Thursday, May 29, 2008

Traveling in Beit Hanina

Said Rhateb was born in 1972, five years after Israeli soldiers fought their way through East Jerusalem and claimed his family's dry, rock-strewn plot as part of what the Jewish state proclaimed its "eternal and indivisible capital". The bureaucrats followed in the army's footsteps, registering and measuring Israel's largest annexation of territory since its victory over the Arab armies in the 1948 war of independence. They cast an eye over the Rhateb family's village of Beit Hanina and its lands, a short drive from the biblical city on the hill, and decided the outer limits of this new Jerusalem. The Israelis drew a line on a map - a new city boundary - between Beit Hanina's lands and most of its homes. The olive groves and orchards were to be part of Jerusalem; the village was to remain in the West Bank.

The population was not so neatly divided. Arabs in the area were registered as living in the village - even those, like Rhateb's parents, whose homes were inside what was now defined as Jerusalem. In time, the Israelis gave the Rhatebs identity cards that classified them as residents of the West Bank, under military occupation. When Said Rhateb was born, he too was listed as living outside the city's boundaries. His parents thought little of it as they moved freely across the invisible line drawn by the Israelis, shopping and praying inside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

Four decades later, the increasingly complex world of Israel's system of classification deems Said Rhateb to be a resident of the West Bank - somewhere he has never lived - and an illegal alien for living in the home in which he was born, inside the Jerusalem boundary. Jerusalem's council forces Rhateb to pay substantial property taxes on his house but that does not give him the right to live in it, and he is periodically arrested for doing so. Rhateb's children have been thrown out of their Jerusalem school, he cannot register a car in his name - or rather he can, but only one with Palestinian number plates, which means he cannot drive it to his home because only Israeli-registered cars are allowed within Jerusalem - and he needs a pass to visit the centre of the city. The army grants him about four a year.

There is more. If Rhateb is not legally resident in his own home, then he is defined as an "absentee" who has abandoned his property. Under Israeli law, it now belongs to the state or, more particularly, its Jewish citizens. "They sent papers that said we cannot sell the land or develop it because we do not own the land. It belongs to the state," he says. "Any time they want to confiscate it, they can, because they say we are absentees even though we are living in the house. That's what forced my older brother and three sisters to live in the US. They couldn't bear the harassment."

from "Worlds Apart" by Chris McGreal in The Guardian
For years I have thought that someone like the BBC or Al Jazeera should do a piece about the situation of the people who live in Beit Haninah, especially "Beit Haninah al balad," also called "Beit Haninah tahht," Lower Beit Haninah. The village of Beit Hanina was occupied by Israel in 1967. It was outside of the Jerusalem municipal borders while under Jordanian and British Mandate rule, but Israel incorporated part of the land into the much enlarged municipal borders. As the excerpt above mentions, most of the village's land was incorporated into Jerusalem, but the oldest part of the village where most of the people lived was left in the West Bank. But lines on maps were not easily seen on the ground, before this decade at least, and the people of Beit Hanina went on trying to live their lives as normally as possible. The village grew over the years, as villages usually do. Many Hanayyna (people from Beit Hanina) built on their lands that had been annexed to Jerusalem, and "Upper Beit Hanina" became more built up than the older area down the hill. The close, interconnected families of Beit Hanina were spread out on both sides of the border.In the last 10 years, I don't remember precisely when it was completed, the Israelis built a highway that cut through Beit Hanina, between the Upper and Lower neighborhoods. This was one of those roads meant to connect the settlements to Jerusalem, and only Israelis and Jerusalem residents are allowed on it, even though it is in the West Bank. There were a couple overpasses, so that the new highway went over the roads connecting the two halves of the village. Some land was confiscated for the highway, some trees and houses were lost, but mostly life went on as it had before.
(click on the images for larger versions)
After the outbreak of the al Aqsa intifada in September of 2000 and the completion of that road, Israel started cutting off more and more of the roads that connected Jerusalem to the West Bank, so they could control who entered and exited through the checkpoints at the main roads. The old road between lower Beit Haninah and Bir Nabala just to the north was for a while a way to bypass the checkpoint on the main road between Ramallah and northern East Jerusalem. So the Israelis blocked the road to Bir Nabala with a large mound of rocks, earth and garbage scraped up from the land around it. You could walk around it or climb over it, but you couldn't drive through it. There are a lot of people in Bir Nabala who are in the construction business, and occasionally one of them would brave taking a bulldozer and clearing a path through for cars, but the Israelis would just come back and build the earth mound again. I used to feel sorry for the people in the last house on the road just before Bir Nabala, because it was sort of isolated and much closer to Bir Nabala. If they wanted to use a car to bring their grocieries to the house, they would have to go to Beit Haninah even though Bir Nabala was much closer. But I think for the majority of the residents of Lower Beit Haninah life went on without much change, because their "center of life" was very much focused on Jerusalem.

I have used Google Earth to measure the distance between two places in Beit Haninah to illustrate how upper and lower Beit Haninah have been cut off. The distance by road between point A in lower Beit Hanina and point B in Upper Beit Hanina on the map below is 0.48 miles (0.77km).
Then one day, the Israelis removed the earth mound between Bir Nabala and Beit Hanina, and instead blocked the underpasses that connected Upper and Lower Beit Hanina. That created a serious disruption in the Hanayyna's lives. Now, to get from one neighborhood to the other, they had to take a much longer route through Bir Nabala and the Ram checkpoint. What used to be a short drive of only a half a mile became over 4 1/2 miles (7.8km). Sure, 4 1/2 miles might seem short to you, but the road to Bir Nabala was very poor, and the cars had to go very slowly and if 2 cars passed each other, one of them had to drop its wheels off the pavement on one side. Then they had to wait to pass through the checkpoint, which was often crowded and time consuming. That is if they could pass at all. Anyone with a west Bank ID couldn't pass even if they owned land or even lived in the Jerusalem side, like the man in the story above. At first, the barrier was just another earth mound, and you could walk over it. Some people would dig it out a bit to make it easier for the old ladies and children to climb over. There were lots of kids who climbed over, because the Beit Hanina's girls' and boys' schools were on opposite sides! People from lower Beit Haninah were cut off from easy access to their property, jobs, better medical care, worship in their holy places and the city that was at the center of their lives. And of course families had a harder time visiting each other. But as long as the road was only blocked by stones and dirt, they kept going over it, on the lookout for the Israeli soldiers who occasionally sat on the road on the Jerusalem side.

So the Israelis decided they needed a better way to block the road.
And then as a testament to the Palestinian stubborn insistence to be able to live their lives on their own lands, they blocked it even more.
At the same time, walls and fences were built all along the Israelis-only road above. Don't forget, both sides of this barrier are occupied territory according to international law. The road that is blocked was just used for Palestinians from one Palestinian neighborhood to enter another Palestinian neighborhood, trying to maintain the way of life they had for ages.

And then it got worse.

The road between Bir Nabala and Ram was cut off not once, but twice by The Wall. There are pictures of the place the road now dead ends in this post of mine. The Israelis cut a road through a hill north of Bir Nabala to give the people of these encircled villages a route to Ramallah. It is a very nice, smooth road, until you get a bit past the new checkpoint. Then you are forced to drive slowly on a narrow, bumpy road to detour around the northern most point that Israel has added to the Jerusalem boundaries, around the old airport where Israel is considering putting a new settlement for Orthodox Jews. To go from Lower Beit Hanina to Upper Beit Haninah requires driving up the newly repaved road to Bir Nabala and passing through the new checkpoint, driving north of the airport on a road so narrow that 2 cars cannot pass with all their tires on the pavement, twisting and tuning though small roads in a densely populated residential area along the edges of Qalandia refugee camp, until you get to the Qalandia border crossing. Cars with West Bank license plates cannot cross into Jerusalem, so unless you have the right license plates, you have to get out and walk through the Qalandia crossing terminal. See this video to get an idea of what you have to go through there. Then you can get in another car and head south toward Upper Beit Haninah, but you will have to pass one more checkpoint before you get there!

The trip between 2 neighbors less than a half a mile apart is now 10 long, tiresome miles (over 16km) plus 3 checkpoints.

Seriously, could you live like this? What would you do if this was your neighborhood and your family that was separated like this?

All of the pictures in this post are from 's photo albums . Another good site dedicated to Beit Hanina is


UmmFarouq said...

Amazing post. You are so diligent! MashaAllah.

Bitter marzipan said...

very informative post,thanks!

my aunt lives in Berr Nabala,she says the country is now a city of ghosts,people abandoned their houses and it became so scheap to rent there..

I guess no one brought this issue in media because it's there every where,the aftermath of the damned wall!!

Susie of Arabia said...

Thank you again for this amazing insight to what really goes on in your country. I would not have the patience to put up with such nonsense from the Israelis. How can they make that poor guy pay taxes on a home they will not allow him to live in? The whole situation is ludicrous. My heart hurts for the residents of Palestine. I don't think anyone else's blog affects me the way your does. I always have to have a box of tissues close by. Thank you for enlightening us. You are doing a great service.

Umm Ibrahim said...

Subhan Allah, very interesting post sis.

Anonymous said...

Long live palestine! Long live Israel!

Let's face it the Jews had to return to their promised land as a part of the Messiah coming.

Resolve conflicts. Stop teaching hate. Long live Jesus!