Israeli-Palestinian spat over Jerusalem refugee camp fuels tensions

Shuafat is the only refugee camp within Jerusalem and it is surrounded by Israel’s separation wall.
Tuesday 27/11/2018
An Israeli excavator of the Jerusalem municipality demolishing one of over a dozen shops in the Palestinian Shuafat refugee camp in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, on November 21. (AFP)
An Israeli excavator of the Jerusalem municipality demolishing one of over a dozen shops in the Palestinian Shuafat refugee camp in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, on November 21. (AFP)

LONDON - The Palestinian refugee camp of Shuafat in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem has become the centre of a renewed dispute between Palestinian and Israeli officials, deepening tensions between the two sides over the future of the city.

Israel demolished Palestinian structures it said were built in the camp illegally. They included “18 illegal businesses and three illegal petrol stations,” a November 21 statement from the Israeli police said.

The action targeted “stores that were built illegally in the centre of the camp and created unbearable traffic congestion and crowding.”

“The municipality will continue to carry out activities with the support of the police against illegal business in the different areas,” the police statement warned.

Shop owners in Shuafat were reportedly given only 12 hours’ advance notice, according to Ir Amin, an Israeli NGO that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem. The shops were reportedly built in 2007.

Shuafat is the only refugee camp within Jerusalem and it is surrounded by Israel’s separation wall.

Palestinians argue that Israel makes it almost impossible for them to obtain building permits in East Jerusalem and parts of the occupied West Bank.

Israel has demolished some 125 Palestinian structures in East Jerusalem since the beginning of the year, according to figures from United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Palestinian officials condemned the Israeli measures. The demolitions were considered “waging war against the camp under the illegal pretext of building without a permit,” Ahmad Abu Holy, head of the Palestine Legislative Council’s refugee department, said in a statement.

The Israeli move was “a dangerous and systematic crime and a part of Israel’s practice of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem,” the statement added.

Khader al-Dibs, a Palestinian official from the camp, told the Chinese news agency Xinhua that “this demolition is a new episode in the implementation of Israel’s plan to take over the refugee camp by stopping the services offered by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and eventually Judaise the entire city and force its people out of it.”

The camp, which is home to some 24,000 Palestinian residents, most of whom are refugees, receives little funding from the Israeli authorities and heavily relies on UNRWA for many of its services.

The outgoing mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, drew condemnation when he visited the Shuafat camp on October 23 and said he wanted to remove UNRWA from Jerusalem.

“It is time to remove UNRWA from Jerusalem and replace their failing education, welfare, health and cleaning services with municipal services. This is also the desire of the Arab residents themselves. The time has come to stop the lies of the refugees in Jerusalem. There are no refugees, but residents and they have to receive the services from the municipality like any other resident. President Trump’s decision to cut support for UNRWA creates a window of opportunity for implementing the plan and putting an end to historical distortion,” said Barkat.

In a first, Barkat ordered Jerusalem municipal sanitation workers to carry out cleaning services, including the trash removal, in the Shuafat camp.

Palestinian residents of Shuafat protested against Barkat’s visit to the camp as well as his remarks on Jerusalem. They have long complained about the lack of services, saying the Israeli shortcomings were deliberate in order to drive Palestinians out of the camp and out of Jerusalem. They added that the new sanitation gesture was politically motivated.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel was attempting to “force new realities” on the ground and added that “the mayor of Jerusalem is establishing an apartheid system in the city.” All procedures carried out by the Jerusalem municipality are “unlawful, void and violate the international law,” he told the Media Line website.

UNRWA dismissed the Israeli threats against the international body. “All of the UNRWA operations in Jerusalem — including the Shuafat camp — will continue uninterrupted,” UNRWA spokesperson Sami Moashaa told the Palestinian news agency WAFA after Barkat’s visit.

“UNRWA provides key-services to an estimated 19,000 Palestinian refugees living in the Shuafat refugee camp and its adjacent suburbs, bringing the total number of Palestinians living there to 75, 000,” said Moashaa.