Since they began protesting against a main traffic artery being built smack through their neighborhood, say the inhabitants of Beit Safafa, police and other authorities have been abusing them. They suspect the authorities of trying to break them using means they would never apply in a Jewish neighborhood.
Beit Safafa is a neighborhood in Jerusalem, partially located inside the Green Line (the 1948 armistice line). It is more like a village than a neighborhood per se, and is considered to be the Palestinian area most open to Jews in all of Jerusalem.
But the road under construction is splitting the neighborhood into two, in some cases mere meters from homes.
The alleged harassment is multi-pronged. Beit Sefafa business owners say the income tax authorities have suddenly stepped up raids, for instance.
“Three tax squads have been going around the village, accompanied by police. They reached us at 9:00 the evening and they didn’t find anything. One told us, ‘We will keep coming and getting in your way until the demonstrations stop,’” relates Ahmad Al’ayan, who works at a Beit Safafa grocery.
On Tuesday Jerusalem municipality inspectors also showed up. They handed out fines for "construction without permits" – for edifices, including a canopy for instance, that had been there for ten or 15 years.
Last week three Beit Safafa residents were arrested. Abdelakrim Lafi, 55, chairman of the village parents’ committee, was detained and taken for questioning at 2:00 A.M. on suspicion of helping to organize a strike at the school in protest against the road. The police confiscated the computers and mobile telephones in his home, and released him after 15 hours. The police explain that Lafi's conduct "could disturb the public order.”
“I told the investigators that according to an Education Ministry bulletin, it is permissible to organize a strike at a school over things that interfere with studies,” says Lafi. "In this case we went on strike because this is something that affects the students’ lives, not just their studies."
Two days Lafi's arrest, two other inhabitants were arrested and spent a night in jail. They were arrested by policemen in civilian dress (though the Jerusalem Police deny they were so-called "mista’aravim" – undercover police disguised as Arabs) who infiltrated a demonstration by inhabitants with the participation of Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al).
There are conflicting versions as to who attacked whom during the demonstration. The inhabitants say they believed the undercover policemen were contract workers who were carrying out the works in the village and had been sent to bust up the demonstration.
They police, however, say the policemen were attacked by residents.
A place where people got along
The tranquil Palestinian "village" of Beit Safafa has always been a place of coexistence. The bakery in the village center and the groceries are known to every secular Jerusalemite who wants to shop on Shabbat. There is no recollection of disturbances of the peace or violent incidents in the village. In contrast to the villages in East Jerusalem there is hardly any illegal construction, either. The Beit Safafa administration maintains close cooperative relations with the municipality.
In contrast to other Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, the inhabitants of Beit Safafa aren't used to Border Police and mista’aravim in the heart of the village and in the wee hours of the morning.
The new highway is to stretch from the southern entrance to Jerusalem, to Begin Street, which runs through the city. It will serve chiefly the settlers of Gush Etzion.
The Beit Safafa inhabitants point out that no other neighborhoods are being bisected, let alone right on the doorsteps of the homes, for the road's sake. Other segments of the highway pass adjacent to - but not through - Jewish neighborhoods. Yet the only section of road on which work has begun is the segment passing through Beit Safafa.
Nor can residents get compensation for the inconvenience.
That is because the road is based on a general plan dating from 23 years ago, that the courts decided was detailed enough to enable construction to start. Under Israeli law, you can get compensation only if you prove that a specifically approved plan caused you damage. In this case, the villagers would have to have appealed against the plan back in 1990.
Thus the inhabitants of Beit Safafa are denied the possibility of objecting or at least receiving compensation for the damages being caused them.
'We're like Israelis: United in war'
Last week Jerusalem District Court Judge Nava Ben-Or rejected the inhabitants’ motion to halt construction of the road on the grounds that no detailed plans with permits existed. But Ben-Or accepted the municipality’s position that the general plan for the road, approved in 1990, sufficed.
But one day before that ruling, the attorney for the community administration, Mohand Javra, discovered that the municipality's representatives had hidden a fact from the judge. It was that original plan, on which the municipality relied in court, specifically called for a detailed plan to be filed before the road could be built.
“No construction may begin in any place that this plan defines as an area requiring detailed planning except after detailed planning for the area has been approved,” states the 1990 document.
The area is delineated by a black line and includes at least 50 meters of the road that has now been paved through the neighborhood. However, Judge Ben-Or informed Javra that her ruling had already been written and she refused to consider the request he submitted.
Meanwhile, despite the authorities' crackdown, the people of Beit Safafa are continuing their protest. Several large demonstrations were organized, all with permits. Again Facebook has played an important role, and in contrast to other demonstrations in East Jerusalem, these include a considerable presence of women.
“They may want to deter people from demonstrating,” says Ala Salman, 39, one of the protest organizers. “They told us, ‘You lost in court, now stay home.’ But they don't realize that Beit Safafa is like the Israelis – when there is a war everyone unites, and we are in a war against the road.”
The Jerusalem Police claims the demonstrations have gotten completely out of control and have included stone-throwing, an attack on road workers and attempted arson of heavy machinery.
Salman denies this vehemently. “There wasn’t even a single Palestinian flag at the demonstration,” he says. “The state has betrayed us, stabbed us in the back – that’s how we feel. Everyone knows Beit Safafa isn’t Silwan. Why are they doing this to us?”
The Jerusalem municipality stated that claims the municipality deceived the court and presented outdated or irrelevant documents to it, are wrong.
"All the sides submitted plans relevant to the road and after examining them the court rejected the petition and determined that the municipality had acted in accordance with the law," the city said. "As for the strike at the school, there is no connection between the paving of the road and closing down studies, which damages the students. The municipality vehemently rejects the claims about collective punishment and any connection between enforcement activity that is carried out equally in all the neighborhoods of the city and the protest – that never happened and is entirely baseless. The municipality makes efforts above and beyond what is required for the inhabitants and will continue to do so. As for the arrest of the chairman of the parents’ committee – we heard about the arrest after the fact and there is no connection between the activity of the police and the activity of the municipality.”
The Jerusalem Police stated that it allows demonstrations and protests in accordance with the law. "But the police will prevent interference with road-works, attacks and stone-throwing. We reject outright any attempt to depict the work of the police as collective punishment. The police will help the municipality get the road built as the court ruled and will detain any person who acts in defiance of the law for questioning.”
The Tax Authority did not respond as of writing.