Mayor of neighborhood on Jerusalem outskirts says Trump proposal makes no practical sense; activist worried by plan’s ambiguity on fate of residents living beyond security barrier
By Adam Rasgon -The Times of Israel
Mayor Ahmad Abu Hilal standing on a building next to the security barrier in Abu Dis on February 3, 2020. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)
ABU DIS — Abu Dis used to be closely connected to the center of Jerusalem. Its residents would take short drives to the Old City and its surrounding neighborhoods to shop, pray, seek medical treatment and attend cultural events.
But after Israel constructed the security barrier in the wake of an onsalught suicide bombing attacks targeting Israelis during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, residents of Abu Dis were cut off from the main parts of the city. Today, a trip from the neighborhood to the Old City usually lasts between 35-45 minutes and requires taking a circuitous route.
In its newly unveiled plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Trump administration designated Abu Dis as one of a few neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem — all several kilometers from the Old City — making up the capital of a future Palestine.
Many residents of Abu Dis, however, pushed back against the US plan for Jerusalem on Monday, arguing that the heart of Palestine’s capital should be in the Old City and the neighborhoods surrounding it.
Abu Dis Mayor Ahmad Abu Hilal called suggestions that Abu Dis constitutes a central part or the entirety of Palestine’s capital “unacceptable,” but said the neighborhood “is part of Jerusalem.”
The US plan specifically states that neighborhoods in the Jerusalem area located east and north of the security barrier should be Palestine’s capital and notes they could be called al-Quds, the name for Jerusalem in Arabic.
The initiative also outlines that the barrier should become the border between Israel and Palestine, which would leave not only the Old City but several other neighborhoods with significant religious sites inside Israeli territory.
Abdullah Hassan, a 59-year-old resident of Abu Dis, said he found the Trump administration’s plan for Jerusalem to be “preposterous.”
“Trump does not represent us… He cannot give Jerusalem to Israel,” he said outside his home that abuts the barrier, adding: “It is his right to give them Washington and New York City, if he wants.”
‘No room to expand’
Jerusalem is one of the most contentious and emotive issues for Israelis and Palestinians, who have discussed possible arrangements for the city in past negotiations but have not succeeded in finding an agreed solution.
Jerusalem houses the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical temples as well as the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. It is considered the holiest place in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam and has often been at the epicenter of tensions.
Abu Hilal added that while his national convictions would never permit him to accept turning Abu Dis into a core part of the Palestinian capital, it also does not make practical sense.
“We have no room to expand, except for a small part in the east, because we are surrounded by settlements and the wall,” he said, noting that 40,000 people live on the neighborhood’s 3,600 dunams.
Both the Kedar and Ma’ale Adumim settlements are located to the east of Abu Dis, while the barrier is to the west and other Palestinian towns and villages are north and south of it.
Al-Quds University, one of the largest Palestinian educational institutions in the West Bank, also takes up a significant portion of the land.
Abu Hilal added that Abu Dis has one police station with 30 officers who Israel permits to carry 10 guns, and that it currently hosts a small handful of PA government branch offices.
A partially built PA parliament building is also located in Abu Dis, but has been neglected for most of the past two decades. Stray dogs on Monday were seen running through the interior of the structure.
Two other areas that the US initiative explicitly identifies as part of Palestine’s capital include the Shuafat refugee camp and Kafr Aqab, which suffer from rampant violence, poor planning and inadequate infrastructure.
“The capital’s location is known and it includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy sites,” Ismail Khatib, an activist from the Shuafat refugee camp, said.
“Even if — for argument’s sake — we decided the Shuafat camp was the capital, it would not be possible to build it here,” he said.
“There is extremely high population density; we barely have enough space for cars to move through some of our streets; and drugs and guns are prolific. How can the capital be here? The idea is laughable.”
In the Shuafat refugee camp, illegal drugs and weapons are widespread, many residential buildings are constructed in contravention city codes, and potholes dot a large number of roads.
Unlike Abu Dis, which is under the administrative and partial security jurisdiction of the PA, the Shuafat refugee camp and Kafr Aqab are within Jerusalem municipal boundaries.
Khatib argued that the Trump plan seeks to provide Israel with a path to free itself of responsibility for the two neighborhoods.
“Israel has not undertaken its responsibilities in providing services to these areas. It has also caused many problems in them that it does not want to solve,” he said. “This plan clearly attempts to allow Israel to rid itself of all its responsibilities to them.”
Jerusalem municipality officials have said that the local body struggles to provide services to areas east and north of the barrier because they can only access them with a police escort.
The Israel Police has said that it regularly operates in those neighborhoods, but residents say they seldom enter them.
The White House did not respond to an inquiry about Khatib’s comments.
Questions over residency status
Munir Zughayer, a community leader in Kafr Aqab, said the plan’s ambiguity regarding the residency status of Kafr Aqab residents concerned him.
“This lack of clarity is worrying for everyone,” he said. “If the plan is suggesting that Palestinians living on our side of the wall cannot choose whether they want to keep their Israeli residency, that would be a crime.”
The plan states that Palestinians residing in parts of Jerusalem that Israel will keep, such as Wadi Joz, Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, can choose to become Israeli citizens, Palestinian citizens or maintain their permanent residency in Israel.
But it does not clearly say whether Palestinians residing in the neighborhoods north or east of the barrier within Jerusalem’s current municipal boundaries would have the same options.
The White House also did not respond to a request for clarification about this portion of the plan.
Approximately 140,000 people live in the neighborhoods on the far side of the barrier, but they do not all hold Israeli residency or citizenship.
Back in Abu Dis, a handful of people shuffled in and out of a fruit and vegetable store.
Suleiman Qaseb, a 40-year-old resident, said the US plan would not succeed.
“I believe it is impossible,” he said. “We will not allow it to happen.”