A Town Cut Off

The separation wall surrounds Ar Ram on 3 sides.  It is constantly in view and is a daily reminder of the city's struggles. Photo EAPPI/M. Lentz

The separation wall surrounds Ar Ram on 3 sides. It is constantly in view and is a daily reminder of the city’s struggles. Photo EAPPI/M. Lentz

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.

The EAPPI Ar Ram team visiting the mayor's office in Ar Ram. Photo EAPPI/J. Valkama

The EAPPI Ar Ram team visiting the mayor’s office in Ar Ram. Photo EAPPI/J. Valkama

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.”

Tourists & Palestinian Christians alike restricted, yet hope remains

Our EAs this year provided protective presence and monitored the human rights situation throughout the Easter celebrations. This is the 3rd account from our EAs sharing from Easter 2014 in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Holy Saturday was full of joyful celebrations as Local Christians waited for the arrival of the Holy Fire to be passed on throughout the world. Photo EAPPI/J. Valkama.

Holy Saturday was full of joyful celebrations as Local Christians waited for the arrival of the Holy Fire to be passed on throughout the world. Photo EAPPI/J. Valkama.

by Juhani, Jerusalem Ar Ram team

At the plaza of the Holy Sepulchre Church there’s a group of Christian pilgrims standing – a very squashed crowd in the middle of the steel fences. It’s the Holy Saturday just before Easter and they are waiting for the Holy Fire ceremony to start. The fire is lit in a place where they believe Jesus was crucified and buried. So for the Christians it’s a very special and holy place. From there the fire is passed throughout the Christian world, from candle to candle.

 

There are dozens of Israeli police and guards moving around the plaza, looking nervous and suspicious. The pilgrim group, on the other hand, is not able to move. The sun is parching and their waiting just goes on.

 “It’s the biggest wish in my life to be here”, says Janus, a pilgrim from Romania. “It’s not pleasant to be waiting like this, but in my heart I always knew that one day I must come here.”

At last, half an hour before the ceremony starts, they open the fences and let the people into the church. They are a lucky, but a very small band. When they’re in, the plaza of the Holy Sepulchre remains almost completely empty. Even though it is one of the most important Christian celebrations, one would think that there aren’t very many people interested.

The truth is different. All roads leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are cut off. Everywhere around the Old City of Jerusalem there are great number of local Christians and pilgrims behind the barriers trying to participate in Easter celebrations, but they are hampered by the Israeli police. The ceremony starts at 2pm, but the streets are closed already at 9am. No explanations are given by the Israeli troops. There’s a small tourist group near the Jaffa gate reading their maps and even they are evicted by the police.

The restrictions of Easter go even further. Already in the Palm Sunday procession it is clear that not all who would like to be there are present. There is just handful of Palestinian Christians from the occupied West Bank in Jerusalem because the permits have been very difficult to get. There is a simultaneous Jewish celebration too, Passover, that has tightened the restrictions for the Christians and Muslims even more, especially in Jerusalem. Also the Separation Barrier divides Palestinian Christians from accessing Jerusalem and Bethlehem freely. It’s a very concrete reminder of the severe restrictions of Palestinians mobility and lack of their human rights.

The separation barrier is illegal according to the International Court of Justice and in 2012 US State Department published a report about Israeli policies restricting freedom of worship for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The report says:

“Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents’ ability to practice their religion at holy sites” and that “the separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany (al-Eizariya) and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.”

So the long-term conflict between the occupying state and the occupied is visible also on Easter at least through the fences, barriers and permits declined. The ongoing peace negotiations are not believed to make any significant results, but the hope lives on.

“I’m going to pray”, replies Janus when asked what he is going to do when he gets into the church. “I’m going to pray for peace. What could be more important?”