Road to renewed violence in Jerusalem?

Political tensions in Jerusalem have been growing. The city mayor’s plan to demolish six buildings in an Arab neighbourhood could trigger a new wave of violence and protests between Israelis and Palestinians.
One of the buildings to be torn down in Kafr Aqeb. Residents have suggested shifting the wall to its right and using the road next to it instead.
One of the buildings to be torn down in Kafr Aqeb. Residents have suggested shifting the wall to its right and using the road next to it instead.PHOTO: GIL YARON FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Plan to demolish buildings in Arab neighbourhood may spark unrest

Political tensions in Jerusalem have been building up. Fears are bubbling that a plan by the city's mayor to detonate buildings in Kafr Aqeb, an Arab neighbourhood, could trigger a new wave of violence.

Mr Mounir Zgayer, a spokesman for the neighbourhood in Jerusalem's north, is worried. He fears a showdown between Israeli security forces and the approximately 60,000 Palestinians who call Kafr Aqeb home.

At the heart of the issue are plans by the Israeli municipality to build a new road, which will involve tearing down several buildings in the neighbourhood.

An official statement claims that this is being done "at the request of the residents of Kafr Aqeb" and that the road will "significantly ease the daily traffic that plagues the Qalandiya crossing".

The Israeli checkpoint is every driver's nightmare, a bottleneck between the northern West Bank and the region's most important urban centre.

But this is Jerusalem, a city sacred to three monotheistic religions and coveted by Israelis and Palestinians alike. Extremists have often used its symbolic value to stir up nationalist fervour. Even basic municipal decisions have political ramifications.

To lay the groundwork for the new road, Israeli security forces appeared last week in full battle dress and prepared several buildings for demolition. The high-rise structures will be blown up - a first for this city.

Mr Zgayer points to the apartment complexes on Kafr Aqeb's outskirts that have been targeted, and says: "If they send soldiers in here to detonate these buildings, violence will ensue!"

He speaks of another Intifada - clashes between Israelis and Palestinians - in which tens of thousands of Palestinians would rise up. "They are putting the lives of the people here and their own soldiers in danger," he says.

A resident of Kafr Aqeb, who wants to be identified as Rafi, agrees: "I am really afraid of what might happen here if they do this. How would you react if someone came to throw you out of your home?"

The potential conflict is building up under Jerusalem's Mayor Nir Barkat, a hardliner who wants Israel to keep all of Jerusalem, even though Palestinians claim the eastern half as their capital.

Ironically, his stance made him change Israel's long-standing policy of neglecting Jerusalem's Arab boroughs.

"Barkat has built many schools and playgrounds for Arabs. He has invested more than his predecessors," says Mr Yitzchak Reiter, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, a liberal Israeli think-tank. "He has formed special teams to help these neighbourhoods."

But his initiative in Kafr Aqeb could trigger clashes.

The buildings that stand in the way of the new road do not have any permits. Even Mr Zgayer admits they are illegal. The municipality had warned investors in February, when the buildings were still under construction, that they stood on a planned road. The warnings were ignored.

Illegal construction is the norm in East Jerusalem, where Israel has denied Arabs permits for decades. Employees of the municipality never enter areas like Kafr Aqeb. Garbage gathers on the narrow lanes built without planning, while sewage flows. The place has a shortage of 1,500 classrooms - something the mayor wants to rectify. The road is a start.

"People lose many hours in the chaotic traffic," says Mr Hussam Watad, director of an Arab community centre next to Kafr Aqeb. He claims that "extremists" want to use the demolitions as an excuse to start a new wave of violence, even though most people "want the road".

Mr Bassam Masswadi, former Palestinian mayor of this district, has suggested that the demolition could be avoided by shifting a wall that acts as a security barrier and realigning the road slightly. "Residents here are willing to pay for this out of their pockets, because they want the road," he says.

Mayor Barkat has rejected such solutions. He harbours higher political ambitions and sees himself as a contender for the office of Prime Minister. He cannot be seen to cave in to Palestinians who broke the law.

In Jerusalem, a road is more than a road. It could pave the path to more violence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 26, 2017, with the headline 'Road to renewed violence in Jerusalem?'. Print Edition | Subscribe