This Light Is Always Red

SHEIKH SA’AD, East Jerusalem — A traffic light, yet no traffic at all. In fact, a traffic light… for pedestrians only. And even they move little. There are restrictions on walking out of this village (pop. 3,000).

The 1,200 villagers who carry Palestinian identity papers have no way of crossing the barrier to leave the village. That’s a privilege reserved for the 1,800 who hold Israeli identity cards. They can cross the fence by foot, in principle. But even that can be daunting. 

This is Jerusalem’s backyard, the backyard of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem. 

Alongside the traffic light, the improvised sign reads: "Driving permitted on green alone." But the light is always red. 

Attached to the improvised light pole, other colors flutter; the blue-and- white of the Israeli flag. The checkpoint is manned by Israeli border policemen and policewomen, all in full battle gear. 

This is Sheikh Sa’ad, literally caught between a rock and a hard place. 

The village lies between Wadi Nar, the steep Biblical Kidron Valley which flanks it on three sides, and Israel’s security wall on its eastern side. A special extra segment of that fence cuts through Sheikh Sa’ad and prevents access into the Israeli-occupied part of Jerusalem, which since 1967 has been under Israeli control. 

A few years ago Israel built the security wall to keep out would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. 

That’s left the Palestinians of Sheikh Sa’ad in a double bind. They are isolated both from the rest of the West Bank that’s under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and from Jerusalem. 

Even though the Palestinian Intifadah uprising has subsided, the barriers remain intact. 

That leaves people here still arbitrarily cut off by the fence from the adjacent neighborhood, Jabel Mukaber. Unlike Sheikh Sa’ad, Jabel Mukaber falls entirely under the municipal jurisdiction of East Jerusalem. 

The people of Jabel Mukaber enjoy the services which the Israeli authorities of Jerusalem accord the Palestinians of the eastern occupied part of the city. Even if they carry Israeli IDs, their neighbors in Sheikh Sa’ad do not. 

A ruling in their favor by the Israeli High Court has not been able to alleviate the acute conditions of the residents of this isolated village. 

In March this year, the Court denied a petition to relocate the extra section of the fence that separates Sheikh Sa’ad from Jabel Mukaber to the other side of the village. But it did rule that the Israeli authorities must allow residents round-the-clock access to and from Jerusalem. 

Still, the red light remains on. It doesn’t turn green, even for ambulances or fire engines. Absurdly, emergency traffic must be coordinated in advance with the Israeli occupation authorities. 

Any commercial vehicle from Jerusalem is barred from driving through the barrier. That means all supplies must be carried in by hand by those who have permission to make the journey on foot. 

Volunteers from the NGO, MachsomWatch (Checkpoint Watch), an Israeli women’s group that monitors checkpoints, report several incidents in which pregnant women and sick infants were held up for long periods by the Israeli border guards. "They did so for absolutely no reason," Shulamit, one of the "watchers," told IPS. 

"I saw instances where women were not even allowed to pass on foot. They had to do a major roundabout detour to the hospital through the Palestinian-controlled area of the West Bank on the far side of the security wall. That takes hours." 

Ziad, a resident of Sheikh Sa’ad, recalls another case when a villager had suffered a heart attack. "We called the ambulance. It took quite a while to reach the checkpoint. Even then the guards weren’t prepared to let it through. 

"A paramedic asked to cross by foot. The guards refused even that. Eventually, he was told he could go through on his own without any of the equipment in the ambulance. By the time he finally reached the man, he’d already passed away." 

Regular health and education facilities are available to the residents of Sheikh Sa’ad, but only in Jabel Mukaber. That means they can’t reach them. 

Some of the homes in Sheikh Sa’ad are technically defined by Israel as part of Jerusalem, part of the area it annexed 43 years ago. That makes residents liable to municipal taxes. Yet they cannot drive into town — their own town by the Israeli tax book — to pay such taxes. 

A month ago, under pressure, the army finally announced that vehicles with the appropriate permit would be allowed to cross. 

Residents, however, say they have still to see the change. They plan to re-petition the court to relieve their isolation. According to their attorney, Nasser Iyyat, the military authorities have continued to mislead the court. "Since March, and despite the ruling, no vehicles are allowed through." 

If approached, the High Court may well rule again in favor of the Palestinians but, as so often in the past, military authorities might well find a way to enlist a "security" argument to ensure any such court ruling is not implemented in practice. 

"Someone in the defense establishment has clearly decided to make a mockery of the court," wrote Avi Issacharoff, in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "Where is the security threat? Everyone is hiding behind the court ruling. Somehow, though, they ignore what’s happening on the ground."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.