SHUAFAT REFUGEE CAMP, occupied East Jerusalem (IPS) - A group of Palestinian Jerusalemites steps down from a crowded bus to let two Israeli soldiers climb aboard and check identity cards, below the aluminum roof of this newly operational checkpoint terminal.
Outside, Israel’s concrete wall snakes around the Shuafat refugee camp, an overcrowded and depressed Palestinian neighborhood that, while within the geographical boundaries of Jerusalem, is almost entirely cut off from the rest of the city.
“It’s a five-star checkpoint,” Fadi Abbasi said. Abbasi is in charge of projects and fundraising at the Shuafat refugee camp’s only women’s center, which offers psychosocial, educational and empowerment services to women and children.
More than 20,000 Palestinians live in the Shuafat refugee camp. About half are Jerusalem residents and carry blue ID cards; they must now cross the checkpoint on their way to work and school, and to get services in the rest of Jerusalem.
“The Israelis are looking to make us visitors in Jerusalem, not residents,” Abbasi said. “Without work, without income, without any services from the municipality, they don’t give us a chance to build or do anything.”
More than 30,000 right-wing Israelis marched through Palestinian neighborhoods on 20 May to mark Jerusalem Day, the 45th anniversary of Israel’s takeover of East Jerusalem in 1967 and the so-called “reunification” of the city. While Israel declared Jerusalem its “eternal and indivisible” capital in 1980, Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem has never been recognized by the United Nations.
Life in the Shuafat refugee camp contradicts this official Israeli line, which paints Jerusalem as a unified city whose residents benefit equally from municipal investment. In reality, the accessibility of services and overall quality of life remains drastically different on either side of the city.
“The gravity of the situation in East Jerusalem is the product, first and foremost, of Israeli policy making. For decades Israel has pursued a policy that has led to the debilitation of East Jerusalem in every respect,” wrote the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) in a report released last month (“Policies of neglect in East Jerusalem,” [PDF]).
ACRI estimates that of the more than 360,800 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, 78 percent live below the poverty line. Currently, 84 percent of the children in Jerusalem also live in poverty.
“Both Israeli law and international law obligate the State of Israel to meticulously ensure the rights of East Jerusalem residents, and to seek unique solutions particular to their political situation. But over the past 45 years, both municipal and state authorities have instead conducted a policy of neglect and violation of the basic rights of the residents,” the report found.
Israel’s wall in the West Bank and checkpoints separating Palestinian neighborhoods from Jerusalem — which formerly acted as the bustling center of Palestinian economic, cultural and political life — has now made accessing the city an arduous, if not impossible, task.
It is estimated that 90,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites now find themselves on the other side of the wall, including residents of the Shuafat refugee camp.
“The Shuafat camp is also an area which is very sensitive because the Palestinian Authority cannot go in, and the Israeli police also doesn’t want to go in,” explained Ilona Kassissieh, public information officer at the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).
UNRWA provides services to 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in camps throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In the Shuafat refugee camp, UNRWA operates three schools and a health clinic, and runs a variety of social programs.
“Since the people have access to Jerusalem, they try to go and access the labor market in Jerusalem, but of course the opportunities are scarce. So there is a considerably high number of school dropouts and a high rate of unemployment,” said Kassissieh, adding that since most residents of the Shuafat refugee camp are youth, providing educational and social programs is crucial.
Twenty-five-year-old Bara’a Ghaith has lived in the Shuafat refugee camp her whole life. Now volunteering four days a week at the camp’s women’s center, she leads health-related workshops for children between the ages of 12 and 18.
“Many older people don’t accept the way we work with children. But I’m trying to improve the quality of life and give the children more education and help with their confidence,” Ghaith said.
“Most people in the camp are searching for a way to breathe. That’s all they are asking for.”
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