Israeli Army Considering Taking Control of Palestinian Areas in East Jerusalem

A sharp rise in the number of recent attacks in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Shoafat and Kafr Aqab have prompted defense officials to consider intervention

The refugee camp of Shoafat, East Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitouss

The Israeli military is examining the possibility of assuming responsibility for security in the Shoafat refugee camp and in Kafr Aqab, Palestinian areas that are in the jurisdiction of Jerusalem but physically cut off from the city since the construction of the separation barrier.

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Sources in the defense establishment have confirmed to Haaretz that the army's Central Command and the headquarters of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories are reviewing the matter. The army's exact duties in Shoafat and Kafr Aqab, whose inhabitants carry Israeli identity cards and have residency status in Israel, have not been determined, nor is it known whether the intention is to change the civil status of the communities. Also still to be worked out is the division of responsibilities between the army and the police. The Israel Police currently operate in these areas.

Kafr Aqab

Haaretz has learned that the Israel Defense Forces is looking into the possibility that the Samaria Brigade, which is responsible for the Nablus area, will assume responsibility for additional areas further south, and the Binyamin Brigade, which is in charge of the Ramallah area, would assume control over Shoafat and Kafr Aqab, in cooperation with COGAT.

Defense officials said the decision to examine these changes was taken at the outbreak of the last wave of violence in Jerusalem. The events in the area and the number of attacks in those tense days created a need for greater cooperation between the police and the army in areas just outside the city, especially in East Jerusalem neighborhoods that remained on the other side of the barrier, as well as in the Har Adar area, west of the city, the officials said.

The army is considering assuming responsibility up to the separation barrier in areas abutting Jerusalem, bringing the army into neighborhoods on the other side of the barrier. The implications for residents of Shoafat and Kafr Aqab are also being examined. Defense officials stressed that the review was not initiated out of a need to find solutions for these neighborhoods, but rather out of cooperation between the army and police and the recognition that the future of the neighborhoods depends on the decisions that are made.

The Shoafat refugee camp and Kafr Aqab are inside Jerusalem's borders but have been cut off from the city by the barrier. Precise population figures are unavailable, but estimates range between 100,000 and 150,000. Between one-half and two-thirds have blue Israeli ID cards and residency status. A recent survey by city water company Gihon put the population at 140,000.

Because these neighborhoods were severed from Jerusalem, the city and police provide few services and conditions have significantly deteriorated in recent years. Many of the terror attacks in 2015 were committed by people living beyond the separation barrier. Violence in these neighborhoods and environs has spiked, as have the incidence of drug trafficking and illegal weapons possession. The infrastructure is poor. In the absence of municipal oversight, thousands of apartments have been built, overtaxing already-crumbling sewage, water and electricity systems.

"Netanyahu's settler government is continuing to take extreme steps aimed at preventing any possibility of a future peace plan, along with causing critical damage to the daily life of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem," says MK Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Joint List. "This is a move designed to uproot 100,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem and to shatter East Jerusalem into small entities comprised of separate villages and neighborhoods."

Odeh believes that in addition to the political implications of such a move this will also hurt people who in any case are living in dire poverty and with unacceptable infrastructure, and for whom East Jerusalem is the center of their lives. Obviously after such a move their situation will worsen, families will be torn apart and tens of thousands of residents will be cut off from their sources of livelihood.

Perhaps the work being done these days at Central Command attests to the fact that the plan promoted by Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin for the division of the city is still alive and well. In an interview with Haaretz Elkin said the situation in Shoafat and Kafr Aqab could not be worse.

"The current arrangement has totally failed; it was a mistake to erect the barrier where they did. There are now two municipal areas, Jerusalem and the neighborhoods, with very loose links between them. Formally, the IDF can't operate there and the police only go in for special operations, and the area has gradually become a no-mans land."   

Elkin continued, arguing that "such an amount of tall buildings, with such density, you don't have even in Tel Aviv, and the planning implications are grave. There are dangers of collapsing buildings in case of an earthquake.

The municipality cannot provide any services there; any attempt to do so has become a great risk. Lately, there have been attempts to find a solution, but even when these are found they are pinpoint solutions, not systemic ones. It's a great challenge — a security and an operational one."

The defense establishment says the staff work has not been completed yet and that this is a lengthy process in which several alternatives are being examined, such as the army and COGAT assuming responsibility for neighborhoods beyond the separation barrier. 

The IDF spokesman responded by stating that the IDF is constantly examining the optimal way of deploying its forces in different sectors, including in the Central Command area. Different alternatives are currently under review but so far no changes or decisions have been made.