 people, including 86 minors, homeless. Communities in Area C have been under increasing threat, particularly those located in the “E1 corridor” in the outskirts of Jerusalem. Since 2006, more than 8,000 people lost their homes to demolitions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to figures compiled by Israeli NGO B'Tselem.
But in Kufr Aqab, unlicenced buildings catering to young couples unable to afford homes or get permits to build in Jerusalem neighborhoods on the other side of the wall, were always considered less likely to be demolished.
“Since 2000 until now Israel hasn't issued a single demolition order here,” says Saed Abu Osba, whose construction company owns several buildings in the neighbourhood. He too was caught off-guard by the order to demolish his nine-story building under construction. No one lives there at the moment, but 39 families already made a down payment for apartments they purchased equal to 25 percent of its price. Abu Osba says the families signed an agreement where they acknowledge the homes are sold without a license, essentially exonerating his company from responsibility.
Next door, Ayman Ramie's apartment looks almost like a showroom with its brand-new, oversized furniture and purple upholstery of the same colour as some of the objects adorning the living room. Ayman, 45, a policeman employed by the Palestinian Authority who has a West Bank identity card, decided to buy the apartment after years of marriage, in the only place where he and his wife, who holds a Jerusalem ID, could live in order for her to keep her residency status.
“This takes me back to twenty years ago,” says Ayman, whose meagre wages allowed him to save up slowly.
Ayman and his family of six are among the ten families who are said to have moved in, while 45 others have paid a deposit. Residents went to court but lost the case. A hearing is now expected to take place on February 28, when neighbours living in a nearby tower will argue that blowing up the new building is likely to leave them homeless too, as the two are only a few metres from each other.
“Construction of these buildings has continued for months in spite of cease and desist orders and repeated demolition orders by both District and Supreme Courts. These buildings do not adhere to zoning and safety standards and are dangerous for inhabitants,” Frayda Leibtag, a spokesperson for the office of Jerusalem's mayor Nir Barkat, told TRT World. “It is important to note that this process begun when the buildings were in the middle of construction and completely empty.”
Higher floors look decidedly under construction – stairs become simple concrete ramps with no rails as one climbs up, and walls are rough. Work continues in an apartment purchased by Ayman's brother-in-law, its brand-new kitchen already neatly tiled.
Leaning on the windowsill, Ayman points to the wall below, separating the densely populated neighbourhood of Kufr Aqab from the unused runways of the old Qalandiya airport, an open space of several square kilometres before urban areas come again into view.
The road, which is meant to be a public transportation lane, is planned to be built alongside the wall on the West Bank side, but the fourteen metres authorities say they need are not available. The buildings’ owners proposed moving and re-building the wall at their own expense to make space for the road, to avoid their demolition. But the army refused on security grounds, according to Abu Osba.
Ayman glances around at the incomplete buildings, the wall that runs next to them, the acres of open land beyond it, and shrugs.
“Look,” he says. Without needing to explain, he appears to be wondering why, with several square kilometres of unused land lying just beyond the wall, the road has to be built right on top of his hopes for a better life.