Israel Closes Key Jerusalem Checkpoint, Limiting Palestinian Residents' Access

Refugee camp residents will only be able to cross into Israel via central checkpoint now; plan contravenes 2008 High Court ruling construction must be undertaken to Shoafat crossing before Ras Khamis checkoint closed.

The Defense Ministry is planning to seal up the Ras Khamis checkpoint, one of the only two exits into Israel for the 65,000 Palestinian residents of the Shoafat refugee camp in northeast Jerusalem.

The Palestinian, who are considered residents of Jerusalem, can now enter Israel only through the Shoafat central checkpoint, severely limiting their access to the city.

The plan in its current format contravenes a ruling by the High Court of Justice passed in 2008, which determined that the Shoafat central checkpoint would need eight pedestrian crossings and four crossings for vehicles before the smaller checkpoint could be closed.

This would mean that some 16,000 people who had been using the Ras Khamis crossing daily will now have cross into Israel only via the central checkpoint. Moreover, although the two checkpoints are only 350 meters from each other, in actuality residents who used to pass through Ras Khamis will have to travel two kilometers to get to the central crossing.

Over the past few days, the Defense Ministry dismantled the security cameras at the crossing, with police sources saying these were first steps toward sealing the checkpoint by next week.

“They were meant to build additional lanes for cars and a few for pedestrians,” says Jamil Sanduqa, head of the refugee camp’s residents’ committee. “But they haven’t even done any groundwork for this. Now our children are starting school. You know what kind of crowding there’s going to be here? As it is they’re choking us.”

The Shoafat refugee camp includes four villages crowded one next to the other: Shoafat, Ras Shehada,  Dahiyat al-Salaam and Ras Khamis. All these are in northeastern Jerusalem, within the city’s municipal boundaries, but in practice, they are cut off from the city, because the separation barrier surrounds them on three sides. On the eastern side, the refugee camp is open toward the village of Anata, which is in the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas.

To get into Jerusalem, the tens of thousands of refugee camp residents have had two options: The central checkpoint, which was upgraded recently, and the Ras Khamis checkpoint, a small border crossing serving only pedestrians, but through which thousands of people pass.

About four years ago, residents in and near Ras Khamis were told that the Defense Ministry was planning to close the Ras Khamis checkpoint in order to complete the separation barrier in the area. From then, they were told, they would have to use the main checkpoint, along with 50,000 other refugee camp residents.

With the help of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the residents petitioned the High Court, which set down clear conditions for closing down Ras Khamis; this included expanding the main checkpoint to include four lands for vehicles, to be manned and open 24 hours a day, and eight paths for pedestrians.

Today, Sanduqa says, there’s only one pedestrian crossing. “They have to build another seven, like the court said,” he said.

Aside from all this, the court ruled that the Defense Ministry must, as part of the expanded crossing, build a special lane for checking suspicious vehicles, parking lots so that residents could “park and ride” public transportation, and a plaza for examining vehicles bringing goods from the Shoafat area to Israel.

About half a year ago the Defense Ministry erected large signs throughout the refugee camp announcing the planned closure of the Ras Khamis crossing. The residents’ committee and ACRI contacted several relevant officials demanding that the closure not be implemented.

“An in fact, nothing happened, until now,” explained Sanduqa, when the dismantling of the security cameras raised residents’ suspicions, and they discovered the crossing was to be closed.

As a result, on Sunday, ACRI wrote a sharply worded letter to Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to the Civil Administration officers responsible for the area and other officials, demanding that the move not be made without meeting the High Court’s requirements.

“Closing the Ras Khamis checkpoint at this time, before you have met your obligations with regarding to the [central] Shoafat refugee camp checkpoint, will constitute a serious, disproportionate blow to the population’s freedom of movement, which is dependent on crossing that checkpoint,” wrote Nasrin Alian, an attorney for ACRI.

“As a result, their rights to earn a living, receive medical care, learn, teach, visit the holy places and their relatives, will be undermined,” she wrote.

The Defense Ministry said: “The Ras Khamis crossing was a very small checkpoint that was a temporary checkpoint from the start. Ras Khamis residents will soon be moving to use the Shoafat crossing, which has been rebuilt to a high standard so it can handle thousands of residents.

“At the Shoafat crossing, which is only 350 meters from the Ras Khamis crossing, more than 5,000 people pass through during peak hours [between 6-8 A.M.] and [the central crossing] will able to absorb more without unusual pressure. The issue meets the guidelines of the High Court of Justice and has been implemented in coordination with ACRI and the courts.”

The Shuafat central checkpoint
Michal Fattal