The separation barrier in Shoafat, Jerusalem. Olivier Fitoussi

15 Years of Separation: The Palestinians Cut Off From Jerusalem by the Wall

Palestinians see it as Israel's attempt to expel them from Jerusalem; Israelis see it as protection from terrorism. Haaretz investigates the separation barrier's impact on the city and its residents



In Israel’s capital, a wall twists and turns for a total of 202 kilometers (125 miles). On the one hand, this concrete snake embodies the occupation; at the same time it offers a sense of security. Between these two poles, reality sometimes assumes an absurd dimension. This year marks the 15th anniversary since construction of the wall began – a project conceived as a security need that was aggrandized into a highly potent political instrument. Its multiple aspects are reflected in the diverse names that have attached themselves to it: “security barrier,” “separation fence,” “the wall” and, the official designation, the “Jerusalem envelope.”

Its advocates focus on what they describe as its primary advantage: security. As proof that the wall is doing its job, they note the dramatic decrease in the number of suicide attacks that have occurred in Israel since the idea was first approved (43 such attacks in 2002, zero suicide attacks in 2012).

Critics of the barrier maintain that its underlying purpose is demographic: the de facto annexation to Israel of as much territory as possible, including the fewest possible number of Palestinian inhabitants. The wall’s existence, they argue, will make it even more difficult for the two sides to ever reach an agreement. In support of this claim, they note that only 15 percent of the 470-km route of the entire fence (not just the Jerusalem section) coincides with the Green Line, while the other 85 percent cuts into Palestinian areas.

Advocates and detractors of the wall’s benefits can be found among right-wing and left-wing Israelis alike, as well as in the international community. One admirer is U.S. President Donald Trump, who wants to replicate its “success” along his country’s border with Mexico. However, the International Court of Justice in The Hague does not recognize the wall’s legality and – in a ruling dating back to 2004 – wants it to be dismantled, with compensation to be paid to the Palestinians who have been adversely affected by its construction.

Whatever one’s opinion, there’s no disputing the fact that the wall’s presence has caused no few upheavals in the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians. It has altered the faces of communities, become the dominant factor in the lives of many, has affected the economy of the two peoples and has insinuated itself very naturally into the cultural folklore of this conflicted land.

Describing the differing perceptions of the wall within the two nations, attorney Nisreen Alyan, an Israeli Palestinian who works for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, observes, “The Palestinians see it as a wound in the midst of the population. They are also aware that under international law, it’s not legal. From their perspective, the wall is another symbol of the Israeli occupation. In contrast, the Israelis see the wall as a means of protection, a security necessity, and therefore think that its legality or illegality is not germane to the discussion.”

Israeli courts have also dealt with the issue of the wall on many occasions (about 150 appeals against it and its route have been submitted over the years). The judgments have never taken the form of rulings against the wall as such; at most they have given feeble expression to the view that this or that segment of its route is disproportionate or unreasonable in terms of disrupting the routine of Palestinians.

Lior Mizrahi

“The court has actually never dug down to the roots of the wall’s existence; it has invariably left the discussion on the surface,” Alyan says.

All these claims and counter-claims take on added intensity in regard to the Jerusalem stretch of the wall, which passes from the community of Har Adar in the north to the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements south of Bethlehem. In some parts it takes the form of a chain-link fence, with trenches below it; in other sections, principally the urban areas, it’s a nine-meter-high concrete wall with a barbed-wire crest, punctuated by watchtowers and cameras.

Like many chapters of Israeli history, the story of the wall’s genesis is steeped in blood. A succession of suicide attacks rocked the country in the late 1990s and early years of the new century. December 2001 was a particularly rough month, which began with two deadly assaults. In the first, 11 Israelis were killed by two suicide bombers on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda St. pedestrian mall and a booby-trapped car that exploded nearby. The second incident occurred the next day in Haifa, with 15 people killed on a bus. The ministerial committee for national security met in special session and decided to implement the “Jerusalem envelope” project, with the goal of regulating Palestinians’ entry into Israel.

By August 2002, the first stage of the Jerusalem wall had been planned and approved – two segments of 10 kilometers each. The northern section would separate Ramallah from Jerusalem; the southern section would sever Bethlehem from the Israeli capital. The rest of the route was filled in by stages over the years. The final segment, as of today, is being built on Jerusalem’s southern ridge, in the Gilo neighborhood across the Green Line, close to the Cremisan monastery (which remained within Jerusalem municipal borders under pressure of the Vatican).

In their 2008 book “The Wall of Folly” (Hebrew), the geo-demographer Shaul Arieli and attorney Michael Sfard, who specializes in human rights law, relate how Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud government “tried by every possible means to prevent the construction of a wall in Jerusalem.” In the end, they add, the decision to erect it was “a response of no choice in the face of the terrorist events from which Jerusalem suffered more than any other place in Israel.”

The terrorism in fact abated, but many analysts, including Arieli, maintain that the decline in attacks has been due not only to the construction of the wall, but a combination of several factors: the blow dealt to the terror organizations in the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Defensive Shield in 2002; closer cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in security-related matters; and improved intelligence activity by Israel.

Initially, the Jerusalem barrier was supposed to encircle the city of Ma’aleh Adumim east of the city on the road to the Dead Sea, and to annex that region, known as E-1, to Israel. However, under international pressure, the plan to make Ma’aleh Adumim part of the Jerusalem continuum has not been implemented yet. In order to avoid a “breach” in the Jerusalem fence, but without annexing this sensitive area, a wall has been built between Jerusalem and E-1, which forces the 38,000 Jewish settlers in the area to go through a checkpoint in order to enter Jerusalem.

‘Our quiet transfer’

For the Palestinians, the Jerusalem envelope created urban spaces that are completely different from those that existed in the pre-wall period. The most striking result has been the severance of Jerusalem from both Bethlehem and Ramallah, which effectively cuts off Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents from the West Bank.

A case in point is the life of two students, M. and L., both of whom live in East Jerusalem and hold blue (Israeli-issue) ID cards. They met at a preparatory course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they still study, and intend to be married soon. Because L.’s extended family lives in Ramallah, she submitted a request for entry permits for relatives so they could celebrate with the couple on their wedding day. The date of the event is approaching, but the Israeli authorities have not yet replied to the request. This was not a problem that L.’s parents, who were married before the wall was erected, had to contend with when they sent out invitations to their own wedding.

The second major change is the separation of Kafr Aqab, a village in the north of Jerusalem, and the Shoafat refugee camp, in the city’s northeast, from the city proper. The wall separates both areas from the rest of the city. To enter Jerusalem – which such people are allowed to do, as they carry blue IDs and are considered Jerusalem residents – inhabitants of the two neighborhoods are compelled to navigate checkpoints. About 90,000 people, constituting between a quarter and third of the Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem, live in the neighborhoods “left” on the wrong side of the wall, outside Jerusalem proper.

For the Palestinians with resident status in East Jerusalem, the barriers predate the wall. As early as the 1990s, during the first intifada, Israel erected barriers and prohibited non-Jerusalemite Palestinians from entering the city without a permit – but the separation now is concrete and permanent.

Many Palestinians recall nostalgically the period before the wall. They describe Salah e-Din Street, the main thoroughfare of East Jerusalem, as a thriving commercial, economic and cultural center, a magnet for Palestinians from all parts of the West Bank and Israel. In the wake of construction of the barrier, however, access to Jerusalem became difficult, and commercial activity in the eastern section of the city declined. Some 5,000 small businesses in East Jerusalem closed for lack of clients in the years that followed, which further intensified the poverty there. If the poverty rate among Palestinians in Jerusalem was 60 percent before the construction of the Jerusalem envelope, it rose to 80 percent afterward, where it remains today.

The north Jerusalem neighborhood of Bir Naballah, for example, was fenced off, turning it into an isolated enclave. In the past, the neighborhood was a center of banquet halls. Today, Palestinians who want to enter Bir Naballah need to go through checkpoints, and no one wants to put a damper on a celebration in that way. The situation led to the closure of most of the neighborhood’s halls and restaurants.

Nor was it only commerce that suffered – cultural life was also affected. There were three popular movie theaters in East Jerusalem, along with the Palestinian national theater, Al Hakawati; the movie theaters have closed and Al Hakawati moved to Ramallah.

“Fifteen years have gone by since the wall began to be built, and government offices and services, like police and sanitation, are not yet functioning in those neighborhoods,” Nisreen Alyan says. “The result has been domination by thugs and crime families. There’s drug dealing, prostitution and also an arms market, and no one is doing anything about it. The neighborhoods beyond the wall became a haven for criminals who are on the run from the law in Israel or from the rule of law in the PA.”

Much has been spoken and written about the Shoafat refugee camp (population: 30,000), which suffers from a dearth of infrastructure and from poverty. Kafr Aqab (25,000 inhabitants) and its adjacent neighborhoods are in a similar situation. Officially, they lie within Jerusalem’s municipal jurisdiction, but in practice, they receive woefully inadequate services from the city.

Tali Mayer

The local residents describe their condition as “our quiet [population] transfer.” What they mean is that by the very fact of their neglect, they are convinced that the Jerusalem Municipality and the State of Israel are trying to thrust them into a state of despair, as a result of which they will leave, and in so doing lose their Jerusalem residency status. In that way, they will cease to pose a demographic threat to the city’s Jewish majority.

Indeed, despair is the rampant mood in both Shoafat and Kafr Aqab. There is no shortage of reasons for this, and recently a new one has been added: President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and his announcement that the U.S. Embassy will relocate to the city as a gift to Israel on the 70th anniversary of its independence. For Jerusalem’s Palestinians, this is one more move that pushes further away their hopes for an end to the occupation and to their aspiration to make Al-Quds – as they refer to Arab East Jerusalem – their capital. It may not change their material situation, but it constitutes an additional blow to their morale.

Fear of partition

One person who hasn’t yet despaired of improving the situation is the lawyer Mu’in Odeh. He was born and raised in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, adjacent to the Old City. When he married, eight years ago, at age 30, he experienced firsthand the housing crunch in the neighborhood. As Silwan is part and parcel of Jerusalem, its residents don’t have to go through checkpoints to enter the city, which puts housing there at a premium. Odeh and his wife had little choice but to move to Kafr Aqab, outside the wall. There they pay monthly rent of 2,000 shekels ($573), whereas rent in neighborhoods inside the Jerusalem barrier can be two or three times that amount. 

“The rent in Kafr Aqab is low, yes, but there are three major problems with the neighborhood,” says Odeh, who has a private legal practice in Jerusalem. “The first is the checkpoint. There’s no way of knowing in advance if there will be a big traffic jam and the crossing will take two hours, or if it will go quickly and I can get through in a quarter of an hour.”

The second problem is “an absence of a sense of security,” Odeh continues. “There are no security forces in the neighborhood, neither Israelis nor Palestinians. The only body that sometimes operates here is the Israel Defense Forces, which only enters to make security arrests. There is no one to protect us.”

Odeh comes to the third problem: the infrastructure and sanitation neglect. Only half the homes are connected to the water-supply network, secondary roads aren’t paved and are studded with potholes, and the garbage is piled up everywhere. The residents of Kafr Aqab cite a shortage of classrooms – according to Ir Amim, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more equitable reality for Palestinians in Jerusalem, there is a shortage of 2,557 classrooms in the Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the wall. The data show that there is also a lack of well-baby clinics and health centers, welfare bureaus, post offices – and there is not even one children’s playground in the vicinity.

In 2012, Odeh filed a petition against the Jerusalem Municipality with the administrative affairs court there in the name of the residents of Kafr Aqab. In preparing their case, the residents discovered that the sanitation budget of Kafr Aqab amounts to less than one percent of the municipality’s total sanitation budget. The court urged the sides to reach a compromise, and the city agreed to increase the sanitation budget to one percent.

The municipality’s answer is always the same, Odeh says: There is no money, and it’s dangerous to send municipal workers into those neighborhoods. Regarding the budget, he says, “we pay municipal taxes and the budget pie can be sliced differently. As for the security claim, many of the sanitation workers are from East Jerusalem. Instead of sending them to other parts of the city, why not have them work in their own neighborhoods? If the municipality thinks it’s not too dangerous for them to live there, they can also work there.”

In 2015, Odeh filed another petition, since municipal services hadn’t improved. City Hall argues that, since it was the state that built the wall, so it must be a party to the deliberations. To which the state has responded by criticizing the city for neglecting the neighborhoods, even though it received state funds on their behalf. The Transportation Ministry, for example, informed the court that it had granted Jerusalem 423 million shekels ($121.2 million) to improve infrastructures like roads and bus service in East Jerusalem, but the municipality did not use the money to that end.

Nir Kafri

Nir Barkat was first elected mayor of Jerusalem in 2008. His predecessor, Uri Lupolianski, sought to solve the problem of the neglect in they city’s Palestinian neighborhoods in 2005. He believed that with 80 million shekels (then about $17.5 million), a reasonable network of services could be created for those who had been cut off by the wall. “Get the money from your friends in the European Union, what’s the big deal?” the finance minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, advised the mayor. Later, Netanyahu himself had to cope with the consequences of the neglect as prime minister. A Shin Bet security service report from 2008 cited a rise in the number of Jerusalem residents involved in terrorism. There was even a warning about the possibility of acts of terror being perpetrated by lone individuals from East Jerusalem neighborhoods – a prediction that would be borne out some years later.

During the first few years of the 2000s, relatively few city residents took part in terrorism, but the number of Jerusalem-based perpetrators began to rise in 2008. In a 2014 article by Nir Hasson in Haaretz, titled “The dangerous, unpredictable anomaly of East Jerusalem,” he quoted Palestinians who attributed the rise to three factors. The first of them was the separation barrier, which, in the words of one person, “severely affected social and economic life in Jerusalem.”

Another proposal for a solution to “the problem of East Jerusalem neighborhoods” originated recently with the minister of Jerusalem affairs and heritage, Zeev Elkin (Likud). Elkin vigorously lobbied for passage of an amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem, Capital of Israel. One of its clauses would stipulate that the Palestinian neighborhoods of the city’s eastern section would be managed under a municipal authority that would be separate from the Jerusalem Municipality. The situation in the neighborhoods couldn’t be worse, Elkin told Haaretz reporters Nir Hasson and Jonathan Lis last October, and elaborated: “The current system has completely failed. The moment they routed the barrier the way they did, it was a mistake. At the moment, there are two municipal areas – Jerusalem and these neighborhoods – and the connection between them is very loose. The army can’t formally act there, the police go in only [to carry out] operations, and the area has become a no-mans-land.”

Elkin also expressed concern about the rapid population growth in these neighborhoods, which was unravelling the existing balance between Jews and Arabs in the city, to the detriment of the Jewish majority. His partner in advancing the amendment was Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi). Many other right-wing MKs, however, were outraged by the idea of placing Jerusalem neighborhoods under the authority of a separate municipal government; this, they claimed, would lay the foundations for the city’s eventual partition, even if only at the level of services. A minor brouhaha ensued, and Elkin and Bennett were forced to delete the clause from the amendment. The amendment, whose principal purpose was to make it harder for any future government to relinquish Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem, was passed by the Knesset in January of this year but without the “partition” clause.

‘A mess of gates’

Ahmed Sub Laban, a researcher with Ir Amim, maneuvers his car with astonishing dexterity through the maze of narrow streets in Jerusalem’s A-Ram neighborhood. He’s familiar with every paving tile and every alley, knows who lives where and can cite the history of every building. “Ready?” he asks just before turning left from one narrow, nameless street to another. Suddenly the wall looms before us, rising in all its glory in the middle of the street, as though it had been dropped randomly from the air. But there’s nothing random about the route of the wall. It passes here and not in a more convenient place, because there’s a Christian school in the neighborhood, to which many foreign diplomats send their children. They didn’t want to have to negotiate a checkpoint every morning, so the State of Israel agreed to have the wall pass behind the school. The wall also passes through the yard of Sub Laban’s grandfather’s house. Sub Laban himself notes that he had a relatively tranquil childhood alongside Jews from the adjacent Neve Yaakov neighborhood, in the city’s far northern reaches.

A building boom among the Palestinians was triggered by the first rumors about the construction of the barrier, he says. “We knew it would change the neighborhood, so people started to build every which way, to create facts on the ground before the occupying side would tell us what needs or doesn’t need a permit. Those who built here [on the side that ultimately remained within Jerusalem] won big, those who built there [on what turned out to be the other side of the wall] lost out.” The difference in prices is vast: On the Israeli side a three-room apartment costs 1.5 million shekels [$430,000], on the Palestinian side, about 160,000 shekels [$46,000].”

Ir Amim’s executive director, Yudith Oppenheimer, also in the car, adds that the wall in Jerusalem “doesn’t just separate Israelis from Palestinians, it separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Its construction stemmed from security reasons, but the route that was chosen was exploited in order to fulfill Israeli political, demographic and territorial ambitions.”

Geographer Arnon Soffer, professor emeritus at the University of Haifa, talks about the aesthetics of the wall. “This whole fence is a mess of gates and entrances,” he says, when we speak. “The ugliness is awful. We can both agree that it’s an extremely ugly addition to our capital city. I remember from boyhood the classic picture of beautiful Jerusalem. What’s left of that? It’s an aesthetic blunder, which is also a geopolitical blunder.”

He adds, “Do you know how many Palestinians live in Jerusalem? Does anyone know? No one knows exactly. The numbers range between 300,000 and 400,000, and it’s surmised that a third of them are outside the walls. But there’s no actual way to do a count, because no one knows what’s happening in those wretched neighborhoods. What kind of future are we preparing for ourselves in this terrible space?”

Tomer Neuberg / JINI

Curiosity to see what’s on the other side of the wall is overwhelming, but all one can do is listen. On the other side, at Rachel’s Tomb, south of the city, a tour guide is heard explaining about the wall in fluent English to a group who seem to have British accents. On the Israeli side, about 50 young schoolgirls listen as their teachers tell them the story of the biblical matriarch Rachel. I ask if any of them are curious to know what’s on the other side of the wall. One answers “Yes,” another says “It’s Bethlehem”; all the others respond in the negative, they’re not curious: “This is how it is at Rachel’s Tomb.” It’s remarkable how quickly a man-made wall could become something people take for granted.

Insurmountable challenges

I ask Soffer, who is 82, how he sees the future of the wall. “The challenges are so tremendous that I am seriously apprehensive that you” – referring to younger generations – “won’t be able to overcome them,” he replies.

Indeed, at this stage of the conflict, and given the spirit of the time, it’s difficult to imagine the wall ever coming down. At the moment it doesn’t look like it will happen in the context of a peace agreement, and its removal for annexation purposes is too complex a mission now. But there are also those who think that the wall is actually a marker of hope. They point out that some sort of border between Palestinians and Israelis, however fragmented and disputatious, exists nonetheless. Thus, the area of agreement might be greater than it first appears.

That’s the premise on which two architects, Karen-Lee Bar Sinai and Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat (who is also a member of the Jerusalem city council, representing the Yerushalmim party). The two were students of architecture when the separation project was launched.

“Even though the geopolitical, spatial and economic ramifications of the fence were enormous, we noticed that the local community of architects wasn’t engaging with the subject,” Bar Sinai says. “We thought that architects have an important role to play in terms of talking responsibility for how the Israel-Palestine border will look. What began as a graduation project became our career.” The two established the SAYA/Design for Change studio, and have produced numerous maps and simulations with the goal of “improving the border between Israel and Palestine,” as they put it.

“The wall around Jerusalem will remain,” Greenfield-Gilat says, “but its route will change once the permanent borders are set. In our view, together with the change of route, the essence of the wall also has to change, so that it becomes connective and not divisive. It needs to become a breathing membrane that makes possible an urban fabric with vitality.”

If the wall remains, but not as it is today, what will it look like? The two suggest that it be integrated into the municipal infrastructures, and show how this can be done by means of imaging and maps. One idea, for example, is to demarcate a border crossing at a central bus station, so that the security check is done at the entrance to the bus compound and invokes an airport more than a checkpoint. Another border crossing would be established underneath the Old City’s Damascus Gate, alongside the archaeological site there. They also propose a transit point in the form of a pedestrian bridge next to the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. Instead of a wall at some points, they propose a high traffic island that would separate two parts of a street.

During our conversation, I tell the architects that, although they have described the separation barrier in elegant terms, talking about a “breathing membrane” or a “border boulevard” – I can’t get beyond imagining a high wall topped with barbed wire.

“That is exactly our role,” Greenfield-Gilat replies, “to change what you’re imagining. We are presenting a solution that sets out above all to transform consciousness.” To which Bar Sinai adds, “You picture the separation between the peoples, and that’s fine – where it’s decided to separate for security reasons, let them make the separation – but we are talking about the connection. We’re proving that it’s possible to connect in a smarter way, to do it better.”

Nir Kafri

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