By NEIL HERTZ
I had paid little attention to the village of Kufr Aqab when I was living in Ramallah in the winter and spring of 2011. It had seemed like just one of many construction sites, a stretch of new, partially occupied high rises overlooking furniture sales spread out along the road side.
I’d taken this road frequently, either to Jerusalem via the Qalandia checkpoint, or, skirting the checkpoint, to Abu Dis, where I was teaching in the program that Bard College had inaugurated in cooperation with Al-Quds University there.
It wasn’t until two years later, when I was back again teaching at Al-Quds, that I was drawn to look at the village and its history more closely and to realize that spatially, demographically and bureaucratically, it could serve as a tellingly condensed emblem of the costs—overwhelmingly to Palestinians but also to Israelis—of the ongoing (soon it will be 50 years!) military occupation of the West Bank.
Following the garbage
In Al Manara, Ramallah’s central square, there’s an enamel plaque reminding you that Jerusalem is only 9 miles away, no matter how distant it may seem if you’re living in the Occupied Territories. One day in May 2013, I set out with Dan, an Arabic-speaking American colleague, to walk those nine miles. We were scouting out a possible writing assignment for the students in our cities course. Along the way we noticed—or most of the time didn’t notice, the way you don’t notice what you take for granted, part of the scenery—the litter and garbage accumulating on the sidewalks, in the alleys and adjoining lots, everywhere. It is a famous Problem, or maybe not a problem, in the West Bank. People have written about it, proposing various causes, various solutions. In Raja Shehadeh’s Occupation Diaries (2013), he recalls how, after the IDF pulled out in 2002, Ramallans had enthusiastically cleaned things up, as though the trash were an obscene residue of the unwelcome Israeli presence, something to be purged. The enthusiasm seems not to have lasted. In 2011, in that semester’s cities class, I had asked my students about this and gotten a variety of responses. I was told (1) that it’s a cultural thing: Arabs keep their households spotless, but ignore or don’t notice what’s outside their “territory”; (2) that waste management is expensive and the Palestinian Authority has little money to spare; and (3) that, like residents of inner-city neighborhoods in the States, Palestinians have few reasons to “take ownership” of their public spaces: if the Israelis think they own the place, let them clean it up.
This last attitude was expressed forcefully by, of all people, a Ramallan street sweeper, early in our walk. You can see him gesticulating to Dan in this photo. We had come upon him, with a full barrel of litter, waiting at a dumpster for a garbage truck to arrive and disburden him, then, while the truck was swallowing the trash, he went on at length about the problem. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but hearing the word Yahud again and again, imagined that he must have been blaming the Jews. But no, Dan explained later: he was reviling Palestinian citizens, the Palestinian Authority: they’re all slobs, he was saying, they don’t know how to run a country! He was disgusted. We should let the Yahud take over the whole place, was his proposal.
Further along, Dan and I reached the Qalandia refugee camp, which straddles the Jerusalem Road for quite a ways on the north (or Ramallah) side of the checkpoint. We were taking some photos when another man came up and offered a complementary, indeed an opposite, take on garbage. Pointing to the overloaded plastic bags balanced on the concrete median divider, he complained about how seldom the Yahud picked up the garbage: look at the bags teetering there, he said scornfully: see how they spill over into the roadway? The Jews don’t care. The Jews? we asked. Here? Beyond the checkpoint? Yes, we learned: it turns out that the map of the Municipality of Jerusalem, redrawn in 1995 at the time of the Oslo II Accords, had expanded the city limits to include the checkpoint and a good stretch of land beyond, on the way to Ramallah, so it was—or should be—the responsibility of the (Israeli) Municipality to deal with questions of trash collection, the repairing of potholes, etc. And they do, this man acknowledged, but in a half-assed way, coming by once a week for garbage and paying no attention at all, he insisted, to the quality of this main road’s surface. I could vouch for the potholes: I’d been bouncing through them for months on my way to work.
This was my introduction to the peculiar isolation of Kufr Aqab, caught within the double boundary that separates it, on its northeastern edge, from Ramallah and territories governed by the Palestinian Authority, and, on its southwestern edge from the rest of municipal Jerusalem by a major checkpoint and the 30-foot high Wall. I had yet to take in the demographic and economic consequences of that isolation, although they were there to be seen all around me.
Our walk had been in the valley, following the Jerusalem Road, the site of the new construction, but at a couple of points Dan and I had climbed up the terraced hillside to find ourselves in a more pastoral landscape: low stone houses, olive trees, and the traces of furrows overgrown in a once-plowed field. Later in the month, our student investigators—two astute and observant young women—would spend more time photographing in the village, interviewing residents, and learning how it had grown from a quiet suburb of pre-1967, Jordanian East Jerusalem, with a stable population of about 500 souls, to its current state, stretching to accommodate an influx of more than 60,000 Palestinians. The look of the place, they reported, could best be understood as a function of the bizarre, non-geometrical “grid” that the Oslo Accords had superimposed on the Palestinian landscape, dividing it into “Area A,” (urban centers like Ramallah under the administrative and security control of the Palestinian Authority), “Area B,” where the PA had control over civil matters, and security control was exercised by the Israelis, and “Area C,” where the Israelis maintained both administrative and military control.
Most of Old Kufr Aqab, our students were told by their informants, is considered Area B: here they were shown some agricultural land, the old village mosque, and the Municipal Council’s new building, which the Israeli authorities had (but why?) threatened to demolish. A school, straddling the line between B and C had been prevented, by the authorities, from expanding its “B” component but could, paradoxically, add onto its “C” wing. On the other hand, a new mosque, situated “on the exact line between Areas B and C,” was not under threat, they were told. How to understand these fine discriminations? I wouldn’t spend too much time trying: much could depend on the whim of an individual Israeli bureaucrat or court deciding which Palestinian projects were to be considered acceptable, which were to be discouraged. What is clear, however, is that, although the Israelis exercise, in principle, total control over the section of Area C along the Jerusalem Road where an unsupervised proliferation of high rise apartment houses is going up, they have chosen to look the other way as this social and environmental disaster has developed.
And that history can be traced: its elaboration is far from whimsical and has been the subject of a great deal of writing in the last few years. I shall be drawing on that writing in what follows, chiefly on a June 2015 report issued by theIsraeli NGO Ir Amin entitled Displaced in Their Own City: The Impact of Israeli Policy in East Jerusalem on the Palestinian Neighborhoods of the City Beyond the Separation Barrier. Like all Ir Amin publications, it is remarkable for its scope and analytic lucidity and should be more widely read.
After the euphoria of recapturing the Old City and East Jerusalem from the Jordanians in 1967 had subsided, the Israeli government had to address the question of what to do with all the people it had acquired along with those lands: Palestinian Jerusalemites, 65,000 of them at the time. One possibility would have been to offer them citizenship, granting them the same voting rights that Palestinian Arabs and Druse living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel already possessed. But this would have run counter to elements of international law prohibiting a conquering country from imposing citizenship on a conquered population. Moreover, Israel had no desire of diluting its population’s Jewish majority by adding these non-Jewish citizens. Yet there they were, Muslims and Christians, some tracing their roots in the city back for many generations, others more recently arrived, still others owners of family properties who were living abroad. How to adjudicate these different claims to belonging in Jerusalem? The State of Israel, once it had developed its modern, sophisticated bureaucratic apparatus, could have continued the work of verifying land ownership that had begun under the Ottomans and had been carried on by the British before 1948. However, Israel chose not to do so, and instead simply declared all these current claimants “permanent residents” and issued them IDs that entitled them to certain privileges (a set of social benefits, the right to vote in municipal elections, the right to work in Israel, to move about the country with fewer restrictions, etc.), but fell well short of conferring full citizenship. The slippery word here was “permanent”: as subsequently interpreted in various judicial decisions, it didn’t quite mean “permanent”: it actually meant…“temporary”! Someone’s permission to reside in Jerusalem was, as it turned out, a contingent one and could be revoked for any number of reasons—e.g., for being deemed to constitute a security risk (understandable enough in this land of tensions and antagonisms), but also for being unable, in the words of a 1998 Supreme Court decision, to prove that one’s “center of life” was in Jerusalem.
That expression, since enshrined in official and everyday discourse, was brilliantly vague: it has allowed Israeli administrators enormous leeway in manipulating who can and who cannot live in Jerusalem. A Palestinian might possess a valid deed to a family property going back decades, but if he or she hadn’t actually occupied it recently that deed would count for nothing. Another may have married someone in the West Bank, or chosen to study or to find work outside the city, spending periods of time away from home: again the law might be (and has been) invoked to contest his or her claim to have kept up a “center of life” in Jerusalem. Ir Amin reports that between 1967 and 2013 over fourteen thousand residents have had their resident status revoked in what has come to be called, chillingly, “the silent transfer,” another much-cited phrase in the euphemistic lexicon of bureaucratic coercion.
But keeping an eye out for violations of the “center of life” principle was only one of the ways the State of Israel has invented to encourage Palestinians to leave East Jerusalem. The conduct of the city’s infrastructure, housing and planning policies was another. From the start, a disparity between budgetary outlays for Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods—for schools, for parks, for health care, for waste management, for transportation services, for the upkeep of roadways—was patent: the Municipality of Jerusalem was doing as little as it could, short of total abandonment, to make Palestinians feel provided for in the neighborhoods they thought of as theirs. And they soon were to find themselves squeezed in yet another way. As the need for housing grew, the Municipality’s withholding of permits to construct or enlarge Palestinian dwellings, or the long delays in granting such permits, led many homeowners to go ahead and build anyway, risking (and often suffering) the demolition of their homes. The Old City and the contiguous neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, while still a religious, commercial and cultural center of Palestinian life, were becoming rapidly unlivable, a place where housing was increasingly expensive and everyday life more constrained. People who could afford to began moving out to suburbs beyond the municipal boundaries, hoping to retain their blue “permanent resident” IDs nevertheless. The land around villages like Abu Dis, practically within walking distance of the Old City but technically in the West Bank, received the overflow.
Ebbs and flows of migration
But moving out of the city was to provide only a brief respite from Israeli strictures for those who had chosen to do so. Beginning in 2003, during the Second Intifada, Israel’s Wall began snaking its way through the outskirts of Jerusalem, deliberately cutting off some of the Municipality’s northern sections, like Kufr Aqab, from the rest of East Jerusalem. I quote from Ir Amin’s report, as it picks up the narrative from there:
Construction of the Separation Barrier in 2004-5 created two waves of migration. The first consisted primarily of middle-class residents who lived in the suburbs outside the municipal boundaries of the city, where they had moved to avoid the neglect and severe building restrictions inside East Jerusalem. Many of these residents, estimated to number tens of thousands, fearing the negative impact of the Barrier on their way of life and their residency status, subsequently moved back into the core neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, accepting far worse living conditions than they had been able to enjoy in the suburbs. This wave created intense pressure on the already limited housing market in East Jerusalem, precipitating a second wave of migration by poorer residents who left neighborhoods within the city and moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Barrier where they could secure relatively cheap and available housing.
In a hyper-condensed fashion, and played at fast-forward, the Ir Amin report is here representing as “waves” the “tens of thousands” of individual decisions taken over a number of years by fearful Jerusalemites seeking stability. Questions of scale and perspective come into play here: a reader’s sense of the daily anxieties that must have prompted each of those decisions is temporarily suspended in favor of this bird’s-eye view of population transfers as the result of invisible forces that redistributed families by income and class, then left them stranded, finally, on one side of the Wall or another. Commenting on the report shortly after it was published, Ir Amin’s Director of Advocacy claimed that Israel had “manipulated migratory trends towards an unstated goal: absorbing the land without the people.” But whether or not Israeli planners had fully anticipated all the consequences of the Wall’s effect on Kufr Aqab, their policies were responsible for the village’s transformation into a ghetto, still desirable to some for economic and administrative reasons, but in few other ways.
Consider this photo of one of the new apartment houses along the Jerusalem Road. How did the building get there? To begin with, a developer had to purchase or lease the land it would stand on. But from whom? Land registration records in Kufr Aqab are no less problematic than those mentioned earlier, in the heart of Jerusalem. Ir Amin’s report notes complaints to the Israeli police of “the forging of land purchases or ownership documents; violent seizure of land; and violent gangs specializing in these activities,” and quotes a tenant saying that he cannot obtain a mortgage “because we don’t know what belongs to whom.” But let’s suppose the land was, in one fashion or another, secured. Where, on the lot, was the building to stand? Israeli cities have regulations that require, among other things, a certain distance between structures, and they send out inspectors to see that the regulations are observed. Not so here: note the tight clustering of buildings in this photo. “No Israeli body,” Ir Amin reports,
whether municipal or governmental, has even attempted to enforce standard regulations such as the prevention of criminal interests; ensuring lawful registration of land; issuing building permits; and enforcing environmental, planning, and engineering standards relating to safety, infrastructures, and the development of public areas consistent with the type and scope of construction.
(The consequences of this neglect were already visible in 2015: Ir Amin reprints a photograph of the collapsed wall of an as-yet unoccupied six-story apartment house).
In 2013 my colleague Mya Guarnieri interviewed the head of one of the valiant but beleaguered local neighborhood committees who reported signs that the overbuilding was damaging already stressed infrastructure: the drainage and sewage systems, inadequate to begin with, would, he said, soon be thoroughly overburdened. Only two years later, Ir Amin’s report would include photos of pools of sewage near one of Kufr Aqab’s school and of cars on the main road wading up to their axles in water after the failure of storm drains to handle a heavy downpour.
Yet let us suppose (as seems to be the case in our photo) that, in spite of all this, a family has been able to secure a mortgage or sign a lease, move into the building, set up their satellite dish, and hang their laundry out to dry on the balconies. What can they expect in the way of civil support in their new neighborhood? Garbage collection? Yes, now that the Israelis have outsourced the task to a Palestinian outfit. Schools for their children? Yes, but without enough classrooms or textbooks for the rapidly growing population of young people. Policing? In this case, no: the Palestinian police are not allowed in most of Kufr Aqab, and the Municipality’s police rarely come beyond the Wall. Unimpeded after 2005, the crime rate has mounted to the point that the village, along with other beyond-the-Wall Jerusalem neighborhoods, has been declared a “no-man’s land,” a place where West Bank criminals can elude arrest. Indeed the Municipality was, in 2015, contemplating turning over its law enforcement responsibilities to the military. How about fire trucks? Ambulances? They too don’t go beyond the Qalandia checkpoint.
Still, the family might hope that, forced out of East Jerusalem and resettled beyond the Wall, they would at least be relieved of the burden of constantly proving that Jerusalem was their “center of life.” But that wouldn’t be true. Although building inspectors don’t make their way to Kufr Aqab, inspectors of one’s right to the city do. They are known as “investigators” and their job is to check to see that families who have already supplied documentary evidence that their center of life is indeed within the Municipality are in fact physically there, where they claim to be. These investigators are most often Palestinians working for the Israeli National Insurance Institute, to whom the Municipality has delegated this task. Their job is to arrive unannounced and to search households for signs of daily life. A young housewife interviewed by some social scientists studying the psychological effects of living in neighborhoods like Kufr Aqab reported one such visit:
My husband was out of town. I was home alone. The investigator came unexpected and asked to see the house. He looked inside the fridge, inside the toilet bin; he checked if the toothbrushes were wet and opened my closet. He went through my clothes. Apparently such invasion of privacy is normal. He kept interrogating me and accusing me of lying about living here. I know this is expected but I was shocked for three days afterwards. I kept shaking. I felt extremely unsafe in my own house. He is Palestinian, but I felt he was Israeli.
Such are the insecurities of living sort-of inside, sort-of outside Jerusalem. It is reported that the Municipality is considering simply cutting neighborhoods like Kufr Aqab loose by redrawing the map so that they would no longer be considered part of the city: another source of anxiety for the families in this building, who would lose their privileges as “permanent”—i.e. temporary—residents of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, they must make the best of it, these marginalized Jerusalemites, caught in the middle topographically and subjected, on the one hand, to the routine (if a bit too frequently deadly) indifference of the Israeli State and, on the other, to the unregulated profiteering of their Palestinian landlords. 
Neil Hertz taught literature at Cornell and Johns Hopkins until his retirement in 2005. In 2011 and 2013, he taught at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, Palestine.
Anonymous, “The Past and Present of Kufr Aqab,” class paper prepared for the Ramallah to Al-Quds Project (Abu Dis: AQB Honors College, 2013).
Applied Research Institute, Kafr’Aqab Village Profile (Jerusalem: ARIJ, 2012).
Candace Graff, “Pockets of Lawlessness in the ‘Oasis of Justice’” Jerusalem Quarterly 58 (2014).
Mya Guarnieri, “Palestinians struggle to remain in ‘unified’ Jerusalem” (Jerusalem: +972, 2013).
Doaa Hammoudeh et al., “Beyond the Physicality of Space: East Jerusalem, Kufr’Aqab, and the Politics of Everyday Suffering,” (Ramallah: Journal of Palestine Studies, 2016).
Betty Herschman, “The silent transfer of Palestinians from Jerusalem” (Jerusalem: +972, 2015).
Neil Hertz, News from the Levant 2013. http://blogs.cornell.edu/hertzblog2013/.
Daoud Kuttab, “How one Jerusalem neighborhood has been left to fend for itself.” Al Monitor. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/06/israel-palestine-jerusalem-west-bank-couples-residency.html.
—————-, “Arab Jerusalemites priced out of their own neighborhoods.” Al Monitor. http:/www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/08/Israeli-policy-jerusalem-what-were-reading.html/.
Raja Shehadeh, Occupation Diaries (London: Profile Books, 2013).
Ehud Tagari and Yudith Oppenheimer, Displaced in Their Own City: The Impact of Israeli policy in East Jerusalem on the Palestinian Neighborhoods of the City Beyond the Separation Barrier (Jerusalem: Ir Amin, 2015).
I’m grateful to two AQB students (who chose to be listed as “Anonymous” above) for their interviews, their lucid report, and for their photographs of the interior of Kufr Aqab. I’d also like to thank all my Abu Dis students and colleagues, and, in particular, Mya Guarnieri, Dan McKenzie, and Omar Yousef.