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Palestinians Stuck In Jerusalem 'No Man's Land'
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Palestinians Stuck In Jerusalem 'No Man's Land'

Middle East

Palestinians Stuck In Jerusalem 'No Man's Land'

Palestinians Stuck In Jerusalem 'No Man's Land'
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126000690/126010349" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The neighborhood of Kufr Aqab has evolved into a kind of no man's land — it's technically part of Jerusalem, but it lies on the Palestinian side of the West Bank barrier the Israelis have built to try to keep out suicide bombers.

Kufr Aqab's residents have to pay taxes to the Israeli authorities, but they get virtually nothing in return. Still, the East Jerusalem district's population is booming as Palestinian couples like Bayan Barghouti and his wife, Roula, move there.

The two don't look like star-crossed lovers, but like the majority of Palestinians in the neighborhood, they surmounted a great deal of opposition to be together.

The problem? Roula is from Jerusalem; Bayan is from the West Bank.

Palestinians from Jerusalem can travel freely between the West Bank and Israel, but to maintain their residency permits they have to live within the Jerusalem municipal boundaries. Most Palestinians from the West Bank don't have permission to cross the wall Israel has built in and around the occupied territory.

So to be together, Roula and Bayan had to move away from both their families to Kufr Aqab — which has become the only place where Jerusalemites and West Bankers can live together.

'The Only Solution'

"It's the only solution for me," says Roula, who has wide brown eyes and a Cheshire cat smile. "I have no other place to live with my husband. He's a West Banker and I cannot live in an area in the West Bank, nor he can live in an area in Jerusalem, so it's the middle."

Because they live with their 6-month-old daughter in what is technically part of Jerusalem, Roula can fulfill her residency requirements, and Bayan can commute to his job in nearby Ramallah.

Bayan says the minute they decided to get married they knew they would have to live in this district.

"I knew the path would be one of suffering," he says. "But I took the chance. I know they will never grant me a permit to be in Jerusalem, so the day we decided to get married, we knew we would come to live in Kufr Aqab."

But they are not happy about it and describe the neighborhood as a kind of ghetto for Palestinians in their situation.

Caught In A Vacuum

To prove residency, Palestinians in Kufr Aqab have to pay arnona, the Jerusalem municipal tax. But their streets are mostly unpaved, services are minimal, there are few schools and only one recently opened clinic.

Roula and Bayan say this place is symbolic of how Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are slowly being disenfranchised. Israeli restrictions are forcing Jerusalem residents to either marry other Palestinians from Jerusalem or risk losing their residency in the city.

"If you are married to a West Banker you are punished — you have to pay more; you have to live in an area that's not organized at all," Roula says.

Drive around Kufr Aqab and you see clusters of children playing on dusty streets riddled with potholes. The area has no municipal playground or parks, forcing the children to make do with what they can.

Kufr Aqab does have a local village council, but its head, Ali Barakat, says there is little he can do for the people. Barakat says the local council is authorized to do little more than fund some minimal road repairs or oversee the cleaning of sewage pipes.

"We are in a very difficult position," he says. "There is complete confusion among the people of this area about who is responsible for what. We don't collect taxes, so we don't generate any income. We survive through donations."

Even more worrying is the security vacuum in the area, says Sahar Azer, who also works at the council.

"We had a situation in Kufr Aqab school where a teacher during working hours attacked the headmaster with a gun. The school called the Israeli police, who said they would not come because the school was on the other side of the wall," Azer says. "The school then called the Palestinian Authority but it said the area is under Israeli security control so it couldn't dispatch its police. The school was left with a man and a gun and students."

Luckily, the incident was resolved without bloodshed.

Hitting A Wall

Yakir Segev, who heads the East Jerusalem department for the municipality in Israel, acknowledges that Israeli authorities are doing little for Kufr Aqab because of its location on the other side of the wall.

"For security reasons, it's very dangerous for Israelis to cross the fence and walk there, so the municipality is having a very hard time giving services."

He says most jobs — like garbage collection — are given to contractors.

But he insists the municipality does not discriminate against Palestinians in Kufr Aqab.

"As far as the Jerusalem municipality is concerned, everyone who's living in Jerusalem is a citizen of the city, and it's our duty to do our best, to give them the best services that we can provide," Segev says.

A Building Boom

Despite the lack of services and the daily grind of crossing checkpoints, there is a building boom in Kufr Aqab. Most of the structures are illegal, but because there is no oversight by either the Israeli or Palestinian authorities, people build with impunity.

Standing just outside the Qalandiya checkpoint that separates Kufr Aqab from the rest of East Jerusalem, local developer Samir Abu Rmaileh says this is one of the only places that can accommodate Palestinians from Jerusalem these days.

"Elsewhere in East Jerusalem, Palestinians cannot get building permits, and if they build illegally, their house might be demolished," he says. "Here people can build without problems."

In one of the new apartment buildings nearby, Umm Mohammed, a Jerusalem resident married to a man from the West Bank, says she has seen the neighborhood grow.

"Kufr Aqab used to be empty, I think, 10 years ago," she says.

Now that many people have been forced by circumstance to move here, she says, it is Jerusalem that seems like a Palestinian ghost town.

"It really makes me sad when I go to Jerusalem and I see that it's empty. It's really full of people from everywhere, except Palestinians," she says. "When we walked in the streets, we used to know everybody there. Nowadays, we know nobody there. I feel that I'm a foreigner there."

Umm Mohammed says she doesn't like Kufr Aqab, but she knows she's here to stay.

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