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Jerusalem besieged refugee camp horrified by Israeli crackdown

JERUSALEM – A line of cars snaked through the garbage-strewn streets of the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem as Palestinians waited to pass an Israeli checkpoint.

Alaa Gharab was sunk behind the wheel at a crossroads that looked like a ragged war zone, strewn with burnt tires, stripped devices and the charred carcass of a car.

It was the first time she was able to leave the camp since last Saturday night, when a Palestinian gunman fired at close range at the checkpoint, killing a 19-year-old female Israeli soldier and seriously injuring a guard before disappearing toward Shuafat.

The attack sparked a large-scale and ongoing manhunt. As part of the search, Israeli security forces blocked the entrances and exits of the camp, bringing the lives of its estimated 60,000 residents to a standstill.

The restrictions sparked an explosion of anger in Palestinian neighborhoods in the city. Palestinian shops closed in protest during the day and crowds of young men clashed with Israeli troops at night – the fiercest unrest in months. The clashes in Jerusalem, the holy and bitterly disputed city, last year became a rallying cry that sparked a bloody 11-day Gaza war.

“No one could go to work, go to the hospital, get food, go out,” said Gharab, a 24-year-old nurse, from her car window. “Everyone was scared. Everything stopped.”

Restrictions were eased on Thursday, allowing food and supplies to come in and residents back to work in the city. But outrage was unabated in Jerusalem’s only refugee camp—a neighborhood that had long been in a vacuum of governance.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, described the closures as a matter of security.

But to the camp residents it felt like a siege. “It was like being in jail,” said 14-year-old Sadeen Rajabi, who stayed home from school for a week due to the difficulty of crossing and her parents’ fears for her safety.

Even in normal times, Shuafat is a lawless slum full of smoldering garbage heaps and has no municipal services. The camp falls within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, but outside the colossal separation wall Israel claims to have built to stop militant attacks from the occupied West Bank. Palestinians have labeled the barrier, which often cuts through communities, a land grab.

After the 1967 Middle East war, Israel annexed the eastern Palestinian-populated half of Jerusalem and declared the entire city its capital, in an internationally unrecognized manner. The government expanded municipal boundaries well beyond the Old City, home to Jerusalem’s holy sites, to include distant Palestinian villages such as Shuafat and the adjacent refugee camp. At the time, the camp had only a few thousand inhabitants.

Anger is mounting in the Israeli-annexed part of the city, where many Palestinians say they feel abandoned by Israel. Residents complain about the demolition of houses and the near impossibility of obtaining Israeli building permits. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem pay Israeli municipal taxes, but receive a fraction of the services provided by Jewish residents.

The feeling of being in limbo is perhaps no more acute than in the Shuafat camp, one of the many Palestinian neighborhoods formally part of Jerusalem but located on the “West Bank” of the separation wall. The Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited control in parts of the West Bank, has no jurisdiction. The UN Agency for Palestine Refugees manages part of the camp and provides education and sanitation facilities.

Hassan-Nahoum recognized the challenges of providing services in the camp. She said the city fears attacks on staff working on the other side of the barrier. “It’s very hard to control,” she said.

Omar Sarhan, a shop owner who is restocking its shelves on Thursday for the first time this week, said the camp feels cut off from the city. “We don’t feel like we’re in Jerusalem,” he said. “We have nothing.”

Water and electricity shortages are common. Sewer services are unreliable. Roads are full of holes. There is virtually no garbage collection. High-rise apartments, some over 10 stories high, are built so close together in some areas that they are a fire hazard. Israeli police rarely come in to fight rising crime.

The road to the rest of Jerusalem is both a lifeline and a potential bottleneck. Most residents have permanent residence in the city, meaning they have freedom of movement, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank who need special entry permits.

But access is strictly controlled. When Israeli security forces escalated searches at Shuafat’s main checkpoint this week, residents said it turned their lives upside down. Patients were unable to reach Israeli hospitals due to long wait times. Ambulances stood still in the raging traffic. Deliveries of food and medicine stopped. Most of the 15,000 children in the camp missed school.

Residents shared stories of despair.

“Yes, the attacker is from the camp, but why are tens of thousands of people being held accountable?” said Hassan Alequm, a health official who reported that 50 patients with kidney disease missed their dialysis appointments in Israeli hospitals this week.

dr. Saeed Salameh said his medical center was inundated with requests to help patients who were unable to reach hospitals. The clinic offered pain medications until the IVs ran out. It was then hit by tear gas canisters and forced to close.

Hiba, a 50-year-old hepatitis patient with diabetes who only gave her first name, had not received an insulin injection for five days.

“I couldn’t get out of my house because of the gas,” she said with a gray face.

Many families stayed inside while tear gas veiled the camp. But thousands took to the streets to confront Israeli security forces in what residents described as the worst clashes in recent history. Israeli forces launched rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at young men who threw rocks and incendiary bombs.

“It was the first time I saw that kind of violence in the camp,” said Mohammed Salah, 32.

On Wednesday night, clashes spread across neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Rising tensions in Jerusalem are fueled by increasing violence in the West Bank, where more than 120 Palestinians have been killed so far in 2022 — the deadliest round of fighting in seven years.

Clashes have escalated since a series of Palestinian attacks killed 19 people in Israel last spring. Israel says most of the Palestinians killed are militants. But youths who threw rocks protesting the raids, and others not involved in fighting, have also been killed.

Palestinians want the occupied West Bank and Gaza as territories for their future state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. But adjacent to the Shuafat refugee camp and other Palestinian enclaves in Jerusalem, Israel has built Jewish settlements that are home to some 220,000 people.

The Israeli police said Friday it is calling up reserve units of the Border Police — a paramilitary force known for using tough tactics to quell Palestinian unrest.

“The fighters will continue to crack down and use all sophisticated means against public order violators,” said Amir Cohen, the commander of the Border Police.

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