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Worried About New Jerusalem Fence, Local Arabs Make Contingency Plans

November 25, 2003
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Life is changing quickly for thousands of Arab residents of the Jerusalem area.

Three years of the Palestinian intifada and deteriorating Jewish-Muslim relations have taken a toll on the Arabs who live in and around Jerusalem, but that’s nothing compared to the potential impact of the new West Bank security barrier, residents say.

To protect Jerusalemites from terrorist attacks, Israel is erecting a fence that will separate the capital city from some of its Arab suburbs.

To prepare for the new security barrier, many Arabs are making contingency plans — including purchasing homes in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem in case life gets too tough on the Palestinian-populated side of the barrier.

Around Jerusalem, many Arabs have been able to pledge allegiance to the Palestinian national cause, while enjoying the social benefits they receive as citizens of the Jewish state.

They receive benefits like unemployment insurance and allowances for children. They are entitled to receive health services, just like the rest of the country’s citizens. They are free to travel anywhere in Israel, and their cars bear Israel’s signature yellow license plates.

The new security fence won’t change any of that — but it could make traveling more difficult for many of them.

The Jerusalem section of the new fence separating Israel from most of the West Bank will cut through Arab neighborhoods, dividing communities and families and introducing significant changes into residents’ daily lives.

“I used to get into my car and reach the Knesset within 10 minutes,” Ahmed Tibi, a Knesset member from the Hadash Party, told JTA. “Now this will change. I will need to take the roundabout way, to drive north, go through the Kalandiya checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah — the only passage through the fence — and only after I have passed the soldiers’ inspection will I be able to pass the checkpoint, make a U-turn and drive into Jerusalem.”

Tibi, a former adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, is a resident of Dahiyat al-Barid. His home is located in the West Bank, not Jerusalem, but it borders the Jerusalem-Ramallah highway and is not far from the capital’s municipal boundaries.

There are about 225,000 Arab residents of Jerusalem, the vast majority of whom have turned down offers of Israeli citizenship for political reasons. Instead, they enjoy permanent-residency status.

Over the years, many have moved to West Bank suburbs in search of less expensive housing and a higher quality of life — much like the tens of thousands of Israeli Jews who have moved to Jewish suburbs in the West Bank.

Many of these Arabs still work in Jerusalem. Depending on where they live, some may pay taxes to the Palestinian Authority.

This arrangement might have continued were it not for Palestinian terrorism. Repeated attacks in western Jerusalem have led Israeli officials to draw up a barrier protecting Jerusalem from Palestinian assailants from the West Bank.

The Jerusalem portion of the barrier now runs more or less along the city’s municipal border, but it will divide neighborhoods that skirt Jerusalem’s boundaries.

Over the years, Jerusalem neighborhoods merged with adjacent West Bank neighborhoods, erasing the line between the two. Without a detailed map, one can hardly tell where Jerusalem ends and the West Bank begins.

The new fence will revive the demarcation line — at a heavy cost for those whose lives straddle it.

Shehdeh Burkan, 36, is a resident of Azariyeh, a West Bank suburb of Jerusalem on the old Jericho Road. Burkan’s family is originally from Jerusalem, and he says he acquired Israeli citizenship to protect himself.

“I smelled trouble,” Burkan said. “The Interior Ministry hunted down Jerusalemites who could not prove that Jerusalem was their so-called ‘center of life.’ I did not want to find myself deprived of all social benefits. So I applied for citizenship.”

For years, Burkan has worked in the western part of Jerusalem in a small construction firm with a Jewish partner. Burkan used to get up early in the morning, pass through the army checkpoint on the old Jericho road and join his partner.

But that routine ended about six months ago when the army erected a barrier separating Azariyeh from the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis, the hometown of P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.

Since then, Burkan has had to travel to Jerusalem in a roundabout way: He drives east toward the Jewish West Bank city of Ma’ale Adumim, then heads back west after passing through an army checkpoint.

After the fence is built, Burkan fears it will take him much longer to get through the checkpoint.

So Burkan came up with a solution: He bought a small two-bedroom apartment in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, East Talpiot. He hasn’t moved in yet, and in fact hopes he won’t have to use the apartment.

He’s also worried about being surrounded by Jewish neighbors.

“Frankly, I don’t know how it will work out, how they will treat me,” Burkan said. “But if I want to live, I may have no choice.”

His three children will not live with him in East Talpiot. In case he has to be absent from his West Bank home, Burkan already has arranged for his children to be driven by someone else to their Arab school in eastern Jerusalem.

“I’m not alone,” Burkan said. “I know at least five of my friends who also have purchased apartments in Jewish neighborhoods, and I know of others who plan on doing the same.”

Shalom Goldstein, the Arab affairs adviser for Jerusalem’s mayor, Uri Lupoliansky, confirmed that there has been a sharp increase in the number of Arabs moving to Jerusalem from the West Bank in recent years.

At one time, he said, “the Ministry of Interior ruled that anyone who could not prove that Jerusalem was his ‘center of life’ in the past seven years would lose his Israeli residency. As a result, some 30,000 Jerusalemites who have lived in the West Bank for their convenience moved back to Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem’s walled Old City has become even more crowded.

The Old City now has more than 33,000 Arab residents, up from 23,000 in 1967, and the average size of an apartment in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter is considerably smaller than in western Jerusalem.

But many Arabs have chosen to move back to crowded Jerusalem rather than give up their Jerusalem residency status altogether.

The irony is that a policy seeking to limit the number of Arabs in the capital by imposing more stringent requirements for permanent-residency status has led Arabs to move into the city.

The phenomenon has intensified with the imminent completion of the city’s security fence.

“I have no doubt that more and more neighborhoods will become mixed neighborhoods — and I am not sure that there will be more security,” Tibi said. “Forget about the security fence in Jerusalem altogether. It will do no good.”

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under heavy public pressure to complete the security fence as fast as possible, is unlikely to make more than minor alterations to the plan.

The Jerusalem fence will be erected, and Israelis will pay the bill. But it is the Palestinians, whose terrorism gave birth to the fence, who will bear the burden.

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