Refugees crowd behind ‘five-star’ checks

10 June 2012

By Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, Inter Press Service

June 6
East Jerusalem


Inside Shu’fat refugee camp. © Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/IPS

IPS – A group of Palestinian Jerusalemites steps down from a crowded bus to let two Israeli soldiers climb aboard to check identity cards, below the aluminum roof of this newly operational checkpoint terminal.

Outside, Israel’s concrete separation wall snakes around the Shu’fat refugee camp, an overcrowded and depressed Palestinian neighbourhood 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 tells IPS. Abbasi is in charge of projects and fundraising at the Shu’fat refugee camp’s only women’s centre, which offers psychosocial, educational and empowerment services to women and children.

More than 20,000 Palestinians live in the Shu’fat 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 says. "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 Israelis marched through Palestinian neighbourhoods on May 20 to mark Jerusalem Day, the 45th anniversary of Israel’s takeover of East Jerusalem in 1967.

While Israel declared Jerusalem its "eternal and indivisible" capital in 1980, Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem remains unrecognised by the international community.

78 per cent living in poverty

Life in the Shu’fat refugee camp contradicts the image of 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 titled ‘Policies of Neglect in East Jerusalem’ released last month.

ACRI estimated that of the over 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 ACRI report found.

The separation barrier and checkpoints separating Palestinian neighbourhoods from Jerusalem – which formerly acted as the bustling centre 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 separation barrier, including residents of Shu’fat camp.

"The Shu’fat camp is also an area which is very sensitive because the (Palestinian Authority) cannot go in, and the Israeli police also do not want to go in," explained Ilona Kassissieh, public information officer for UNRWA’s West Bank field office.

‘Searching for breath’

UNRWA provides services to five million registered Palestinian refugees in camps throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Shu’fat camp, the UN agency operates three schools and a health clinic, and runs a variety of social programmes.

"Since the people have access to Jerusalem, they try to go and access the labour 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 Shu’fat refugee camp are youth, providing educational and social programmes is crucial.

Twenty-five-year-old Bara’a Ghaith has lived in Shu’fat camp her whole life. Now volunteering four days a week at the camp’s women’s centre, she leads health-related workshops for children between the ages of 12-18.

"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 told IPS.

"Most people in the camp are searching for a way to breathe. That’s all they are asking for."

This article appeared on the IPS website on June 6 2012. The version appearing here has been slightly edited.

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