Case Study

The Ghettoization of Kufr ‘Aqab


The Palestinian exclave of Kufr ‘Aqab lies between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Since Israel occupied the area in 1967, it has been transformed from a historically agricultural and modest Palestinian village into an overcrowded and dangerous city-slum of more than 90,000 residents that occupies a liminal space devoid of policing and basic municipal services. 

Kufr ‘Aqab is located 5 km south of Ramallah and 17 km north of Jerusalem, constituting the city’s northernmost neighborhood. While most of Kufr ‘Aqab lies within the Israeli municipal boundaries, placing it under the city’s legal jurisdiction, the wall runs along its southern and western sides, shutting it away from the rest of the city and from neighboring Qalandiya and al-Ram.

Before the 1967 War, Kufr ‘Aqab was a small, modest Palestinian village of less than 300 people, located on a hilltop in the southern hinterlands of Ramallah, surrounded by vast agricultural lands. In 1967, with Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, 54 percent of Kufr ‘Aqab land was forcibly enfolded into the Jerusalem municipality, which the state unilaterally expanded immediately after the war (see Where Is Jerusalem?). In 1985, an additional 34 percent of Kufr ‘Aqab land was annexed by the expansive Kokhav Ya’akov settlement.

Following the completion of the wall along its northern border with al-Matar in 2002, Kufr ‘Aqab was completely walled off from the city.

Today, socioeconomic transformation triggered by the wall’s construction, Israeli legal confabulations, and other socioeconomic pressures have turned Kufr ‘Aqab into one of the most densely populated urban Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem. After the erection of the wall in 2002, thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank, Jerusalem, and from inside the Green Line started moving to Kufr ‘Aqab en masse. In just 18 years, the population rapidly grew from 25,000 to a staggering 90,000. The myriad reasons behind this shift are more complex than can be fully covered in this brief case study; we just touch on a few.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem municipality more or less washed its hands of Kufr ‘Aqab starting in 2011, declaring that it would no longer provide basic municipal services there and ceasing routine oversight.

In light of this, a handful of private contractors took advantage of Kufr ‘Aqab’s ambiguous legal status, which spared them all forms of building regulations. A construction boom of high-rise apartment buildings ensued throughout the parts of the neighborhood within municipal lines. This was done without proper urban planning, and it left little space for public infrastructure. It did, however, create a glut of cheap housing, and drew residents seeking a reprieve from the costly housing in the city like moths to a flame. According to one analyst,

The municipality has carefully planned for a space which provides an opportunity for construction of buildings without any legal supervision, thus making the area a major attraction to Palestinian Jerusalemites who are looking for a housing solution corresponding to the severe crises present in their original neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

In fact, local residents commonly refer to Kufr ‘Aqab as “another form of refugee camp, but with very tall buildings.”

The transformation of the landscape can be clearly seen when comparing these parts of Kufr ‘Aqab that are managed by the local council with parts designated as Area C.

Local residents commonly refer to Kufr ‘Aqab as “another form of refugee camp, but with very tall buildings.”

In the old town, houses maintained their original character and olive trees still cover the remaining agricultural lands that have not yet  been consolidated by the Kokhav Ya’akov settlement for future territorial expansion. The larger section of Kufr ‘Aqab that falls under municipal jurisdiction constitutes a completely diametrical scenery, where the gray concrete of the wall matches that of indistinguishable masses of abutting high-rise apartment buildings—a landscape of impermanence.

Garbage litters the streets of Kufr 'Aqab due to municipal neglect

The streets of Kufr ‘Aqab are littered with garbage, because the municipality does not service it properly.


Ihab Jadallah for Jerusalem Story

Due to its location behind the wall, Kufr ‘Aqab has received scarce attention from the Jerusalem municipality in terms of healthcare, education, infrastructure, and sanitation for a decade. In between the multitude of apartment buildings, the very narrow, unpaved, and partially paved roads are constantly congested with run-down vehicles. No form of order or traffic safety exists, such as traffic lights, sidelines, pavements, and pedestrian crossing lines.

To get to Jerusalem from Kufr ‘Aqab, residents must pass through the Qalandiya checkpoint, the most frequently used checkpoint of entry into Jerusalem for Palestinians throughout the West Bank. The daily congestion at the checkpoint creates traffic that stretches well into the heart of Kufr ‘Aqab. Garbage litters this single road that leads to the checkpoint. Indeed, Walid Habbas, a local of Kufr ‘Aqab, said that: “There’s only one garbage truck that collects the garbage in all of Kufr ‘Aqab, and it’s operated by a private contractor. You might see it once a week, if you see it at all.”

Beyond sanitation, Habbas described the poor condition of schools in the area, a concern for him as he is a father of three children. He explained that, due to the lack of space and regulation policies in Kufr ‘Aqab, “any contractor can . . . buy a private apartment building and call it a school. There are no playgrounds for the children and no parking spaces for the parents to drop off their children.”

The lack of policing, and exclusion of Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, created a vacuum that gave rise to crime, increasing the dominance of criminal gangs in Kufr ‘Aqab involved in selling weapons and drugs. This gave Kufr ‘Aqab the reputation of being a “no-man’s-land,” and a haven for outlaws and convicts that want to avert both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. As Habbas stressed, the lack of law in Kufr ‘Aqab also gave rise to the dominance of traditional tribal relations whereby heads of families serve as primary arbitrators when trouble stirs. This, for Habbas, signifies “social fragmentation.”

Due to its location behind the wall, Kufr ‘Aqab has received scarce attention from the Jerusalem municipality in terms of healthcare, education, infrastructure, and sanitation for a decade.