For some Palestinian sweethearts, there’s only one place to live.
It’s an unremarkable suburb, crisscrossed by thin muddy streets and dotted with high-rise apartment blocks that cling to the steep hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Many of Kafr Aqab’s residents would prefer not to be there, especially as the congested neighbourhood has swelled rapidly in size. They would prefer to live in quieter Palestinian villages surrounded by olive groves, or the more coveted new builds in the centre of the holy city.
“I’m forced to live here,” says Issa Kusbeh, 41, a plumber who lives with his wife and small children in Kafr Aqab but dreams of being closer to his extended family. Yet on his floor in a new block of flats that is still being built, everyone is there for the same reason: love.
Under Israel’s chaotically complex occupation, Palestinians are divided into multiple categories, often dictated by where they reside. Near the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy are Palestinians in Jerusalem, a city that Israel has annexed in its entirety and claims is “undivided”. They are eligible for Israeli services and can travel in the country, although they cannot vote or be full citizens.
Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank are lower down the permit ranking and unable to easily travel into Jerusalem. As a consequence, a Palestinian from Jerusalem who falls in love with a West Bank resident and moves in with them risks losing their precious residency status.
Kafr Aqab is the answer to this conundrum. Israel considers it part of Jerusalem, but in response to the suicide bombings of the second Palestinian intifada in the early 2000s, it isolated the neighbourhood, separating it from the city proper with a concrete barrier. The area’s denizens now live in limbo – they are technically inside Jerusalem but physically in the Palestinian territories.
This contradictory status creates a loophole, allowing Palestinians, to live in the West Bank without losing precious Jerusalem residency permits, while others blocked from entry to Jerusalem can also settle there.
Kusbeh is a Jerusalem resident. He pays taxes to the Israeli authorities and, in return, he receives medical and social care and can send his children to state schools. But his wife is from a village near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
For the first seven years of their relationship, his wife was not allowed to enter Jerusalem. “It’s hard for the people of the West Bank,” he says. “But I could not go to Ramallah to live with her, or I would lose my Jerusalem ID.”
After a lengthy process, his wife now has a rolling permit to enter Jerusalem, but like many other couples, they chose to stay in Kafr Aqab, rather than moving to more expensive Jerusalem neighbourhoods across the wall.
Ibrahim Khalifeh, another local, has a similar story. The 49-year-old married a Jerusalemite and eventually gained residency himself. But they also chose to stay. “I could have lived in Jerusalem,” he says. But he says residing in Kafr Aqab avoids having to cross Israeli military checkpoints every day, and apartments are much cheaper.
When he arrived 25 years ago, the suburb was a village. “Now it’s a city,” he says. Exact population figures are unavailable. Estimates range between 100,000 and 150,000 and many have Jerusalem identification cards.
Living in two places at once is no blessing, residents say. The dual status means neither the Israeli government or West Bank-based Palestinian leadership fully takes care of the sprawling neighbourhood.
Israeli workers rarely venture in to clean the streets, put out fires or fix roads, while the Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction. With little police presence, guns and drugs are commonplace.
Above all, there are constant rumours around whether Israel will rip down the wall to formally include Kafr Aqab into the city, or give up the area by deciding overnight that all the Palestinians living there are no longer eligible for Jerusalem identification cards.
The latest Khalifeh heard was that the wall would remain, but its direction would be changed to cut the area in half. “We hear talk,” he says.