A bronze statue cracked in two with an olive tree growing in the center stands beyond the entrance of the Jabel Mukaber neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The “Tolerance Monument” includes an engraving: In solidarity and tolerance—in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Yet, a half a mile past the statue commissioned by a Polish businessman to honor a desired co-existence between the Palestinian neighborhood and the East Jerusalem settlement of Armon HaNetziv that was built on Jabel Mukaber’s land, is the first of three new Israeli checkpoints installed over the past week as part of a series of emergency measures passed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring security over Jerusalem.
For the 30,000 Palestinian residents of Jabel Mukaber, the new checkpoints— along with a new wall being constructed in the center of town, cement roadblocks suspending vehicle traffic and a border police force deployed throughout the neighborhood—have made a militarized enclave of the quiet hilltop town with a view from Tel Aviv to Jordan.
Since the beginning of October Israeli forces killed more than 50 Palestinians, and Palestinians killed ten Israelis in violence that Palestinian protesters and media—but scantly anyone else—are calling a “third Intifada” or uprising. Four of the alleged Palestinian attackers came from Jabel Mukaber, making the neighborhood home to more Palestinians accused of killing Israelis over recent weeks than any other area of East Jerusalem. And one of the attacks was especially grisly: on an Israeli bus, Bahaa Alian, 22, and Bilal Abu-Ghanem, 23, allegedly killed three Israelis and wounded 15. Israeli authorities killed Alian and two more alleged attackers from Jabel Mukaber, and shot and arrested the Abu-Ghanem.
What also makes Jabel Mukaber stand out from other Palestinian neighborhoods is that it is spacious. Large swaths of the town are zoned by the municipality as green spaces and housing construction is forbidden. While narrow and windy roads in the old section of the city date back nearly 2,000 years, most stand alone houses are have spacious yards with groves of olive trees.
At the same time, ringing the top of Jabel Mukabar and strategically located in the center of the township are Israeli settlements. Residents told me of instances over the past few weeks where settlers descended from the hilltop to walk through the Palestinian streets. The acts were perceived as provocations. In turn, Palestinians likely from Jabel Mukaber, have thrown stones and molotov cocktails at the same settlements.
“In my experience, they will come anytime they want and no one will stop them,” Mohammed Ashqir, 18, said of Israeli police who arrested five of his friends in nighttime raids over the past two weeks. Four were arrested on suspicion of throwing stones and molotov cocktails, and a fifth friend, Ashqir said, was arrested on charges of posting messages of “incitement” on social media.
Ashqir too was arrested last year on charges of throwing stones at Israelis. He was 17 and spent a week in jail.
“If it continues like this with the occupation, and the wall and the settlers inside our neighborhood,” Ashqir said, the wave of violence will boil over to a full fledged “Intifada.”
For the moment, Ashqir said the attacks from his neighbors on Israelis are an “inevitable” continuation and “outcome of events” that began last year “when Mohammed Abu Khdeir was killed.” Abu Khdeir was a 16-year old from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat who was abducted and burned alive by Israeli extremists in July 2014.
After Abu Khdeir’s killing two residents from Jabal Mukaber—cousins Ghassan, 32, and Uday, 22, Abu Jamal—killed five Israelis in a bloody morning attack last summer inside of a north Jerusalem synagogue.
One of the alleged Palestinian attackers from the violence this month was a cousin of the Abu Jamals.
Daily, Ashqir and his childhood friend and neighbor Ahmed Kamwer, 18, triangulate across the web of East Jerusalem closures and checkpoints to reach Abu Dis University where they both are students. Ashqir studies sociology and Kamwer majors in special education.
When construction for Israel’s separation wall began in 2000, the Israeli military built a dirt hill barrier on the eastern side of Jabal Mukaber, separating the Palestinian town from Abu Dis University. By 2006 the wall was completed on the entire side of Jabal Mukaber that buffers the West Bank. What was once a small army crossing had become a full scale checkpoint equipped with metal turn stops.
“It has become so stressful because any wrong move from us, there is a possibility they could shoot us,” Kamwer said of the Israeli forces that line their commute to school.
“The first thing is, I take the bus from my house to the checkpoint, and then I cross the checkpoint by foot, then I take a taxi to the university,” said Kamwer. Yet with the new checkpoints in Jabel Mukaber, some days traffic fills up the one-mile stretch from the hilltop town to the center of Jerusalem.
In other areas of Jerusalem, the checkpoints have prevented ambulances from quickly transporting patients. In the neighboring Palestinian quarter of At-Tur, one checkpoint is positioned between two branches of the Augusta Victoria hospital. Last week, an elderly Palestinian woman died while in transit when ambulance was delayed one-hour by the checkpoint.
But over the past month, both have limited their movements. “I leave work and go home as soon as possible,” Ashqir said, explaining up until last month he used to take a roundabout bus route that stops in Jerusalem’s Old City for a bit of leisure downtown.
Like many Palestinians from Jabel Mukaber, Ashqir is employed by Israelis. Seventy-seven percent of the town’s work force are laborers in the Israeli sector. Ashqir cleans offices in the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot and works in landscaping at a public park near the Knesset in central Jerusalem on weekends. Although he added, “It’s barely enough to pay for me to afford school.”
At the park, Ashqir’s days are long, nine straight hours of labor. In the mornings a Palestinian foreman picks him up and drives him to the garden. The car ride is to avoid checkpoint stops that would otherwise happen if he were on foot, where soldiers force Jabel Mukaber’s residents to lift up their shirts, or remove them all-together.
Although once at the garden, Ashqir’s hometown’s reputation as the home to six Palestinian attackers over the past year follows him.
“It began when people knew I was from Jabel Mukaber,” he said, describing one night in recent weeks when a mob of Israelis chanting “Death to Arabs” through the streets of West Jerusalem caught word that a worker from that area was in the park. He went home scared that night, but he has had the job for four years and is not thinking about quitting despite the new dangers that come with going about daily life, with a Jabel Mukaber address.