comscore Border homes, in Jerusalem but not, face existential deadline | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Border homes, in Jerusalem but not, face existential deadline

JERUSALEM >> For five years, Inas Jubran and her husband, a butcher from Ramallah, had saved to afford their shiny new three-bedroom apartment in East Jerusalem, thrilled to provide a safer home for their four sons than the crime-ridden refugee camp they had left.

But two months ago, the Israeli army warned them to leave. The city of Jerusalem plans to demolish their apartment tower and three others to make room for a new road that it says will improve traffic flow. On Wednesday, soldiers were seen massing nearby, suggesting a forcible evacuation could come at any moment.

Jubran, 33, sitting in a nearly bare room amid empty cardboard packing boxes, was worried sick. Her family would lose their life savings, she said, and had nowhere to go.

“My mind,” she said, “is going to explode.”

Demolition of unauthorized construction in East Jerusalem, long a source of conflict between the city government and the quarter’s mostly Arab residents, is routine.

But Jubran’s neighborhood, Kufr Aqab, had been different, because of a quirk of geography.

The neighborhood lies in a no man’s land, within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem but outside the concrete barrier Israel erected in 2002 that physically separates the country from most of the West Bank.

That asterisk-like exception turned the neighborhood into a Wild West boomtown that has mushroomed from a few thousand residents when the wall was built to an estimated 50,000 to 65,000 today.

The city of Jerusalem provides almost no services there, despite the fact residents pay city taxes, so rents are cheaper than in the rest of Jerusalem. Its odd legal status makes it a rare place where couples in mixed marriages — a legal resident of Jerusalem married to a Palestinian who is not — could live without risking the Jerusalemite’s residency.

And because the city largely ignored it — issuing no building permits, ignoring code violations, but also, until now, refraining from demolition — a land rush took off.

Hundreds of apartment buildings went up, sometimes on purchased plots, sometimes on vacant lots that strong-arm characters claimed and dared anyone to evict them from. Concrete towers sprouted like weeds, often separated by only a few feet.

“What you see is a total governance vacuum,” said Danny Seidemann, a lawyer and founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an advocacy group that tracks contentious developments in the city. “We can’t even count the number of people there.”

Two years ago, Munir Zagheir, chairman of the Kufr Aqab Residents Committee, and Ir Amim, a Jerusalem advocacy group, sued the city for better trash collection and road improvements. “Sidewalks, bus shelters, pedestrian bridges for the schoolchildren, new storm drains,” Zagheir said. “We didn’t speak about opening a new street at all.”

It took three contempt-of-court citations against the city for Mayor Nir Barkat’s administration to respond: The city would open a new street.

To Barkat, the topsy-turvy growth of Kufr Aqab had turned it into an eyesore and a chaotic mess, one he called “terrible” for residents. A new road, he said, would do more to improve the quality of life for Kufr Aqab’s commuters than work on existing byways.

“Repaving roads is not solving the problem,” he said in an interview. “It’s improving quality but not adding capacity.”

He did not dispute that the city had largely abandoned Kufr Aqab, fearing attacks on personnel working on the other side of the wall. Fire, ambulance and even police protection are next to nonexistent.

But he blamed international pressure on Israel, which he said had tied the hands of the military and police, for making it unsafe for city workers to fulfill their duties.

The proposed road would be a one-lane, one-way bypass for buses, ambulances and other public vehicles to avoid traffic tie-ups approaching Qalandiya, a busy and often violent checkpoint where traffic can back up for hours.

By speeding along the new road to a dedicated lane at the crossing, those buses would entice motorists to leave their cars, further easing traffic on the main road, Barkat said.

Israeli and Arab critics alike suggested that the mayor, whose term is up next year, was looking to curry favor with the Israeli right and aid his future prospects for national office by treating Arabs harshly.

“Total nonsense,” Barkat said. “I think it’s very honorable that, in spite of potential criticism, we decided to do the right thing.”

As for the residents left homeless? “They should sue the people that they bought their apartment from,” the mayor said.

But the developers may end up bankrupt themselves. The four apartment towers scheduled for demolition — which are unfinished, still lacking walls and floors in many places — were mainly the project of the Shhade family, Palestinians who had moved to Canada before returning to Kufr Aqab. The 14-story towers, all but abutting the concrete barrier, would offer residents of the upper floors clear, if poignant, views of the defunct Qalandiya-Atarot Airport, which was closed in 2001 after militants pelted the runway with rocks and fired on the control tower.

“We built it the right way — engineering, lawyers, accountants,” insisted Qusai Shhade, 24, one of the builder’s sons, acknowledging the lack of oversight. “We built it safely.”

The Shhades sued to block the demolitions but their challenges were rejected; the buildings, after all, had no permits. They pleaded with the city to let them scale back their buildings rather than raze them. They argued that the gap between their buildings and the wall — wide enough for four cars abreast — ought to be plenty for a single bus lane.

They pleaded with homebuyers, who demanded their deposits back, to keep making their payments and even move in, on the theory that it is harder to go through with demolishing an inhabited building. They furnished a new mosque in one building, hoping the Israelis would be daunted by the political sensitivity of destroying it. All to no avail.

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