Losing Jerusalem, Piece by Piece

In Bir Nabala, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Israel’s separation Wall provides a concrete backdrop to what was once a view of the old city. On a stormy afternoon, Bir Nabala’s head of counsel Haj Tawfik Nabeli guided me through the ghostly streets isolated from the rest of the city by massive sections of the eight-meter high Wall that is, in Nabeli’s words, “affecting every single aspect of life.”

 
Walking past boarded-up houses and block after block of closed shops is a chilling experience—to say the least. One imagines days past, when Bir Nabala was a lively center of commerce, linking the people of northern West Bank cities such and Jenin and Tulkarm with the greater Jerusalem metropolis. Israelis used to come to Bir Nabala to shop all the time. Because of the neighborhood’s strategic location at the crossroads of the West Bank, many Palestinians were economically dependent on the more than 600 businesses and shops that thrived here. Bir Nabala used to have a bustling tire industry, where six tire factories maintained countless livelihoods and literally kept the West Bank moving. The shops now number less than 180 and two tire factories struggle to stay open. Around them Israeli industrial zones built illegally in the West Bank encircle the Palestinian neighborhoods.
 
Nabeli explained that many of the 70,000-plus residents have been driven out to search for work elsewhere. Before the Wall, the average salary was about 100 shekels (roughly $25) per day. Now, the majority of these people are unemployed.
 
The Qalandia checkpoint tower stands watch over the area, controlling the every movement of Palestinians as they go about their daily lives. In addition to heavy foot traffic, there are about 50 cars at any given time waiting in line to cross the barrier. They are subject to being denied passage, sometimes even when they do have the proper plates and IDs to pass. For those fortunate enough to obtain the right of passage, crossing can take hours often defeating the very purpose.
 
Palestinian residents of the Jerusalem district are given blue IDs that differentiate them from West Bank residents who carry green IDs. When the Israeli government constructed the Wall, Bir Nabala was effectively reassigned from the Jerusalem district to the Ramallah district, changing the status of most residents and denying them access to the rest of Jerusalem. This split families and undermined cultural and economic ties to the city. Prior to the Wall’s construction, residents were able to access an adequate hospital. Now located on the other side of the barrier, that hospital is no longer accessible and people usually get their health care at a sparse clinic—which has at times only employed one nurse and no doctors.   
 
On the other side of Bir Nabala’s Wall, thousands of Jerusalemite Palestinians are continually forced to leave their homes. Houses are frequently demolished, and their residents are obligated to pay for the demolition and offered nothing in terms of reparatory damages! Expulsion from the Jerusalem district carries a steep price—the loss of one’s blue ID and any future access to the city.
 
The face of Jerusalem is changing, one demolition or empty store at a time. Unless things change—and soon—Bir Nabala may become the blueprint for the future of other Palestinian neighborhoods in the Holy City.