The new walls of Jerusalem: Part 2 • The long walk to class
Ahmed Malhi is just 25 feet from school when Israeli soldiers stop him and demand ID. It's the third checkpoint he's encountered during a commute that takes him from one side of Jerusalem's security barrier to the other.
The soldiers wave Ahmed and other students through. He's relieved. He's got a history test on World War I, and the last thing he needs is to be late again.
"I'm at an important stage right now," Ahmed says later. "If I'm not able to be there on time, how can I pass the graduation exam?"
This day he made it to class after about an hour's walk and a five-minute taxi ride. Prior to barriers being built, he would arrive in 20 minutes. But the new reality for Ahmed's family, and many other Palestinian Jerusalemites, is that a range of measures designed to increase Israeli security and a demographic majority mean they're being left outside Israel's barrier despite Israeli-issued IDs that identify them as legal residents of Jerusalem entitled to services similar to those offered to Israeli citizens.
Now, in many cases, receiving healthcare or an education or going to work can be a long, complicated process for Palestinians who have to cross through the barrier – which runs through Shuafat and is being transformed from a fence into a concrete wall – to reach the rest of the city.
It's an ordeal that human rights groups such as Btselem say is an unjust burden on Palestinian Jerusalemites. They say Arab residents are being increasingly cut off from basic services with political goals in mind: increasing security for Israelis, and decreasing numbers of Palestinians, including those with Israeli-issued residency.
Of course, this new reality was not chosen by Ahmed or his family. He didn't ask to attend school in Dahiyet el-Barid, a neighborhood that straddles the barrier, but was assigned to study here by an educational wing of the Jerusalem municipality, which oversees all schools throughout the city.
Though his school and home are both part of the capital city, they're now wedged between a maze of checkpoints. The area where the school is – past several security checkpoints – has become a bottlenecked, almost mysterious passageway.
The policies of who can pass and when seem to change almost by the hour. Other areas here and in the West Bank have "flying checkpoints," as Palestinians have dubbed them – here one day and gone the next.
A year ago, life wasn't like this. That was before the wall began winding through this area, drawing landscape-altering lines between who is and is not able to enter Jerusalem. That was also before Ahmed's father, Omar Malhi, died at a checkpoint near their house. His family says he died from complications related to a heart attack because he couldn't reach the hospital soon enough. Witnesses say his ambulance was delayed at the checkpoint.
Thereafter, Ahmed's father was declared a shahid il-mahsom, or checkpoint martyr.
Most days, Ahmed sets out sometime around 6:45 a.m. On this morning, running a little late, Ahmed downs his tea (he eats breakfast at school, he says), kisses his mother goodbye (he's a good crammer, she boasts) and heads down the stairs close to 7 a.m.
Just down the narrow main drag of the camp, Ahmed stops to meet his cousin, Thaer, who is in the same grade. They begin to trudge along, discussing the best of three ways to go based on the delays they've encountered in recent weeks.
"If it's a tough day getting through checkpoints, I start feeling bad early in the day, and I stop concentrating," says Ahmed, who is slim and tall with a serious mien.
Ten minutes into the walk, they're on the Anata Road, which looks almost like a small highway: It leads into a tunnel and is surrounded on both sides by high walls. The left one is made of corrugated metal, shielding the enormous site for a rail system that is being built.
Overhead, the high-rise buildings of Neve Yaakov, a Jewish neighborhood added after Israel annexed East Jerusalem, tower over the road. Thaer points up to a security camera perched on a pole high above the road, noting that a friend of his got caught throwing stones because of it.
They traipse with other school kids, some teenagers and some hardly bigger than tots, all with backpacks and some in uniforms, past the second checkpoint of the day.
Seeing others their age up ahead, they continue walking down the road. A soldier holds out his arms to stop them, and redirects them to a single-file line of smaller kids off to the side.
"There?" Ahmed asks.
"Yes, go!" the soldier replies. "It's closed here."
Ahmed obeys, following the younger schoolchildren. "If I had said another word," he whispers, "I would have been arrested."
It's 7:43. Thaer and Ahmed have just reached the main road into northern Jerusalem – in the neighborhood of Shuafat, which is different from the refugee camp where they live.
Now that it's a straight shot to school, at least as the crow flies, they decide to hop into a servis – a van which serves as a taxi – to ferry them closer. This checkpoint, Ahmed explains, is sometimes closed to traffic altogether. When it is, they double back and tuck into the hilly underside of these neighborhoods, through an area called Imarat Nuseibeh, to sneak around the checkpoint and reach the school.
"I go through the mountains, through the houses, in order to get to the school," Ahmed explains. "But the Israelis now use jeeps to chase out the West Bankers who try to use these paths to get to Jerusalem. Sometimes we are met by the soldiers and they don't believe us that the gate was closed, and they make us go back."
By 8:06, they're in front of Sakhnin Boys School, only a few minutes late.
Near the school gate, Ahmed and his classmates point to the other side of the checkpoint with concern.
"Hey look," says one. "They're not letting in the ustaz," Ahmed says, using an honorific term for an educator. The students watch as Siam Samer, their religion teacher, argues with the soldiers, who are refusing to let him through the checkpoint.
But after some negotiating with the soldiers and pointing at the school entrance where the boys stand, watching, they let him through. "Things like this happen everyday," the wide-bearded ustaz complains as he heads into class. "Too many students don't manage to come on time. The first period is always wasted. I'm constantly repeating myself for the students who missed something."
Fuad Al-Ayam, the principal, claps briskly, urging the students to get to class. "Yalla, yalla," he yells, urging the pupils strolling through the gate late to hurry up. He's fearful of being quoted saying anything to a reporter, critical or otherwise; he doesn't want trouble. Students pour into the jampacked classrooms. Outside, latecomers in their backpacks are still shuffling toward the door.
Some 15 feet from the front door of the school, a dark-green military jeep idles. Beyond that, the gray and slightly curved security wall rises above the neighborhood blocking out the view of much else, as though this were a cul-de-sac at the end of the world.
At home on a different afternoon, Ahmed and his family talk about their concerns and conjecture why everything is changing.
"This is what I'm afraid of – I'll be like a prisoner here," Ahmed says. "When the wall closes around us, all the benefits of being a Jerusalemite will be taken away from us. Any minute, they can take our residency status away."
Khaled Malhi, Ahmed's uncle, posits his theory, a popular one here. "Shuafat Refugee Camp is between several [Israeli] settlements and is preventing them from connecting to each other, so they want to squeeze it out."
He faces a similar challenge every day to get to his job in the kitchen of an East Jerusalem hospital. It used to take him five minutes to get to work; now he leaves himself an extra hour.
Not everyone here accepts the future with resignation. Some of the residents are trying to fight the path of the wall making its way past their homes.
In Ras Hamees, a neighborhood adjacent to Shuafat that is also slated to be left outside of the wall, activists have submitted a petition to the Supreme Court, with the help of Israeli lawyers, to change the route of the barrier.
Jamil Sandouki, the head of the local neighborhood committee, takes some flack from others for even bothering to mount a legal challenge: They charge that it legitimizes the wall's existence. But Mr. Sandouki didn't see any other way. Just in the past year, he says, everyday life has been getting more unbearable.
"Now, we need to spend hours in the morning standing in line, and with a car, you're in line for at least an hour just to get out of Shuafat," he says.
While waiting on a high court decision, he watched from his window here a few weeks ago as huge cranes dropped sections of the wall into place, surround by a group of soldiers. The ash-colored barrier now cuts through the land outside his window – which had afforded a rather pastoral view – and then suddenly stops, waiting for new pieces to be put into place.
The huge cement blocks landed on the ground as he looked out from his living room. "I suddenly felt like someone was taking away my breath. It's like someone taking away your oxygen. My son kept saying, 'Daddy, look, they're bringing another block.' "
Sandouki pulls five-year-old Mohammed between his knees. "My son asked me, 'What mistake did we make that we are having this wall built around us? What did we do?' And what can I answer him?"
All anyone here talks about, he says, including the women and children, is the wall.
Meanwhile, the price of his house is now about a fifth of what it was before the last intifada started in September 2000. People who can afford to are scrambling to move to other, "safer" Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, while people from the West Bank, hoping that this address will afford them some measure of access to Jerusalem or a coveted Jerusalem ID card, are arriving in their place.
The barrier, many say, is wreacking havoc on the local real estate market. Families who can are willing to pay higher prices to make sure they're inside, a crunch that leaves the working class out. Others fear that being inside the wall will cut them off from relatives or work outside the barrier, and are contemplating whether it would be better to be on the Palestinian side instead, or at least maintain an address there.
Sandouki sees the proverbial writing on the wall. He recently bought a house in Bet Safafa, an Arab neighborhood that has been part of Jerusalem since 1948 and is in no danger of being cut off from the city. He's already had his official address changed – one's neighborhood is printed on the ID card that everyone must carry – and when it gets bad enough, he plans to escape.
Sandouki raises his eyebrows at his window, where the winter sky is growing dark just after 4 p.m. and breathes out a lungful of frustration. "I'm going to die if I have to live here with this wall."