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The tax siege of Shu'fat refugee camp

Feb. 22, 2010 4:47 P.M. (Updated: June 7, 2010 2:54 P.M.)
By: Soraya Bauwens-Nuseibeh
By Soraya Bauwens-Nuseibeh

Jerusalem – Ma'an – The scene greeting those entering the Shu'fat refugee camp is one of severe dilapidation, its streets overwhelmed by its closed-in residents.

Children are making their way home from school, passing through the Israeli military checkpoint at the camp's entrance.

Two weeks ago, this East Jerusalem camp was the site of fierce confrontations as Israeli forces and police launched a three-day search-and-arrest operation throughout the camp and its environs, Ras Khamis, Dahiyet As-Salam, and Ras Shahada.

UNWRA estimates the number of those detained between the start of the operation and clashes at 92. At the time, the Israeli police said the events did not seem out of the ordinary.

Israeli media reported that municipal workers and inspectors joined Israeli forces on the raid, to handle safety hazards, various infrastructure works, and other municipal matters. Tax evasion, it was reported, was the impetus.

"This had nothing to do with taxes ... but that was the pretense," said the head of the committee against the wall and settlements in Shu’fat’s refugee camp, Al-Munasiq. "This was an operation undertaken to terrorize the younger generation of the camp – those detained were selected because of their age."

He speaks on the condition of anonymity, Al-Munasiq is not his real name. His son was among what he estimates as 60 detained during the raid on the first evening, all under the age of 18, save one, he said.

As of 17 February, seven remained in Israeli custody and three Palestinians were detained at night. The night raids continued, despite the official end of the incursion.

"Fifty masked men entered my home. I thought they were coming for me." They had, in fact, come for his son, a minor. "They took him from his room, without a warrant or any papers to say why he was being arrested."

In the surrounding areas, Al-Munasiq says he cannot be sure of the number of detentions. "Maybe 80, maybe more." However, 500 Palestinians with West Bank ID cards, caught between Israel’s municipal borders and the separation wall, were detained for failing to have work permits, he said.

During the early morning hours of 8 February, 1,000 Israeli soldiers entered the camp to install 70 meters of asphalt, he said. "That’s it. Municipal staff were ensconced outside the camp, waiting and checking everyone who left through the checkpoint, and served residents with ad-hoc notices to pay bills for services provided by the municipality."

People were afraid to leave, in part because of the ongoing clashes – in which one young boy was shot in the leg by a rubber-coated bullet – but also from fear of being fined for services the municipality claimed to be providing in the camp, said Al-Munasiq.

The Shu’fat refugee camp falls within the Israeli Jerusalem Municipality's borders, despite being sectioned off by the wall. The planned construction route of the wall will eventually relegate the camp to territory in the West Bank, in order to remove its Palestinian population from the rest of Jerusalem.

In 1965, the camp’s residents were relocated to Shu'fat from the Mascar refugee camp in the Old City of Jerusalem – now the Jewish Quarter – by UNRWA on leased Jordanian land, citing unsanitary conditions. Its residents are among those displaced by the 1948 war from a host of Jerusalem villages as well as Lydd, Jaffa and Ramleh. Many consider this second displacement a "gift" from King Hussein to the new Jewish state.

UNRWA provides the bulk of the services within the camp, including rubbish collection and schooling. Additionally, the Palestinian-owned Jerusalem Electricity Company provides for the camp. Access to water remains a bone of contention due to a disagreement between UNRWA and Israel over who should foot the bill. The camp is not connected to a public sewage system. The pot-holed streets and the state of general disrepair indicate a lack of municipal services.

"Perhaps more than anywhere else in Jerusalem, this is an area where Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem is the most fictitious," wrote the Israeli NGO Ir Amim in a 2006 report on the camp.

A Palestinian lawyer in Jerusalem, who also wished to remain anonymous, explained: "During a tax or debt crackdown, municipal staff, bailiffs, and police – of course Israeli forces in Palestinian areas – will arrive at a home with a warrant detailing the amount of taxes owed for municipal services or debt."

He adds: "Electrical goods, white appliances are generally confiscated, which are later sold off at auction to make up for the debt. This was a frequent occurrence in the West Bank before the Oslo Accords."

Al-Munasiq said no such warrants were handed to residents in their homes, nor were any goods confiscated during the raids.

Looking at an article from the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv he laughs: The article alleges that the camp’s residents would willingly sing the Israeli national anthem, HaTikva, three times a day, in exchange for municipal services. "Can you believe it? As though we could be bought off! No one here is willing to sing HaTikva. We are Palestinian and we will always stand by and promote our culture, our heritage. Nothing can deter us from this."

He adds: "This is an attempt to divide Jerusalem, to stop us from feeling as though we are a part of the city. Just as they bring settlers to Silwan and close shops in Bab Al-Oumoud [in the Old City], here they are trying to ensure that whole chunks of the population are distanced from the city."

The Jerusalem Municipality declined to comment on the recent events in Shu'fat.

All of the camp's approximately 22,000 residents hold Israeli IDs, but the wall’s boundaries have “killed daily life,” he said. The camp lacks schools, has no hospitals. Employment is scarce and poverty is on the rise. UNWRA says overcrowding in the camp is a significant issue.

"We can’t even bury our people here," Al-Munasiq said.

"They wanted to teach us a lesson but, thankfully, that lesson has not been learned."

The raid’s impetus remains unclear. Palestinian security sources have speculated that, given the ages and number of those detained, the operation looked like an attempt to break up a series of resistance cells. From initial Palestinian media reports, Salafi and Fatah members were among those detained.

Taxes or not, the events at the Shu'fat refugee camp highlight an ongoing source of controversy in occupied East Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Municipality.

The lawyer points out: "Some of the poorest areas in East Jerusalem, like At-Tor – a slum by any standards – has one of the highest tax brackets for arnona [property tax] in the city, ranging anywhere between 20,000 to 30,000 shekels."

An ongoing planning crisis faced by Palestinians has led to the demolition of homes across East Jerusalem, with the municipality citing a failure of owners to obtain the appropriate permits, particularly in Silwan. Home evictions are rife in Sheikh Jarrah. The separation wall's route has cut several Palestinian towns in East Jerusalem in half, forcing certain areas under the municipality's scope.

Even areas considered to be more affluent neighborhoods in the occupied part of the city, like Beit Hanina, are falling victim to the Jerusalem Municipality. Two homes in the area are slated for demolition for failing to have the appropriate permits. As the number of residents increases, so do the number of illegal buildings – permits are almost unobtainable for Palestinians.

The Israeli municipality is tightening its siege on Jerusalem.
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