Opinion |

Shoafat: A Mark of Shame on All Israelis

The Palestinian refugee camp inside the city of Jerusalem is a blight on Israel which must be corrected immediately. | Opinion

Moshe Arens
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Garbage piled up in the Shoafat refugee camp in Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Moshe Arens

“Israel is a miracle," declared U.S. President  Barack Obama in his speech at Shimon Peres’ funeral in September. Those words are music to the ears of Israelis, who know that Israel is a man-made miracle: the product of the blood, sweat, and tears of generations of Israelis who fought for Israel, defended it, and built it. There are so many things in Israel that Israelis and the supporters of Israel around the world can point to with pride. But there are also blemishes that need correcting. A recent article in the New York Times of December 4th , entitled “We are all orphans here – Life and death in East Jerusalem’s Palestinian refugee camp," describing conditions in Shoafat, should make all Israelis ashamed. It was written by the American author Rachel Kushner who spent two days in the Shoafat neighborhood of Jerusalem.

There are probably not many Israelis who have been to Shoafat, and they will surely be shocked when reading this article. To those who preferred to ignore it, it will serve as a stark reminder of a situation that needs to be corrected immediately. The Palestinian refugee camp Shoafat, a refugee camp inherited from the Jordanian occupation after the 1967 Six-Day War, and three adjoining neighborhoods, all surrounded by a high concrete wall, are referred to as Shoafat. They are located within the sovereign borders of Israel and within the municipal boundaries of the city of Jerusalem. Most of its 80,000 residents have Israeli residency permits and have the option of obtaining Israeli citizenship. That is where any resemblance to Israel ceases. It is a slum, with no sidewalks, no functioning sewage system, no garbage collection, no postal service, no open spaces, no parks, and no playgrounds, and no police protection to keep order and provide security for its residents. It is infested with criminal gangs in possession of automatic weapons and there are pushers selling drugs to adults and children. Killings are almost weekly occurrences. In Shoafat there is no law and there is no order.

During her stay in Shoafat, the author of the article, Rachel Kushner, lived with Baha and Hiba Nababta and their children. Baha, a 29yearold community worker, had initiated a one-man effort to bring about some improvement in the miserable situation of Shoafat. Kushner accompanied him during his walks in the neighborhood and could see the admiring glances that followed him especially from the young people. His efforts evidently ran counter to the interests of some of the criminal elements in Shoafat. A few weeks after Kushner’s visit Baha was murdered. It is likely that no one is looking for his assailant. There is no police in Shoafat.

Israeli governments had 49 years to rehabilitate the refugees in the camp and turn Shoafat into a livable neighborhood. The Israeli police had 49 years to establish law and order in Shoafat. The Jerusalem municipality had 49 years to establish proper municipal services there. Next to nothing was done. During this period things went from bad to worse. Enclosing the area by a high concrete wall made it clear that the government’s intention was to let the population there fend for itself. This is criminal neglect, for which there is no excuse. Should anyone be surprised that Shoafat is considered a terrorist stronghold?

Kushner’s article should be required reading for Israel’s prime minister and the minister charged with responsibility for Jerusalem in the government. It should be required reading for the Police Commissioner and the police commander in charge of Jerusalem. And then they and their staff should visit Shoafat and see for themselves what years of neglect have produced and the gigantic task that awaits them, a task that brooks no delay.