C ast Away

Three weeks ago last Thursday, an Israel Defense Forces unit, accompanied by a few policemen and a bulldozer, came to the neighborhood of Sheikh Saad in southeast Jerusalem. The unit’s commander informed a few local residents, whom he encountered at the entrance to the neighborhood, that within two hours the bulldozer would heap up boulders and create earth ramparts across the narrow street that leads into the neighborhood, thus blocking the way in and out. The neighborhood’s topographic location is somewhat different from that of the dozens of other Palestinian neighborhoods in the eastern section of the city: The street that was blocked is effectively the only entrance to the neighborhood. The Israeli officer went on to inform the residents that car owners would have to decide where they wanted their vehicles to be: inside the neighborhood, meaning they would be able to drive around only there, or outside, in which case they would not be able to drive home.

There is nothing dramatic about the story of the Sheikh Saad neighborhood; there is no violence, no terrorism, no physical abuse. It is, however, a telling example of how the situation has been derailed since the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Until a few years ago, the hill on which Sheikh Saad stands was almost completely bare. The neighborhood lies at the edge of the large village of Jabel Mukaber, now an imposing urban neighborhood on the slopes of the Hill of Evil Counsel. Some 70 years ago, the British built Government House on the top of the hill, the residence of the High Commissioner for Palestine. The original residents of Jabel Mukaber are Arabs of Bedouin descent who built permanent homes at the site. Their sheep grazed on the broad expanses of south Jerusalem, which abut the Judean Desert. The Sheikh Saad neighborhood’s steep slopes separate it from the areas to the south, east and north; the neighborhood’s name comes from the ancient tomb of the sheikh on top of the hill.

The entire area that stretches from southeast Jerusalem to the edges of the village of Abu Did is divided into two, in accordance with the traditional terminology of the Sawahara tribes: western Sawahara and eastern Sawahara. In 1967, when Israel annexed East Jerusalem, the border in this area was demarcated such that nearly all of western Sawahara, with Jabel Mukaber at its center, was incorporated into Israel, while eastern Sawahara remained within the area of the military government of Judea and Samaria.

The western margins of the Sheikh Saad hill were annexed to Israel, while all the rest of the hill remained officially outside the city. For a long period after 1967, the residents of Jabel Mukaber, like the rest of the Arabs in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, enjoyed an economic boom. They put most of their savings into residential building. Most of the area of the Sheikh Saad hill was built up during this period. The four large hamulas (clans) of western Sawahara – the Shukeirath, Mash’hara, Za’atra and Awisath families – built about 200 homes there. The population rose to about 3,000 and Sheikh Saad became a small neighborhood, one of the satellite neighborhoods of Jabel Mukaber.

A once-booming town

Living in Sheikh Saad was attractive for several reasons. First, construction there did not require permits from Jerusalem Municipality (such permits were all but unavailable in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem due to the absence of proper master plans). Second, residents of Sheikh Saad don’t pay the Jerusalem property tax. “We are like many of the Israeli settlers, who moved into the Palestinian territories in order to get economic benefits,” laughed a student who was just about to board a minibus that would take him from Sheikh Saad to Al Quds University.

Like the hundred thousand Palestinians who live in the neighborhoods along the border of the eastern city, the residents of Sheikh Saad are bound to Jerusalem in every sphere of life. (About 220,000 Arabs hold Israeli residency permits for East Jerusalem, and a similar number live in the urban area that surrounds the neighborhoods of the eastern city.) What sets Sheikh Saad apart is that the only way the residents can leave their neighborhood is through Jabel Mukaber and Jerusalem. Some of the residents hold Israeli papers, others have West Bank permits, but both groups effectively live in Jerusalem. Work and livelihood, schooling for the children and all the services of the small neighborhood are bound up with Jerusalem.

In the course of two hours of observation at the end of last week at the roadblock blocking the street to the village, the following events occurred: A group of young men carried wall closets and aluminum frames on their backs across the boulders and earth ramparts – they are made in the neighborhood and have to be delivered to those who ordered them; random porters carried old refrigerators and sacks of food (for the four grocery stores) across the roadblock; others carefully carried a woman in labor who was being taken to Al-Muqassed Hospital on the Mount of Olives and an elderly man going to have his eyes treated at a clinic in Jabel Mukaber; and a group of high-school students negotiated the roadblock on the way to school in Jabel Mukaber – in Sheikh Saad there is only an elementary school.

“This roadblock has nothing to do with security,” says Jamal Shukeirath, a young man from the neighborhood who was on his way to Jerusalem. He doesn’t remember even a stone being thrown here, not at the patrols of soldiers or police that pass by occasionally or at Israeli civilians, who are infrequent visitors.

In fact, the first time stones were thrown here was three weeks ago, when the soldiers and police showed up with the bulldozer to cut the neighborhood off. According to one local boy, security problems will now crop up in the neighborhood, because people cannot live in conditions of isolation, as though they were in solitary confinement. One of the adults tells him to be quiet and not to use threatening language, because the neighborhood is trying to get the roadblock removed by means of talks. He shows me a statement issued by the neighborhood committee, which notes that the residents do not even have a place to bury their dead other than in Jerusalem.

The Sheikh Saad neighborhood is just an example. Similar operations to cut off sections of the eastern city are now under way in several places. The Israeli authorities are building concrete walls, erecting fences and creating roadblocks. Yet no one really believes it is possible to lay down a true border between Jerusalem and the West Bank. The pile of boulders and earth at the entrance to Sheikh Saad does not create even the impression of security and apart from causing suffering to the inhabitants, there is nothing to it.

Leave a comment