Young Activists Fight for Their Neighborhood Against City Hall's Tractors

Residents of Jerusalem's Beit Safafa say the city's plan to build a highway right through the middle of the Arab neighborhood will end life as they know it, and will only serve settlers.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

To Duaa Subhi, the beginning of this road is the end of peace. Or at the very least, the end of life in Beit Safafa as she knows it.

The Jerusalem municipality has already begun work on Road 4, also known as the Begin Highway, which will cut Beit Safafa in two and make it almost impossible for residents on one side to visit people on the other without getting into a car.

“This will damage my village, and I want my children and those of the next generation to be able to enjoy growing up as I did, in a village,” Subhi explains as we sit on the grass in the Wohl Rose Park across from the Knesset, waiting for the demonstration to start. It’s not a coincidence that the municipality refers to it as neighborhood, because then it makes it easier to try to cut it in half, she notes.

“We insist on calling it a neighborhood and not a village, because there’s a difference. The city wants to treat us as separate houses, not as a community,” says Subhi, a 25-year-old woman who keeps her hair wrapped in a colorful but modest Islamic headscarf. A master’s student in biology at the Hebrew University, Subhi is fluent in English, Arabic and Hebrew – and she is one of the more eloquent people in a group of young Beit Safafa activists, all under 30, calling themselves Awlad Haretna, or the Children of our Quarter, a name borrowed from a Naguib Mahfouz novel.

The group organized transportation for several hundred students from Beit Safafa Tuesday to come to the demonstration across from the Knesset to make themselves heard. Along with the more veteran faces of the village, they shouted slogans in Hebrew and English, including “Barkat, shame on you!” – a reference to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat – and “We won’t allow this road to come to be.”

The planned road, based on plans drawn up 22 years ago, passes so close to residents’ homes that it necessitates the construction of a high wall for physical and “acoustic” protection from the highway. The very thought of it has the students referring it as another “apartheid wall,” says Subhi.

“To build a huge highway right through a neighborhood is unthinkable,” she adds. “And it’s not even a road we will use. I would have to drive into Gilo and back to Beit Safafa just to see my aunt.”

Indeed, the plan for the road means some people in the village would be cut off from their usual walk to the mosque, the bakery, and other community meeting places. Moreover, she says, it will affect Beit Safafa’s Islamic way of life because during a funeral, for example, tradition demands that people walk with the departed to the cemetery – to travel in a car is simply not done. That will be impossible with the new highway running through the village, unless the funeral procession traipses over a pedestrian bridge to be built over the highway – a sight people find too horrible to imagine.

“If this is built, the whole community and its relations between people will change. People will find it difficult to meet each other in the way we’re used to. This is a settlement road,” she adds, “because its main function is to connect Gush Etzion to the north of Jerusalem through Beit Safafa.”

Subhi is no militant. She’s recently taught at Jerusalem’s well-known Hand in Hand School Bilingual School for Jewish Arab Education, a bilingual school not far from where she grew up. But political feelings are now stirring among many young people in Beit Safafa, which has long been a quiet place. Though the village was divided following Israel’s establishment in 1948 – part was in Israeli Jerusalem and part in Jordanian – the two sections of the village were united in 1967. Since then, people in Beit Safafa have largely preferred to stay out of politics, and have hardly been heard from over the course of two Palestinian intifadas.

Now, more than a few of the young people are wearing black-and-white kaffiyehs and some are speaking the language of resistance that is more common to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. At the demonstration, one of the young men led the crowd in a chant of Allahu Akbar and call-and-response with lines like, “This is our Arab land. Raise your fist, people of Beit Safafa. We are not afraid of the Russian Compound prison.”

Some shout slogans, but are privately pessimistic. “This plan will cut us like a cake. The city is taking our quiet little corner of Jerusalem and making problems – and soon it won’t be a quiet place anymore,” says Mohammed Lafi, one of Subhi’s neighbors. “But I’m skeptical we can stop it, because everything the municipality is doing is wrong, but appears to be legal.”

Indeed, the battle over the road in the courts continues. A week ago, Jerusalem District Court Judge Nava Ben-Or rejected a petition against the highway; she ruled that there was no impropriety in the way the permits were issued, and that residents should have raised their objections to the road 23 years ago, when the plans were drawn up. But residents say not only were they not given a chance to object or receive compensation, but the municipality has, since 1990, issued permits for construction of new houses that now lie in the route of the highway.

The petitioners say they’ll they plan to appeal to the Supreme Court next week to halt the construction.

“We’ve never had political problems in Beit Safafa, but this issue will damage that,” Subhi explains. “We feel that they’re doing it because we’re a quiet Arab area and they think they can do whatever they want with us.”

Duaa Subhi, one of the young activists from Beit Safafa.Credit: Ilene Prusher
Protestors opposing a road that will cut through Beit Safafa demonstrate across from the Knesset Tuesday. Credit: Ilene Prusher

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