Juran Salaymih, 42, was born and raised in Jerusalem, and has been a hard drug user for 15 years – in a city not well-known for its narcotics issues.
Jerusalem’s surge of hard drugs mostly impacts Arab neighborhoods, particularly the Old City. On the black market, a wide selection is available, ranging from hashish to heroin and methamphetamine, commonly known as crystal meth, producing high levels of addiction. Populations are traumatized and do not see a solution to the situation.
According to an Israeli Anti-Drug Authority survey published in 2009, out of a population of 37,000 Old City residents, it is estimated that one in every two residents is a drug user, and 6,000 are addicts.
Today, a large proportion of the hard drugs found on the streets of Jerusalem are smuggled from places like Shuafat right across the West Bank security wall.
Drugs have plagued the entire area for a significant amount of time, spreading especially within the fortifications of the Old City – and around its key religious shrines for Jews, Christians and Muslims – in stark contrast with its sense of holiness.
Salaymih comes from this area and every morning follows the same routine at his well-maintained apartment in the Old City, or at his second home in Shuafat.
He goes for a heroin fix, sprinkling a thick line into a makeshift aluminum pipe and smoking it.
“I have a tacit code with my whole family,” says Salaymih.
“Everyone knows it; no one ever pronounces its name, ‘heroin.’ Once I close the door, it signals I am smoking. No one ever comes in there. If they need something, they’ll just call me through the door. I can do it in the bathroom, alone in the bedroom or in the living room.”
It is around 2 p.m. The window of Salaymih’s apartment is open; in the distance, the muezzin calls for prayer. He deeply inhales the heroin dissolving into dense white fumes. This is his afternoon dose.
“When I get my heroin fix, I am fine for five hours. If I smoke synthetic drugs immediately after [readily available on the main streets of Jerusalem], it makes the effect last longer.”
He does so, pulling out a joint, lighting it up, quickly finishing it and ventilating the room. His routine over, he opens the door and family life again takes over. His wife and two of his children come in and set the table for a late lunch. There is plenty of food, with tea generously poured. Everyone talks away.
This is a regular family moment – as if nothing happened.
Shuafat is officially called a “refugee camp,” with rundown high-rises replacing tents. Over the years, the camp has turned into a ghetto, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem just 10 minutes from the city center, right behind the West Bank security wall – a stone’s throw away, but far from anything normal.
At a checkpoint, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers monitor the entrance to the area. Around the watchtowers, a few huge dumpsters overflow. Mountains of garbage scattered and smolder.
In the back, tucked in one corner of the security barrier, stand the ruins of a half-decaying two-story concrete structure nicknamed the Coca-Cola building, a reminder of its former owner.
Neighbors tried to get rid of the building and set it on fire, to no avail. The Coca-Cola is a giant crackhouse planted in the middle of a busy neighborhood. It consists of a series of large, filthy rooms where addicts gather to chitchat, smoke, snort and inject – at times engaging in prostitution for their next fix.
Salaymih regularly travels across the checkpoints. His residency document allows him unrestricted passage between the West Bank and Jerusalem, so he comes and goes between the two places. Almost everyday, he does his narcotics run to the Coca-Cola crackhouse near his apartment.
“When I get up, I need to take drugs. My body feels it; this is the first thing that I need to do. This happens every morning. Eventually, I’ll head up to the Coca-Cola building. There is a sense of community there. People are like me, we think alike. They know how I am inside.”
The petty dealers mingle and sell, working for the bigger dealers who stay in their cars across the street. The atmosphere is anti-climatic. It is midday; the sun is high and bright, the air fresh. The dealers drive old, dusty models, all in surprisingly poor repair.
No one seems to care at first glance. The dealers chain smoke – but do pay attention to what goes on. They have weapons, bodyguards are at their side. Protection is needed for the large amounts of drugs they carry on them: heroine, cocaine, ecstasy and meth, although everything is available. Prices are set.
Salaymih looks at vague silhouettes of people slouching inside the crack house. They come out of a basement from an invisible hole. One man, holding a syringe in his hand, topples over the trash. He mumbles something. Barely aware of people next to him, he pulls down his pants, injecting a substance into his groin. Blood spurts. He turns around and disappears back into the pit.
“A couple of months ago, we found three people there,” he says, pointing at a set of adjoining rooms. “They overdosed and died still seated.”
“Addicts shoot up here,” says Issam Jwehan of the Al-Maqdese for Society Development, a Jerusalem NGO that runs drug education programs. “The problem in Shuafat is that it is in Area B.”
In 1995, the Oslo II Accord divided the West Bank into three main zones, areas A, B and C. Area A is under the Palestinian Authority (PA) police’s supervision, while Israel retains full civil and security control over Area C. Area B is jointly managed – theoretically.
Facts speaking for themselves, Shuafat falls into Area B and is a justice black hole. Sitting right on the edge of the security wall, a majority of area people hold Israeli residency permits or have been granted citizenship. Whatever their reason for being around Shuafat, they cross the checkpoint frequently.
An endless stream of consumers living in the Old City come to this drug hotspot, which self-regulates and hides a flourishing black market. Drugs, the sex trade, weapons… Anything is available.
For drug dealers operating in the Old City, this poverty-stricken and crime-riddled zone is a perfect haven. Law enforcement is a mirage. Chaos and anarchy prevail.
Yet the watchtowers and guards on duty are within walking distance.
“The point for the police is public safety,” insists Jwehan. “As long as security is maintained, they will not move. Users or whoever else are free to do anything, unless they break the law right in front of them. The guards’ presence is limited to the checkpoints.”
Sam (not his real name) is an ex-drug dealer. Deep wrinkles and a weathered, sunken face make him look over 50 years old.
In over 31 years in drug trafficking, he got arrested countless times and brought before judges, who handed down several long sentences that he served in Israeli prisons. Up until 2011, his life revolved around narcotics – selling and consuming. Damascus Gate, the Old City and east Jerusalem were his turf, and heroin his drug of choice; he would sell other types of drugs as well.
In 2011, Sam decided to turn his life around. He received medical attention as part of an anti-drug rehabilitation program at a treatment center somewhere in Shuafat.
“I used to work in the Old City, here in Shuafat and in the West Bank. We would always find Shuafat to be a more convenient selling ground. Here, the police [either the IDF or the PA police] do not control anybody. They do not come around; dealers do not get raided – it is safe. We would buy in Lod near Tel Aviv, stockpile here and sell in Jerusalem.”
“In the Old City, the police are on every street, at every corner. It is heavily monitored. We would make higher profits, but it was more difficult to get the work done and easier to get busted.”
In other words, prices are the same everywhere but quantities are smaller outside Shuafat. The street price for one gram of heroin is set at NIS 150 (Israeli shekel equivalent to HK$ 310) to NIS 200 (HK$ 415), while cocaine is NIS 450 (HK$ 935) a gram. The risk of arrest being higher in the Old City, the quantity proportionally decreases; the same applies for single doses. All of the other drugs follow this marketing logic, with “reduced and/or mixed quantities,” says Sam.
Irrespective of religious beliefs and political affiliations, people involved in the drug trade, both suppliers and dealers, have one goal: profit.
“Dealers are structured by area or by family in the Old City. But numbers are not easily identified,” he says.
Jewish and Arab dealers consist of a like-minded crowd, working side-by-side on the same turf. They provide assistance to one another and are not swayed by patriotic feelings, as money breeds tolerance and sees no difference among people. Peace is the norm in the local drug trade.
Old City dealers have their network of regular customers and although it is assumed they will service users from their own community, sometimes they do cross the dividing line.
On other occasions, it is the other way around. Users from the other side initiate contact for a heroin fix. Jews can buy from Arabs and vice-versa, but “dealers have their areas and never encroach upon each other’s turf. A lot of Arab drug dealers work and cooperate with Israeli drug users and Israeli dealers. Cooperation exists between criminals from both sides.”
“I’m done selling,” says Sam. “I’ve been out for two years. I can say problems exist, but they’re fully denied.”
IN 1967, in the aftermath of the Six Day War combined with increasing hostilities and political divisions, the rift between populations widened. Unemployment, violence, delinquency and an increasing school dropout rate began impacting Jerusalem’s east side.
The Old City and the holy sites, once under Jordanian administration, had been captured and turned over to Israeli control. The area’s Arab population experienced a culture shock: They were to coexist with Jews, whose habits differed.
Young Arabs started to mirror Jewish Western culture in ways new to them: getting a girlfriend, clubbing, drinking. Alcohol was and still is a gateway to drugs.
Walid Hadad is an Israeli criminologist and one among many inspectors of the Old City’s Arab sector. He works for the Israeli Anti-Drug Authority, one of the numerous units of the Public Security Ministry.
“Arab culture reproves alcohol,” he notes. “With liquor consumption, people become outsiders in their own culture and continue onto drug-consuming patterns. A criminal career is ahead of them from a young age.”
“Alcohol opens the way to drugs,” says Hadad.
Salaymih followed that path and fell into the trap: “From the age of 13, I started drinking and became an alcoholic. That [caused me to lose] my way. I had to receive treatment for over-consumption in my late 20s at a medical center. At age 27, bad guys in rehab introduced me to heroin,” he says.
“I first smoked it [heroin]. I found enhancement in my intimate life with my wife. In the beginning, she had no idea… and quickly, it was too late. “
“I wanted to try heroin just once, once only,” he says. “I was aware of a risk, some risk… but quickly, the trap closed shut. ”
“I have asked for help and managed to stop twice. Every time, I relapsed,” says Salaymih. “Dealers are always around the Damascus Gate (Jerusalem). Temptation is there; there’s everything. The heroin pull was too strong. I had to get more.”
“I have two ways to look at these drug dealers,” says Salaymih. “My reason tells me they give me my medicine. I need it. I can’t fight it; it has a physical grip on me. But my heart says they are poisoning me, giving me this slow death. I don’t have much time ahead of me now. My life expectancy is shorter. I know that and I am scared.”
Although anti-drug associations and some medical resources exist in the Old City, assistance is provided with great difficulty. Apart from these organizations, few are willing to admit something has really gone wrong.
Drug addiction is taboo and carries a stigma
“My family felt so ashamed and hurt when I admitted doing heroin,” says Salaymih. “They said: ‘You are a father of six, you are a grown-up. How can you do that?’… They were so critical.”
“They have asked me to stop countless times. I can’t. They are angry with me, they said they would not want to talk to me again. But I know they’re scared… they’re very afraid for my life now.”
Salaymih is married to Teresina Peirrera, a native of São Paolo, Brazil.
“Teresina is very understanding and supportive of my situation. She often cries. She is mad but stands by me when the urge kicks in. It feels like a knife getting inside of you. Your body is under stress; your eyes get bigger and it takes over. This is the call of my second wife, heroin. When it manifests, there is no choice – I surrender.”
“Had she been a Muslim woman, she would have left me with the children long ago, ” he says.
“My younger daughter, Rabiha, got married two months ago,” says Salaymih. “Her husband has no idea about my dark secret yet. My son Nasser is 18. He’s urged me to join a rehab program again and get off heroin before her husband hears about anything. I am thinking of it…”
The fight against hard drugs
Israel has attempted to reach out and adapt to people’s culture in this fight against drugs. Success is limited.
Yasmeen Bashir is the managing director of the Shalaim Center for Drug Rehabilitation in east Jerusalem. The center directly reports to the Jerusalem Municipality.
“We, the Shalaim Center, only work with the population in east Jerusalem. We do provide services to anyone who asks for it, regardless of religious or ethnic background,” she says. “We make every effort to provide as much as possible.”
“Israel has tried and failed,” says Hadad of the Israeli Anti-Drug Authority. “You must be sensitive to the culture. You cannot work the same way with people from the [Arab] east side as you would with people from the [Jewish] West.”
But the fight against narcotics and drug addiction is not a high priority due to more pressing security-related issues, in addition to a political vacuum in the Old City.
“People in the Old City are very afraid for their family. Drug trafficking is by far their greatest worry,” says Jwehan.
“I feel concerned for my children. I can tell from experience that there is no household immune to drugs. Drugs distribute widely regardless of social classes, professions or religion,” he says.
“The drug trafficking and consumption problem is our problem, this is Israel’s problem,” says Hadad. “If we don’t find a solution, drugs will keep spreading from the Old City into Israel and infect our social tissue.”
Projections for the future are bleak
“In February, the city of Jerusalem initiated a new task force, the Jerusalem Anti-Drug Alliance,” notes Bashir. “We hope for the best and wish them good luck – although we are not too optimistic about the current situation, particularly in the Old City.”
The social fabric of the Old City is in a state of advanced decomposition. Poor-quality housing, poverty, alcoholism, overpopulation, a mediocre sanitation system and social immobility have resulted in the deterioration of living conditions. This descent into hell has created a favorable environment for dealers to cater to this cornered clientele, which has nowhere to turn and indulges in self-destructive behavior, giving way to a surge of hard drugs and soaring consumption.
This phenomenon shows no sign of abating.
In the absence of real intervention within the walls of the Old City, the drug networks in Shuafat will not be rooted out, tremendous social challenges will amplify and narcotics will keep seeping into Greater Jerusalem – and beyond.
Nothing will change, until everyone finds a better high.