Wealthy Palestinians face absurd, futile scenario

KAFER AKEB, WEST BANK — This is a story about car keys, a blue identity card and a lose-lose situation.

This is the story of the 15,000 residents of Kafer Akeb and their fellow Palestinian residents of Jerusalem — and the price they pay for ongoing Palestinian terrorism.

They are Israeli residents on paper, Palestinians in real life and caught in the middle of a war, though they are neither soldiers nor terrorists.

Geographically, Kafer Akeb is a wealthy suburb of Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority. But on the map it is part of the long, narrow finger of Jerusalem's municipal boundaries running some 12 miles to the north of Mount Scopus, to the southern edge of Ramallah.

For all intents and purposes, Kafer Akeb is part of Israel. Its residents hold blue Israeli identity cards, like all Israelis, though they are not Israeli citizens. They pay city taxes and receive social insurance, they are entitled to Israeli medical services, and the Jerusalem municipality should collect their garbage — if its workers are brave enough to venture so close to Ramallah.

For years, Kafer Akeb residents have commuted to Jerusalem for work. Many became wealthy and the suburb grew bigger and richer, with spacious housing, wide roads and well-educated, well-dressed children.

The residents enjoyed all the benefits of being Israeli — yet they continued to identify proudly as Palestinians.

But then came the intifada and the growing number of terror attacks on Israel. The security experts looked at the map and decided to place a checkpost just south of the Kalandiya refugee camp — and its wealthy neighbor, Kafer Akeb.

For many months, Samih Abu-Rmeileh, 35, kept his job as a foreman at a construction site in Jerusalem. He was among a privileged few Palestinians who were able to enjoy the benefit of working for decent pay legally, as a full Israeli citizen.

But the checkpoints between Kafer Akeb and Jerusalem made life impossible for Abu-Rmeileh and his fellow residents. In order to reach his job, Abu-Rmeileh had to pass the newly established checkpoint at Kalandiya, as well as the a-Ram checkpoint farther down the road.

Since terror attacks have escalated in recent months, the scene at the checkpoints has become almost unbearable. Hundreds of cars line up, with the average waiting time to pass each checkpost at least two hours.

Jerusalem now is encircled with 11 such checkpoints in a desperate effort to stop suicide bombers and other terrorists from entering the capital.

Here is how it goes: After two hours, the Palestinian car finally reaches the checkpoint. The car is required to stop about 20 yards from the soldiers, to prevent the possibility of a suicide bombing.

The driver is required to step out of the car and pull up his shirt to show that he isn't wearing an explosive belt. He then walks to the soldiers and hands in his Israeli ID card, as holders of West Bank IDs are banned from entering the city altogether.

Once identified, the driver walks back to his car and drives up to the checkpost for a security inspection. Each inspection lasts at least 10 minutes, and the line of cars grows longer by the minute.

Abu-Rmeileh ultimately lost his patience. Last month he quit his construction job in Jerusalem, and is trying to start his own business, selling made-in-Ramallah hot dogs to Jerusalem customers.

Abu-Rmeileh is a pragmatist. He identifies himself as a member of Peace Now.

"I see the political solution eye-to-eye with my friends in Peace Now, and I want the Israelis to know that they still have friends here," he says. "Just end the occupation."

But in recent weeks, since Israel's current military offensive began in the West Bank, the situation has become even more real and painful, even for the Israeli residents of Kafer Akeb.

It was high noon on Tuesday when Issam Abu-Rmeileh, Samih's cousin, stopped his car at a suspiciously empty street in the heart of Kafer Akeb and ordered his children to go straight home.

Before he knew it, an Israeli army patrol stopped by his car. He was ordered to step out and hand his keys to the soldiers; his ID card was confiscated, he says.

For a Palestinian, it's easier to move around the West Bank without your car keys than without an ID card. A Palestinian without an ID is considered a potential terrorist, and could find himself jailed.

The soldiers explained to Issam Abu-Rmeileh that they took his ID because he violated the curfew imposed on the city, he says.

"Yes, but this is part of Israel," he protested. The soldiers, however, could not tell the difference between Kafer Akeb and the adjacent street, which is part of Ramallah — which indeed was still under full military curfew.

Issam Abu-Rmeileh now began the odyssey of trying to retrieve his car keys and his Israeli ID. He stopped a border police patrol passing through the neighborhood's main street to ask the soldiers what to do.

"Go to the nearest police station and report the loss," the soldiers advised him — though the nearest police station is in Jerusalem. The only way Issam Abu-Rmeileh is likely to get there is as a prisoner.

Issam Abu-Rmeileh was furious.

"How can they do this to me?" he cried, his eyes burning with rage.

"No, I have no understanding for Israel's security concerns," he said. "None of the residents of this neighborhood have ever been involved in terrorist attacks, so why do they make us hate you?"

Yet he and others say they don't dare call on their fellow Palestinians to stop terrorism, which likely would result in an easing of the checkpoints.

A similar scene unfolds at the southern tip of the capital, at the Ras Al-Amud checkpost, where hundreds of cars wait impatiently for hours.

Raja Mukahal, an Israeli Arab from the Galilee town of Shfaram, could not bear the humiliation of being ordered to pull up his shirt before approaching the checkpost. He tried to protest, but the orders were firm.

Mukahal was forced to make a difficult choice: If he refused, he stood the chance of being stuck there, holding up the queue for hours, or even being shot.

So he obeyed, protesting.

"They don't know what this humiliation is doing to the people, it only increases hatred even more," he said.

"You really think a terrorist would stand in line to be checked by soldiers?" he asked. "A terrorist has 1,001 alternative ways to enter the city, without being checked."

As Mukahal was talking, dozens of cars quit the main road to a side dirt road and bypassed the checkpoint. A passing border police patrol ignored the rebellious drivers, as if acknowledging a lose-lose situation: They know the checkpoints are not very efficient, yet they are necessary, if only to prevent the entrance of one potential suicide bomber.

"You people avoid the streets for fear of suicide bombers. We avoid the checkpoints for fear of losing time and our dignity," Issam Abu-Rmeileh said. "Ninety-five percent of the people, innocent people, pay the price of 5 percent of trouble makers. This is the story of our peoples in a nutshell."

At the time this story was filed, Issam Abu-Rmeileh still was looking for his missing keys, and his lost dignity.

But Jewish residents of Jerusalem marked a day — all too rare, lately — with no terrorist attack.