Restrictions on movement in Bab al-Majles in Jerusalem’s Old City place neighborhood in chokehold

Published: 
28 Feb 2016

The neighborhood of Bab al-Majles al-Islami, also known as Bab a-Nazer, is located in the very heart of Jerusalem’s Old City. It lies immediately to the east of al-Wad St., the main street which leads from Damascus Gate to the entrance to the Western Wall. Perpendicular to al-Wad St., a street about 100 meters long runs east across the neighborhood, connecting al-Wad St. to the al-Aqsa Mosque. It is a historical area where, until recently, Old City residents led rich community and cultural lives.

Police checkpoint at entrance to the Temple Mount/al-Haram a-Sharif Compound. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016
Police checkpoint at entrance to the Temple Mount/al-Haram a-Sharif Compound. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016

Some 350 people live in Bab al- Majles, and the Islamic Waqf offices are located there. It is a very small neighborhood, with two detached houses and five apartment complexes known as “Hoash”, each of which is built around an inner courtyard. Two of these complexes are populated by about 300 members of the African community whose families came from Chad, Senegal and Sudan some hundred years ago. A separate building houses a nonprofit named Al-Jaliya Al-Afriqia (the African Community), established in 1983 to provide community services to Old City residents. Until recently, the association ran after-school programs for children, as well as programs for young adults and for women. The neighborhood also has seven stores, mostly serving worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque. At the edge of the neighborhood, at the entrance to al-Aqsa, there is a permanent police checkpoint that has been there for years.v

Because the neighborhood is a major route for Muslim worshippers going to al-Aqsa Mosque, life there is impacted by what happens on the Temple Mount (al-Haram al-Qudsi a-Sharif), including access restrictions imposed on Palestinians by Israeli security forces. Over the years, Israel has usually imposed short-term restrictions following violent incidents. However, as of mid-2013, Israel has increasingly restricted the access of Muslim worshippers to the compound – in part due to a sharp rise in activities of the “Temple Mount Faithful” (an extremist Jewish group striving to eradicate Islamic presence on the Temple Mount and build the third Temple) and public action on this issue, which garnered furious responses by Palestinians.

One of the African community’s apartment complexes which was renovated a few years ago. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016
One of the African community’s apartment complexes which was renovated a few years ago. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016

The summer of 2014 saw a significant escalation in clashes between Palestinians and security forces in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. New checkpoints were placed at the entrances to Palestinian neighborhoods, including inside the Old City, and particularly on streets leading to al-Aqsa Mosque. One of these checkpoints was placed at the entrance to Bab al- Majles, on al-Wad Street; ever since, the neighborhood has been locked in between two checkpoints about 100 meters apart – the new one and the permanent one at the entrance to the Mosque.

Once the checkpoints were put in place, Israel began enforcing a new policy forbidding Muslims to enter the compound between 7:30 and 11:00 A.M., a timeslot designated by the authorities for visits by Jews. During this time, the police prevents Muslims – except neighborhood residents – from entering not only the Temple Mount compound, but the entire neighborhood. Security forces randomly prohibit Muslims from entering the neighborhood at other times as well, and even when they allow entry, those wishing to enter are sometimes subjected to strict security checks.

Police checkpoint at the entrance to the neighborhood, in place since summer 2014. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016
Police checkpoint at the entrance to the neighborhood, in place since summer 2014. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016

These restrictions have effectively sealed off the neighborhood and severely harmed its residents, the businesses operating there, and the operations of the African Community association. Residents do not know when they might be able to leave their homes or return to them, which greatly impedes their social lives. The restrictions have greatly reduced the number of Muslim worshippers passing through the neighborhood on their way to the Mosque. Other Old City residents also keep away, not knowing when they might be able to enter the neighborhood or what difficulties they may encounter, and also for fear of being caught in violent altercations. Store owners told B’Tselem’s field researcher that the loss of pedestrian traffic in the neighborhood has caused sharp drops in their sales, forcing some of them to shut down.

The African Community association, too, shut down operations in December 2015, after its volunteers and children participating in the community programs had difficulty reaching their offices. In early February, the association decided to try and resume operations.

The police checkpoints in Bab al- Majles constitute collective punishment of all neighborhood residents. They deny these residents, and Old City residents in general, any possibility of leading a reasonably normal life. However, judging by the conduct of the authorities, the extensive harm to the neighborhood, whose inhabitants are suspected of no wrongdoing, appears not to concern them and they do nothing to improve the community’s situation. Israel must remove the checkpoints and allow residents to resume their normal lives.

Testimonies

Manar Idris. Private photoTestimony of Manar Suliman ‘Abd al-Jalil Idris, 35, who ran the African Community association until Dec. 2015. Given to field researcher Mus'ab 'Abbas on 14 Dec/ 2015

I worked at the association for about eight years, in various positions, including project coordinator. In the past year I was the director, but in late 2015, I reached the conclusion that it was time to look for another job because the association was dying. Travel restrictions over the past few years, especially since October 2015, have made it gradually collapse. It started about two years ago. The settlers started going into al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Palestinian street resisted. The police put up two checkpoints in Bab al- Majles, about 100 meters apart from each other. The association is located between the two checkpoints. During the week, there are restrictions on passing through the checkpoints. Only neighborhood residents are allowed to cross, and sometimes men over age 50. There’s gender discrimination. Women aren’t allowed through at all because they say they’re all “Murabitat” – a group of women who protest the entry of settlers into al-Aqsa Mosque. On the weekend, there are fewer restrictions.

Ever since the attack on al-Wad Street in October 2015, the situation has gotten worse. Our volunteers can’t come anymore because of the checkpoints and the daily clashes between the police and the “Murabitat”. It’s become scary and parents don’t allow their children, especially girls, to come to us. We understand that it’s a big responsibility because it’s dangerous for kids to come here, so we decided to stop the programs for kids and young adults, for the sake of their safety.

The association provided services to residents of the Old City and East Jerusalem in general. We have three target groups – children, young adults, and women. Four years ago, we opened a children’s club. The kids would come after school, stay until 5:30 and get help with their homework from volunteer students, emotional support from a social worker, leisure activities, a snack, and social interaction. Forty to sixty kids aged 7 to 12 participated in this program every year. The object was to help the families and give the children emotional support and help with school work so they stayed in school and improved their grades. We focused on that because there’s a high drop-out rate in the Old City.

We also had a program called “Me X 4”, for young adults aged 16 to 24. The program focused on the issue of their national identity, with 60-80 participants a year. The program was meant to strengthen the relationship between East Jerusalem youths and Palestinian youths in other parts of the Occupied Territories. It ran for about two and a half years, and included trips to other cities and meeting youths there. The occupation has turned most cities in the West Bank into cantons and there’s a lack of connection between Palestinian youths in different places.

Another project was “’Eish al-Balad”. It ran for about three years, and was meant to enrich the cultural lives of young adults in the Old City. There were parties, personal skills courses, volunteer activities and meetings with Jerusalem figures who could serve as role models. The participants also ran leisure activities for younger kids as part of this program. There were more than 50 participants. One of our most successful projects in the last year and a half was the “neighborhood committees”. A committee was set up in every neighborhood to assess local needs and promote solutions. The committees also worked to strengthen relationships between neighborhoods. We started soccer teams in the neighborhoods. The committees decorated the Old City during Ramadan, and visited neighborhoods that were invaded by settlers to keep in touch with the residents who remain isolated there.

The sewing workshop run by the African Association, now at a standstill. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016
The sewing workshop run by the African Association, now at a standstill. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016

There were also women’s programs that provided women with a space to meet outside the home, as well as opportunities to attend classes and workshops. Three years, ago we managed to start a sewing workshop. The women sewed clothing by demand from merchants and sold them, which gave them a source of income. Fifteen women participated in the program.

In December all programs were shut down. Unfortunately, the association is now closed most of the week.

We’re going through a rough time. We don’t know what the future has in store for us under the occupation. Who does closing down the association serve? Does it serve security? When youths have no outlet, nowhere to pass the time in a positive way, where are they going to go? I think this policy increases the frustration and encourages extremism. Life in the Old City has become dark and scary. Only settlers dare to walk around here after dark. This is ethnic cleansing dressed up as security measures.

Testimony of Adam Jibril Adam Balaleh , 45, married father of seven, resident and store owner in Bab al- Majles. Given to field researcher Mus'ab 'Abbas on 19 Dec. 2015

I was born in Bab al- Majles. My wife Manal and I have seven children. The youngest is six and the eldest is 16. I worked in construction most of my life, but four years ago, I started getting back pain. I did some tests and they sent me to physiotherapy, but in the end I had to change my line of work and I started working at a restaurant on Jaffa Street. The change really hurt us financially. I had a lot of professional experience in construction after many years of work, and an excellent income. It allowed me to provide well for my family and send my kids to good schools. I also had a dream to build a bigger home, because our house is 65 square meters large and there’s no sunlight. All my dreams fell apart when I started working at the restaurant for low pay. Things got better when my wife started working. She likes embroidery, so she decided to learn sewing at the African Community association in the neighborhood. She started selling her embroidery work and got a grant from the UNDP to open a clothing store in the neighborhood, where we could sell to people visiting al-Aqsa Mosque. Our financial situation improved, so I quit the restaurant job to work in the store and my wife sewed clothes to sell there. When we saw things were going well, I opened a clothing stall next to the store and our eldest daughter started working there.

Suddenly, two years ago, things began to change. The turning point was Ramadan 2014, after Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and burnt to death by Israelis. Since then, things have been really tense. In the Old City and in our neighborhood, there was a real crackdown – checkpoints, restrictions, clashes between worshippers and police, a lot of arrests. After Ramadan of that year, there were a lot of settler invasions of buildings in the area, and daily clashes between the police and the al-Aqsa “Murabitat”.

Jibril Balaleh, 14, by his family’s stall. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016
Jibril Balaleh, 14, by his family’s stall. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016 

What makes it especially hard for us is the police checkpoint they put up 15 meters away from my store. At the other entrance to the street there’s another checkpoint, about 60 meters away from the store, so we’re basically besieged between the two and it’s very hard for people to enter the neighborhood.

Since the more recent events started, in October 2015, I can say without exaggerating that the only people who come into the neighborhood are the ones who live here. Our whole work was based on al-Aqsa visitors, so the association sewing project shut down. Since then, I can go through an entire day and earn as little as 50 shekels, which is nothing. That’s how we plunged into debt.

In addition to the difficult financial situation, the bad security situation also affects us. I worry for my children a lot. I’m afraid they’ll get into trouble with the police. Because of my debts, I had to transfer the kids to a different school that belongs to the Islamic Waqf. The program isn’t as good, but I couldn’t afford private schooling any more.

Because of the situation, I started opening the store for only a few hours a day. In the end, my sister came in to help us by watching the store, and I went back to full time work at a restaurant. My wife went back to being a housewife, because the sewing machine she used was at the association and it shut down. The future is uncertain, but it’s pretty clear that the checkpoints are here to stay. During the morning there’s an almost complete closure here, until the settlers finish their visit to al-Aqsa, and then the police sometimes open the checkpoint for an hour and a half to let people attend noon prayers. Then they close again for two hours, and then open again. Sometimes they do random searches, and sometimes thorough inspections. If this goes on even for a few more months, all the shops on the street will shut down.

Testimony of Marwan ‘Issam al-Bshiti, 45, married father of two, resident of Bab al- Majles. Given to field researcher Mus'ab 'Abbas on 25 Jan. 2016

Marwan al-BshitiI’ve lived in this house since I was born. My parents have lived here since 1967, and my wife and I live in the house next door with our children. I’ve worked in community development at the A-Thawri women’s center for more than twenty years. Life in the Old City used to be really good. We had a lot of social connections. We liked living here, in the heart of things, a few meters away from the entrance to al-Aqsa Mosque.

But in the past year and a half, everything started changing and life here has become hard, especially since they put up the checkpoint at the entrance to the Bab al- Majles neighborhood. My house is near the checkpoint that’s at the entrance to al-Aqsa Mosque, and which was recently fitted with more scanning equipment and staffed with more officers. The door of my house is right next to the checkpoint. There are always clashes between residents who want to go to al-Aqsa Mosque and police officers and Border Police officers at this checkpoint. The officers have used gas grenades a few times here, and it puts the lives of my children and my 80-year-old father at risk. We’re living under a kind of house arrest now.

They don’t let people reach their place of worship now, which is a gross violation of their rights. Also, the stores in the neighborhood have gone bankrupt, because they hardly make any money. If this goes on, the store owners won’t be able to keep them running.

Relatives and friends hardly visit us anymore. They used to visit us and pray at the mosque at the same time. People are afraid of coming to the neighborhood. The police often come into our house and our neighbors’ houses and it scares us, especially the children. One of the activities we organized in the past was a weekly meeting between Muslim and Christian elders, sometimes near al-Aqsa Mosque and sometimes in the Christian Quarter. But because of the security situation, these activities stopped. Children in the Old City have no sports fields or playgrounds, so the al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard was where they would get together and play. I, and the rest of the Old City residents, spent our childhood there. Now, the police won’t allow the children to go in the yard and play. The African Community association, which is also in the neighborhood and used to provide services to residents, has also shut down because their volunteers and teachers can’t come. They helped children do their homework and had leisure activities for them: folk dancing (dabka), and sports activities. The association shut down because of the checkpoints and the security forces. What’s going on here has a bad impact on the mental state of kids in the area, especially in the neighborhood. We feel like the future is going to get even more difficult.

Testimony of Mithal Ahmad ‘Attallah Kafr’ani, 58, divorced, resident of Bab al- Majles. Given to field researcher Mus'ab 'Abbas on 18 Dec. 2015:

I’ve lived here since 1967. We have a small house, two rooms and a small yard, and I live here with my son, Saleh, 21, my sister Rihab, 54, who is also divorced, and her daughter Nivin, 31. After our father died, my sister and I opened a store for women’s prayer clothing, because we’re so close to al-Aqsa Mosque. We made a very good living, which allowed us to pay for the children’s education.

When settlers started arriving at al-Aqsa Mosque, our income started to suffer. Our store is at the entrance to Bab al- Majles, and there was a lot of trouble right next to it. Last year, the police put up a checkpoint less than three meters away from our store. It really restricted people’s entry. Most of the time they just don’t let people through.

Rihab Kafr’ani, Mithal’s sister, by their shop. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016
Rihab Kafr’ani, Mithal’s sister, by their shop. Photo by Yoav Gross, B’Tselem 23 Feb. 2016

They especially prevent women from passing through the checkpont, claiming they are “Murabitat”. We lost our clients. Things have gotten worse since October 2015. Now they restrict residents’ movement every day, except Friday and Saturday. We rely on charity. The chokehold on the neighborhood won’t allow us to work anymore, and we have no livelihood.