Besieged Palestinian refugee camp reels from Israeli crackdown

Besieged Palestinian refugee camp reels from Israeli crackdown
The Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem is reeling from an Israeli siege and crackdown, as security forces choked off the camp's entry and exit points.
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The restrictions eased on Thursday but residents have been traumatised by the siege [Getty]

A line of cars snaked through the garbage-strewn streets of the Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem, as Palestinians waited to pass an Israeli checkpoint.

Alaa Gharab was sunk down behind the steering wheel at an intersection that resembled a ragged war zone, littered with burnt tires, gutted appliances and the charred carcass of a car.

It was the first time she could leave the camp since last Saturday night, when a Palestinian gunman fired at the checkpoint from close range, killing a 19-year-old female Israeli soldier and severely wounding a security guard before disappearing toward Shuafat.

The attack prompted a large-scale and ongoing manhunt and siege by Israel. As part of the search, Israeli security forces choked off the camp’s entry and exit points, bringing life to a standstill for its estimated 60,000 residents.

The Israeli blockade set off an explosion of anger in Palestinian neighbourhoods across occupied East Jerusalem.

Palestinian shops shuttered in protest by day and crowds of young men skirmished with Israeli troops by night — the fiercest unrest in months. Israeli attacks on Palestinian worshippers in East Jerusalem became a rallying cry last year that triggered the bloody 11-day Gaza war.

“No one could go to work, go to the hospital, get food, go out,” Gharab, a 24-year-old nurse, said from her car window. “Everyone was scared. Everything stopped.”

The siege eased on Thursday, allowing food and supplies to enter and residents to return to work in the city. But the outrage was undimmed in Jerusalem’s only refugee camp — a neighbourhood long left in a vacuum of governance.

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Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Israel's deputy mayor of Jerusalem, tried to play down the siege, calling it a matter of security.

But to camp residents, it was all too real. “It was like being in prison," said 14-year-old Sadeen Rajabi, who stayed home from school for the week because the difficulty of crossing and her parent's fears for her safety.

Even in normal times, Shuafat is a neglected slum full of smoldering garbage heaps and lacks municipal services.

The camp falls within the Jerusalem municipal limits, but outside the hulking separation wall that Israel has built in the occupied West Bank. Palestinians have called the wall, which slices through communities, a land grab.

After the 1967 Mideast war, Israel illegally annexed the eastern, Palestinian-populated half of Jerusalem and declared the entire city its capital in a move not recognised internationally.

The government expanded the municipal limits far past the Old City, home to Jerusalem's holy sites, taking in far-flung Palestinian villages like Shuafat and the adjacent refugee camp. At the time, the camp had just a few thousand residents.

Anger has been building across East Jerusalem, where Palestinians have long suffered neglect, house demolitions, and attempts by Israeli settlers to take over their homes.

Residents complain of the near impossibility of obtaining Israeli building permits. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem pay Israeli municipal taxes but receive a fraction of the services that Jewish residents do.

The feeling of being in limbo is perhaps no more acute than in the Shuafat camp, one of several Palestinian neighbourhoods that are formally part of Jerusalem, but are on the “West Bank side” of the separation barrier.

The Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited control in parts of the West Bank, has no control. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees runs part of the camp, providing educational and sanitation services.

Omar Sarhan, a shop owner restocking his shelves on Thursday for the first time this week, said the camp feels cut off from the city. “We do not feel we're in Jerusalem,” he said. “We have nothing.”

Water and electricity shortages are frequent. Sewer services are unreliable. Roads are potholed. There's virtually no garbage pickup. High-rise apartments, some over 10 stories high, are built so close together in some areas as to be a fire hazard. Israeli police do little to crack down on surging crime.

The road into the rest of Jerusalem is both a lifeline and a potential chokepoint. Most residents have permanent residency in the city, meaning they have some freedom of movement, unlike West Bank Palestinians who need special entry permits.

But the access is strictly controlled. When Israeli security forces escalated searches at the main Shuafat checkpoint this week, residents said it upended their lives.

Patients couldn't reach Israeli hospitals because of hours-long waits. Ambulances idled in snarled traffic. Deliveries of food and medicine stopped. Most of the camp's 15,000 children missed school.

Residents shared stories of desperation.

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“Yes, the attacker is from the camp, but why are tens of thousands of people held accountable?" said Hassan Alequm, a health official who reported that 50 patients with kidney disease missed their dialysis appointments at Israeli hospitals this week.

Dr. Saeed Salameh said his medical center was flooded with requests to help patients who couldn't make it to hospitals. The clinic offered painkillers until it ran out IVs. Then it was struck by tear gas canisters and forced to close.

Hiba, a 50-year-old hepatitis patient with diabetes who gave only her first name, hadn't received an insulin injection in five days.

“I couldn't leave my house because of the gas,” she said, her face ashen.

Many families stayed inside as tear gas veiled the camp. But thousands rushed into the streets to confront Israeli security forces in what residents described as the worst clashes in recent memory. Israeli forces unleashed rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas on young men hurling stones and firebombs.

“It was the first time I've seen that kind of violence in the camp,” said Mohammed Salah, 32.

On Wednesday night, clashes spread across east Jerusalem neighbourhoods.

The surging tensions in Jerusalem come as Israeli attacks increase across the West Bank, where more than 120 Palestinians have been killed so far in 2022, making it the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2015.

Palestinians want the occupied West Bank and Gaza as territories for their future state, with east Jerusalem as their capital. But adjacent to Shuafat refugee camp and other Palestinian enclaves neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, Israel has built Jewish settlements home to some 220,000 people.

Israel's police said Friday it was calling up reserve units of the border police — a paramilitary force known for using violent tactics against Palestinians.

“The fighters will continue to act with a heavy hand, using all advanced means, against violators of public order,” said Amir Cohen, the commander of the border police.