Abandoned in Jerusalem

Yehudit Oppenheimer/ previously published at Haaretz | PNN MARCH 4 2012

The horrifying accident that took place near the Adam roadblock north of Jerusalem last month, in which six Palestinian children and their teacher were killed, and dozens of other children were injured, raises a great many questions. The racist remarks and the schadenfreude that were documented by visitors to the Facebook page of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the tragedy are indeed shocking. What is no less shocking is that the Prime Minister’s Bureau did not hasten to remove them. But the ongoing preoccupation with such reactions deflects attention from a much more substantive issue – the unbearable existential situation with which the residents of this section of Jerusalem are forced to contend on a daily basis and the way in which Israeli authorities completely ignore their living conditions.

It seems that Israel, which is quick to send emergency teams to any humanitarian disaster in the far reaches of the world, was in no hurry to help this time, when disaster struck in its backyard, on the road between the Adam and Qalandiyah roadblocks. This thoroughfare, contrary to the impression that the authorities tried to create, is in the heart of Area C, and thus under full Israeli administrative and security responsibility. But, despite the close proximity of the accident to several Israeli communities and to a military checkpoint – it took more than 20 minutes for emergency crews to arrive, by which point Palestinian passersby had extinguished the fire.

But even more serious questions need to be addressed, beyond the specific handling of the event itself, about the circumstances surrounding it. About half of the children in the bus, which caught fire after it was struck by a truck, were Jerusalem residents who live in the vicinity of the Shoafat refugee camp, in neighborhoods that are within the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem municipality. The building of the separation barrier nearly a decade ago left these neighborhoods outside of the fence and turned them into crowded and neglected enclaves, for which the authorities in general, and the Jerusalem municipality in particular, have relinquished responsibility.

As a result, the infrastructures and services in these neighborhoods – Shoafat camp, Dahiyat al-Salam, Ras Hamis, New Anata – in which more than 35,000 people live in unbearably crowded conditions, are on the verge of collapse. These neighborhoods have no emergency services whatsoever, neither medical first aid nor firefighting services. So when the children, pupils from a private school on their way to a school trip, were trapped in a burning bus, their communities could not dispatch even a single fire engine or medical crew to help them.

Moreover it must be asked why children of Jerusalem families, most of which have difficulties making ends meet, need to study in a private school outside the boundaries of the city. Have their parents really chosen to give them a private education, or is it because of the bitter truth that all these crowded neighborhoods are served by a single municipal primary school, and the conditions there – the structure is a former sheep pen, and is close to what was until recently an operating and polluting factory – also have been described by professionals as being unsuitable?

Just to be clear: In the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, private education is not necessarily synonymous with high quality. In many cases, rather, we are talking about semi-pirate initiatives that are not supervised and have no obligation to uphold even minimal standards, either in terms of the level of education or even of safety.

Of course, it is possible to place the blame for the high rate of dead and injured in the recent accident on the school principal, who filled up one bus with more than 60 children, and this suspicion has to be investigated. But neither Jerusalem city hall nor Israel’s Education Ministry can deny that they have an obligation to provide Jerusalem children with a decent and suitable education that endangers neither their lives or their future.

This accident raises too many difficult questions for the Israeli policy makers who have allowed urban neighborhoods that were once an integral part of East Jerusalem to be turned into cut-off and abandoned locales whose condition is deteriorating rapidly from day to day. The attempt to fix the boundaries of Jerusalem through unilateral steps, rather than agreed-upon political negotiations, has created enclaves that are constantly in peril. In general, the almost 70,000 Palestinian residents of neighborhoods beyond the separation fence but still within Jerusalem’s jurisdiction (in the areas of Shoafat in the northeast and in the Qalandiyah area in the north ) live under inhuman conditions today.

For them, an even greater humanitarian disaster is only a matter of time.

Yehudit Oppenheimer is the director-general of the NGO Ir Amim, which is dedicated to establishing an egalitarian and stable Jerusalem with a negotiated political future.

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