Jackhammers mounted on excavator trucks attacked the pothole-littered street that for years has snarled traffic outside an Israeli military check point on the Jeru- salem Ramallah road, the most heavily traveled Palestinian traffic route in the West Bank.
After years of Israeli neglect, the stretch alongside Jerusalem’s northernmost suburb of Kufr Aqeb is receiving a desperately needed resurfacing, sidewalks and new water and electrical infrastructure. The construction work is being funded not by Israel, but by aid from U.S. and other international donors to the Palestinian Authority.
The notion of Palestinian aid money funding infrastructure work in an area of Jerusalem claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians could have become a political controversy in a city where nearly every building project has the potential to tip the scales in the decades of struggle for sovereignty.
The fact that the municipal government quietly allowed the Palestinian Authority aid highlights the administrative twilight zone of Kufr Aqeb since the latest Palestinian uprising.
“This is the first time that anyone has ever repaired anything for us,” said Imad Abu Rumeillah, the owner of a grocery store along the Jerusalem Ramallah road.
The Kufr Aqeb neighborhood lies on the Palestinian side of Israel’s security barrier, closer to downtown Ramallah than Jerusalem. Maintenance crews from Israeli utilities won’t go there without a military escort, and the 25,000 Jerusalemites there have lived in a vacuum of municipal services for several years. They have made due by collecting their own garbage, building their own water system and setting up their own health services.
“This is an area without a government. There is no law. The Palestinian Authority says it is not our responsibility, and the Israelis say we can’t enter because it’s too dangerous,” Mr. Rumeillah said. “I pay 28,000 shekels in city taxes a year and I get no services. They’ve never cleaned for us. They’ve never done anything for us.”
Leading uphill to Ramallah from Israel’s checkpoint at the end of the Qalandiay refugee camp, the road passing by Kufr Aqeb is notorious for wrecking the undersides of vehicles. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States is investing $2.5 million to upgrade a mile-long stretch of the main road. Work on two other sections are being underwritten by the Malaysian government and a German government loan.
The road “was a succession of potholes. There was no drainage. In some sections it was narrowed down to one lane. It was a disaster,” said Howard Sumka, director of USAID in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. “It was a major bottleneck and a major annoyance to Palestinians traveling this north-south road.”
Jerusalem authorities said the roadwork had been coordinated with the city. “Because of the political security sensitivities, we are working in cooperation,” a municipal statement said. “The neighborhoods north of the checkpoint receive services via contractors.”
Services and infrastructure for the 250,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites in neighborhoods annexed by Israel after the 1967 war lag significantly behind the conditions for the city’s Jewish residents. According to the human rights group Ir Amim, Arabs make up a third of the city’s population but receive one-tenth of its budget spending.
Few Jerusalem neighborhoods are as isolated as Kufr Aqeb. Because Israeli police rarely show up to enforce public order, residents report rampant unauthorized construction, sightings of 10-year-olds behind the wheels of automobiles, and garbage dumped freely into the streets.
“The neighborhood has been walled out of the city,” said Sarah Kreimer, associate director of Ir Amim. “There’s a kind of an independent city-state of Kufr Aqeb out there.”
Kufr Aqeb became part of Jerusalem after Israel seized the entire West Bank in the 1967 war and expanded the city’s municipal borders. Fearing a new war for control over Jerusalem, Israel drew a northward finger to include the Atarot airstrip and hilltops of Kufr Aqeb that overlook the airport.
Looking southward from slopes of the neighborhood, the high-rise hotels of central Jerusalem form a remote skyline. No physical signs across the neighborhood suggest Israeli sovereignty.
The shortage of services has prompted local residents to field their own local council and oversee their own infrastructure projects.
Sameeh Abu Rumeillah, a Kufr Aqeb resident and community activist, helped found a health care center so residents wouldn’t have to worry about crossing the checkpoint to reach a doctor. He also raised a tax from residents to upgrade the sewer network.
“We collected money from all of the residents,” he said. “The municipality didn’t contribute anything.”
Residents still complain of the stench of open-sewer water, but the most problematic vacuums are the lack of police and the failure to impose construction regulations.
“Everybody who has $500 builds. If you want to build 12 floors, you can build 12 floors. And we the residents who follow the rules are being suffocated,” said Nihaya Ahmed, who complained that organized crime was behind the construction. “Every time somebody builds, the phones are cut, and it takes us six months to renew our connection.”
Back at the construction site, an open pipe is gushing water. Electrical, telephone and water infrastructure will be run by computer. Cynics call the road project tantamount to foreign intervention on behalf of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Project engineer Omar Sa’adeh said that given the suffering of the residents, the goals of the donors were less important.
“I look at this project practically,” he said. “If it will help the people, that’s all that’s important.”