Graffiti decrying the mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barakat on the road leading to a protest in Beit Safafa. (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)
Both President Barack Obama and the residents of Beit Safafa village experienced the same sandstorm in Jerusalem yesterday. But that’s where the similarities end: while Obama traveled around Jerusalem to Yad Vashem and payed homage to Zionism at Theodor Herzl’s tomb, residents of the Jerusalem village came out in large numbers to protest the construction of a highway set to slice their neighborhood in half.
The plan that will run roughshod over the residents’ wishes and their physical neighborhood is a striking example of the kind of hardships that Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere routinely go through–hardships that Obama only briefly mentioned and that Palestinians endure because of unstinting American diplomatic and military support for the Israeli state.
As Obama was visiting landmark sites in Jerusalem, about 600 residents of Beit Safafa demonstrated against the planned extension of Begin Highway set to run through their village. After Friday prayers in the village, the residents marched down a road to the construction site of the highway, which is already underway despite the vociferous objections of the villagers. The villagers rhythmically clapped as they marched. The demonstrators chanted in Arabic, “Everyone says no to Obama” and “In blood and in spirit, we’ll get back Beit Safafa,” and the chants became louder as they passed under a tunnel on their way to a construction site. Young boys sat on other residents’ shoulders and some of them waved Palestinian flags as they loudly proclaimed their objections to the planned highway. The highway will cut off easy access to the village mosque and bakery, and will also make it difficult for family members who live in the same village to visit each other. Opponents of the highway say that highway does not need to be built right through their village; instead, a tunnel can be built that would serve the same purpose.
Palestinian residents of Beit Safafa protest near the construction site of a highway that will slice their village in two (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)
For three months, the residents of Beit Safafa have done their best to throw up roadblocks to the plan for the highway, which they say will cut their neighborhood in two and will not serve them. A fact sheet on the plan from Ir Amin, an organization that advocates for an equitable political solution in Jerusalem, states that “massive construction is currently underway to transform an internal road into a six-lane highway. The new road will slice the neighborhood in two, cut
off its internal roads and completely alter the character of this quiet community while creating a grave environmental threat for its inhabitants.” Plans for the highway date back to 1990, but it is only now that construction has started.
The highway will serve illegal Jewish-only settlements that surround Beit Safafa. It’s all part of a larger plan to fortify “Greater Jerusalem,” and residents are seeking to stop the construction with the demonstrations and court cases against the highway.
“This will damage and destroy our village,” said Ala Salman, a village resident and key organizer of the protests in Beit Safafa, in an interview while the sounds of Friday prayers were clearly heard around us. It’s like “48 never ended,” chimed in Ruth, an Israeli activist who also attended the demonstration. A group of about 15 Israeli activists were there to show solidarity with the village. Salman added that the highway will make the village look “like the West Bank,” a reference to the separation barrier that juts into the occupied West Bank.
The demonstrations, organized by both women and men from the village, have taken place in Beit Safafa, in front of the Knesset and in front of the Jerusalem municipality hall. The spirited demonstrations are a departure from the usual tranquilness of the village. Beit Safafa is a village known to be friendly to Jewish Israeli residents of Jerusalem. It plays host to a few schools that promote coexistence between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. But the highway threatens to tear the neighborhood in part. And it’s also not the first time roads and highways have sliced and diced the village. According to Aviv Tatarsky, a field researcher for Ir Amin who was present at the demonstration, a road that leads to the settlement of Gilo has previously sliced parts of the village.
The Israeli authorities have responded harshly to the protests. At one point, Jerusalem police demanded that villagers request permission from the city council to protest at a square–a request that the Association of Civil Rights in Israel says is illegal. But the illegal request for permission is the least of the villagers’ worries.
They have had to contend with beatings, arrests and harassment. In February, Haaretz reported that Israeli income tax authorities had stepped up their activity in the village in what residents say is punishment for the demonstration. The Israeli daily also reported that officials from the Jerusalem muncipality have “handed out fines for ‘construction without permits’ – for edifices, including a canopy for instance, that had been there for ten or 15 years.” And while there was no police violence at the demonstration yesterday, that has not always been the case. In early March, +972 Magazine’s Mairav Zonszein reported that at one protest in Beit Safafa, “police exerted excessive force, using stun grenades gas, tasers and pepper spray, violently arresting eight people and injuring 10.” One of the people arrested, according to Zonszein’s report, was a minor.
Salman, a protest organizer, says that the demonstrations “will go on. We’re tired but we will go on.” Besides the demonstrations, court cases have sought to stop the highway.
An initial appeal against the Begin Highway, or Road 4, in February was rejected by the Jerusalem District Court. The court accepted the Jerusalem municipality’s reasoning for why the highway plans can go through, despite the residents saying that they did not have the opportunity to raise objections about Road 4. And earlier in the week, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition to stop work on the highway. The High Court said that a “stop work” order would be too costly for the state, though the judge ordered the Jerusalem District Court to hear another appeal against the highway that has been filed. The Jerusalem District Court will decide on the case after Passover, according to village resident and protest organizer Ala Salman.
The highway is the latest division that Beit Safafa has had to experience. After the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, the village was divided in two–one side controlled by the Israelis, and the other side by the Jordanians. In 1967, the whole city of Jerusalem came under Israeli control, and some of the residents obtained Israeli citizenship while others received Jerusalem ID cards.
The Begin Highway extension is part of the slow but deliberate Israeli plan to build a “Greater Jerusalem,” which refers to plans for the city’s expansion to encompass the illegal settlements that ring around Jerusalem. This has been a long-standing Israeli plan ever since the 1967 war. “I say frankly that we have to do everything within our power to make Greater Jerusalem the largest Jewish city in the world, a real Jewish city, both in terms of the population numbers and in giving a permanent Jewish character to the whole city,” the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Rabbi Cohen, said in 1967. While legislation has been introduced to enshrine “Greater Jerusalem” into law, the bills have yet to be passed.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also made clear his support for “Greater Jerusalem.” “Efrat and Gush Etzion are an integral, elementary and evident part of Greater Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said in August 2012. “They are the southern gates of Jerusalem and will always be part of the State of Israel. We are building Efrat and Gush Etzion with enthusiasm, faith and responsibility,” the prime minister said. Both Efrat and Gush Etzion are illegal settlements. Including settlements around the city as part of a “Greater Jerusalem” is beneficial to Israel in terms of demography and politics–it allows Israel to claim more Jews in the holy city while making it difficult to divide the city as part of an eventual two-state settlement.
The highway in Beit Safafa is meant to create “one continuous stretch of highway from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of the city to the Givat Ze’ev settlement bloc to the north,” according to Ir Amin. “It would ultimately link the West Bank’s two most controversial highways: the Tunnel Road connecting Gush Etzion to Jerusalem in the south and Road 443, designed to route settler traffic north of the city to Tel Aviv while denying access to Palestinians.”
The highway’s clear purpose is to make access to Jerusalem easier for settlers that live outside the actual city limits. The intention of the road is that “geopolitically, you can increase settlements… say its a strategic road, [say] you can’t give it up,” commented Ir Amin’s Tatarsky. “This is changing the geography and the demography. It doesn’t even matter what the intention is. But what the result will be [is]: you have more settlements in the West Bank, it’s more connected to Jerusalem, so creating any political change becomes more difficult.”
The Israeli activist Ruth, who joined the demonstration, summed up the intention of the highway extension bluntly: “When you’re talking about cement, it’s almost like not just the physical cement, it’s a metaphorical cement. They’re cementing this idea that it’ll always stay a united Jerusalem.”