Dozens of apartment towers sprouting up illicitly in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem are creating a fraught new dynamic in the struggle for control of the sacred city at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kufr Aqab is one of several Arab areas within Jerusalem’s municipal borders that have been separated from the city by the meandering barrier Israel has built to wall off the West Bank.
While Israel tightly controls development anywhere inside the barrier, anything seems to go in Arab neighborhoods outside the structure, like Kufr Aqab.
Palestinians believe Israel is turning a blind eye to the hundreds of cheap wildcat apartments being built there, hoping the abundant housing will lure the city’s Arabs to the other side of the barrier. They fear Israel will one day make the barrier the new municipal line to cement a Jewish majority in the city, whose eastern part, including the Old City with its major religious shrines, the Palestinians claim as a future capital.
“They want to empty Jerusalem of Arabs,” said Ayoub Burkan, one of the newcomers in Kufr Aqab.
The 45-year-old driving instructor said he couldn't afford to buy in his old neighborhood of Ras al-Amud, close to the Old City, and moved to Kufr Aqab, where apartments cost 75 percent less. Israeli restrictions on Arab construction in the city have produced a drastic housing shortage and forced most Palestinians out of the housing market there.
Israeli officials deny they plan to change Jerusalem’s boundary unilaterally.
Last summer, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat fueled fears of a status change for city neighborhoods outside the barrier when, citing “security-related difficulties” in providing services there, he proposed the Israeli military take over the task. The mayor denied that his idea, which was rejected by the army, was a precursor to changing Jerusalem’s boundaries.
The mini-Manhattan going up helter-skelter on Jerusalem’s northern edge is just the most visible sign of a chain reaction of Arab migration triggered by the barrier.
Kufr Aqab started out as a West Bank hamlet, but became part of Jerusalem after Israel captured the eastern sector of the city and the West Bank from Jordan. It extended the city’s boundaries eastward into the West Bank, tripling Jerusalem’s size in an annexation that is not internationally recognized. Israel included Kufr Aqab, some nine kilometers from the city center, because it wanted to add a nearby airfield to Jerusalem’s territory, historians say.
In 2002, Israel began building the barrier, portraying it as a temporary defense against Palestinian militants who had killed hundreds of Israelis in an armed uprising.
By 2005, the barrier in northern Jerusalem was finished and Kufr Aqab residents now had to endure long waits at barrier checkpoints to reach jobs and schools in their city.
Initially, many Arab city residents moved to areas inside the barrier to avoid such hardships. But this drove up already high housing prices in east Jerusalem.
Moving to cheaper West Bank suburbs was a dangerous option. Leaving Jerusalem’s city limits would put them at risk of being stripped by Israel of their Jerusalem residency permits, which grant them freedom of movement and access to Israel’s health care and social services.
Suddenly, Kufr Aqab became an attractive option again. After the barrier was built, city building inspectors stopped coming to Kufr Aqab, residents said. Contractors responding to a huge demand began building densely packed apartment towers - a jarring sight in generally low-rise Jerusalem.
There are no firm population figures because of the neighborhood’s administrative limbo, but estimates range from 40,000 to 60,000. In all, about 120,000 of Jerusalem’s 300,000 Arabs live outside the barrier, estimates Ahmad Sublaban of Ir Amim, a group that promotes an equitable solution for Jerusalem.
There are barely any signs of an Israeli presence in Kufr Aqab, except for a clinic linked to Israel’s health care service and a city-funded community center. An Israeli army marker near Kufr Aqab, spraypainted in Hebrew on a large cement block, reads "Entrance to Ramallah," a warning to errant Israelis that they should turn back at this point.
Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and Jerusalem activist, called the chaos in Kufr Aqab an expression of the “absurdity and unsustainability” of Israeli policy in the Arab areas of the city.