Neighborhoods are engulfed by urban sprawl everywhere. In Jerusalem, this includes some Arab villages which, as the city surrounds them, become part of the municipality. One such village is Jabel Mukabber.
I first heard of Jabel Mukabber when I was spending my junior year of college at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At that time I renewed my ties with the Conservative synagogue in East Talpiot, the congregation I had attended four years earlier as a participant on Akiba Hebrew Academy’s semester program abroad. Jabel Mukabber bordered some of my friends’ homes in East Talpiot and a few months into my junior year, the (first) Intifada broke out. I found myself living in a border neighborhood with several of my friends’ homes being attacked by rocks, Molotov cocktails and worse.
In an old issue of Temple Beth Shalom’s “Temple Talk” a letter that I wrote in January 1988 describes the scene:
“Last week a friend of mine, a mother of five, and her eighteen-year old daughter were attacked. They were in their Jerusalem home, only a few blocks from my own apartment, when ten year olds threw rocks through their windows. Fifty ten year olds.”
It has been many years since then and for most of that time Jabel Mukabber’s residents have lived peacefully with the Jewish neighbors next door. The residents of Jabel Mukabber shop in the supermarket, use the post office and health clinic in East Talpiot. Many of them work in Jewish areas of Jerusalem and take advantage of the Jerusalem Peace Forest and the picturesque Promenade adjacent to their village.
Last month I received an e-mail inviting me to the neighborhood I have lived next to for years, but which I have never entered. It read:
Help us to save
Jabel Mukabber !!!
The Separation Wall as currently planned will
split our village, divide our families and ruin our lives.
An alternate route would leave the village together.
Let’s show that Arabs and Jews can
live together without fear.
The residents and mukhtars of Jabel Mukabber
Invite all Israelis to us
for a visit, tour and home hospitality,
calling for an end to antagonism and
a future based on mutual respect.
Appropriate for the whole family, religious and secular as well.
The invitation was signed by an organization calling itself Neighbors for Neighbors with their contact information.
I thought, “How can I refuse an invitation like that?” I wanted to find out more. So I went.
I had never been beyond the outskirts of the village and was surprised how vast it was. Our Arab hosts were also surprised at the vast response of their Jewish neighbors. About 250 people had come to learn what was happening and to show that we care about the neighborhood next door.
We were taken to Sheikh Sa’ed , one of Jabel Mukabber’s seven neighborhoods. This one neighborhood of about 1700 people sits on a hill adjacent to the rest of the village. The four extended families who live here, span both Sheikh Sa’ed and Jabel Mukabber’s other six neighborhoods. The majority of the residents are Israeli citizens. Their electricity, water and utilities all come from Israel. Yet, the plans for the separation fence, a tall solid cement wall within Jerusalem, is going to cut through Jabel Mukabber and separate Sheikh Sa’ed from the other neighborhoods of the village. Dividing the city and its citizens.
As the people opened up their homes, I learned that the wall will divide families. It will divide children from the secondary school. It will cut off people from the only medical clinic close by, from jobs and hospitals in Jerusalem.
Enjoying the hospitality of my neighbors, sitting, drinking coffee with a clear view of the wall rolling down the next hill towards the village, I saw that while the neighborhood is adjacent to Jerusalem on one side, on the other side there is nothing but desert with deep valleys and the only access is a mule trail down a steep hill. Should the wall go up where it is slated, the residents of Sheikh Sa’ed, even those who are Israeli citizens will have to travel to distant checkpoints and then travel back on the other side of the wall just to get to the next neighborhood within their village – They will need to travel an hour each way to see friends and family who live only a few feet away.
The residents are petitioning the courts to simply divert the wall into the roadless desolate valley around their neighborhood. One resident started to tell me of a retired Israeli military expert who spent a lot of time in the neighborhood. The expert testified that it would actually be more secure if the barrier went outside Sheikh Saed. Our host was delighted and excited when a woman sitting next to me identified herself as the officer’s sister, a man he clearly respected. She interjected, saying how her brother had served in Rafiah in Gaza and claimed that before the army went in, it was a peaceful neighborhood.
But one does not have to be a military expert to see how diverting the wall around one hill will improve the quality of life for thousands of people – both Arab and Jew. A little forethought will prevent lives whose quality is already substandard not to deteriorate further. In turn, tensions will not have another reason to flare as they have on occasion when outsiders incited (and paid) the locals.
I went to Jabel Mukabber to learn about our neighbors, to see “the other side.” As I walked up the hill from the end of the neighborhood, the Israeli military guard tower erected about six months ago, dividing Sheikh Saed from the rest of Jabel Mukabber, stood looming on the horizon where the wall is slated to be erected. My perspective changed. Suddenly I felt “the other side” staring down at me.
A car passed me giving a lift to two other visitors sparing them the steep climb up the hill.
I took a snapshot.
The image begs the question: How we as Jews want to relate to our Arab neighbors? Do we want to impose our military presence, like the tower dividing families and services – or do we, as the man pictured, wearing a kippah in the back seat of a car with Palestinian license plates, want to be neighbors, giving each other support when needed, receiving a lift when we are in need?