by Bron and the Ar Ram team
Northeast of Jerusalem, just outside the city’s municipal border lies a town called Ar Ram. It’s a poor town of 60,000 people which used to be a part of eastern Jerusalem, but in the year 2006 many things changed. There was one concrete reason for that – Israel built the Separation Wall which now surrounds the town on three sides. It is the most prominent landmark of Ar Ram against its own will. The Wall is illegal according to the International Court of Justice, severely hampers the free movement of the people and has ruined the economy of Ar Ram.
There used to be a gate in the Wall which allowed direct access to Jerusalem for Ar Ram residents, but it was closed two years after the Wall was built, for “security reasons”. Ar Ram’s Mayor, Ali Maslamani, told our EAPPI team that he had asked the Israeli authorities “100 times” for it to be opened again, but they refuse.
So to get to Jerusalem one must pass through Qalandiya checkpoint, the main access to Jerusalem for all northern West Bank towns including Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin. What used to be a few minutes travel can now take 30 minutes up to 1 ½ hours. Our main task in the Ar Ram team is to observe the functioning of the checkpoint and the conditions for Palestinians trying to get through. The queues are usually very long, soldiers can be rude and indifferent and the tension is very visible.
But the difficulties in accessing Jerusalem are not the main reason for Ar Ram’s poverty. According to the Executive Director of Ar Ram Council, MohannedShaheen, 70% of Ar Ram’s residents actually have Jerusalem IDs. Such IDs are a prized possession, entitling the holder to the facilities – hospitals, schools etc – in East Jerusalem. But the “permanent residency” status that goes with such an ID is always vulnerable. To keep it, you must show that your “centre of life” is in Jerusalem, not Ar Ram. This status goes in contrast to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, under which “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.”
Most Ar Ram residents who have Jerusalem ID also maintain a home in Jerusalem. And with a Jerusalem home come Jerusalem taxes, four or five times the level of Ar Ram taxes. By the time you have paid your Jerusalem taxes, and maintained two homes, there is not a lot left to pay Ar Ram taxes.
So Ar Ram struggles. There is no police force. The Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot afford to provide one. The mayor told us that the Israeli police are quick enough to enter the town and make raids on houses if they suspect a member of Hamas is there, but otherwise they take no interest whatsoever in the town. A large part of the former residents have left the town and organized crime, especially involving drugs, flourishes. There is no money for repair and maintenance of the schools. As Mohanned Shaheen told us “we are speaking about a city with no income”.
What Ar Ram needs most of all is an end to the occupation – what both the Mayor and Mohanned Shaheen call “the nightmare occupation”. What it also needs is investment – and the moral investment that comes with people-to-people links. Ar Ram is twinned with Bondy – a town about 30 km from Paris. Out of this twinning link came support to re-lay the disintegrating yard at the boys’ school. It seems a small thing, but now the boys can play football and games where before they could not. Ar Ram would like many more such links. It is not just the money – it is the sense that people in Europe know that Ar Ram exists and understands what it is suffering.
Ar Ram may be a town cut off, but it is a town with pride and determination.
“We are strong”, Mohanned Shaheen told us. “ We may not have money or planes, but we are strong in the heart.”