Historians have come up with several explanations for the roots of Beit Safafa's name, but the most logical explanation is that given by Palestinian historian Shukri Arraf who says that it means "House of the Thirsty" in Syriac, referring to the lack of water resources in the village.4 Remains of a tower built by the Crusaders in Beit Safafa still exist today.
After the fall and ethnic cleansing of all the Palestinian neighbourhoods in the western part of Jerusalem during the 1948 Nakba, Beit Safafa was split between the Israeli and Jordanian occupations. Separated by barbed wire fences, residents were prevented from crossing to see each other. Even communicating with words or hugs was allowed only in religious celebrations.5 Weddings and funerals were carried out near the fence to allow all members of the community to participate. Lyrics about the bitterness and grief resulting from the separation were typically chanted in Safafwi weddings. "I will never wear silk for our village was divided into two parts" and "I shall never clothe my body with silk over what happened to Beit Safafa" were among the lyrics sung by women during Safafwi weddings.6
The village has been a quiet and desirable Palestinian suburb since 1967 when Israeli forces occupied and illegally annexed its eastern part. Reunited today, under complete Israeli occupation, the residents of the eastern part of Beit Safafa received residency status along with the rest of Jerusalemites in the eastern part of Jerusalem.7
However, with plans to split the village in two once again, this time with a 6 lane highway to service the Gush Etzion colonial block to the south,8 a shift of attitude in the village appears to be happening. Residents' demands and slogans gradually radicalized as those who understand that the issue of the bypass road is not simply one of infrastructure or discrimination, but rather of an entire system attempting to displace and erase Palestinian presence altogether.9
Beit Safafa originally possessed extensive tracts of agricultural land planted with olives, grapes, barley, and wheat. The village retains its rural character to this day with relatively low buildings and agricultural plots between the houses. However, Beit Safafa has seen population growth since the 1980s as Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who came to study and work in the city sought housing in the quiet, inexpensive village. Since the construction of the Wall, Jerusalemites from neighbourhoods beyond it have moved to live in the village in order to keep their residency status.10
According to community members, the percentage of girls who finish high school and continue to academic studies reaches as high as 80%, higher than that of boys. They explain this with the fact that young men usually enter the job market after school. Unlike other Jerusalem communities, a large number of Beit Safafa’s women also go to work and are less restricted by the patriarchal society. In accordance, the age of marriage in Beit Safafa is relatively high, around 19-24 years for women and 24-30 years for men.11 The unemployment rate in Beit Safafa is lower than other Jerusalemite communities at 10%.12
The village has a football club that plays in the Palestinian league and an active women's society.
Bypass Road 4
Approximately 250 dunums of Beit Safafa’s land were confiscated in order to construct 80 meter settler highway “Road 4 south.” The highway will extend for 1,600 meters and further divide Beit Safafa. It is perhaps the most pressing challenge faced by residents today.13 The southern segment of the highway, commonly known as Begin Road, completes the north-south route for bypassing the city and gives residents of colonies to the north and south of Jerusalem (along Highways 443 and 60, respectively) quick access through and beyond the city.14 In Beit Safafa, the road is being constructed as a 6-lane highway, with as many as 10-11 lanes in some parts. Construction started in September 2012 and is scheduled to be completed in October 2015.15 When "Road 4" is complete, drivers will be able to zip through this side of town without traffic lights. Beit Safafa residents say they will pay the price but get none of the benefits. They will lose easy access to their schools, mosques and markets and property value will decrease.16
The Israeli Supreme Court has recently approved the construction of the road meaning that popular struggle is the only way to go for residents if they are to prevent the ghettoisation of their village.17 After four long years, economic and social adaptation has rendered Beit Safafa politically quiet, the wave of protests surrounding the road have put Beit Safafa back on the political map – and the movement has begun to connect to other movements further east. Awlad Haretna, or Children of our Neighbourhood in English, is a youth movement which broke through in Beit Safafa in order to mobilise the community to resist the colonial highway. They have organised and used social media in order to organise protests.18
Much of Beit Safafa's lands were confiscated to build the Gilo colony in 1972 and later the bypass road number four. While it may look quiet on the surface, settler expansion and land confiscation have long threatened Beit Safafa.
In 1973, Gilo settlement was built on confiscated lands from Beit Safafa and Beit Jala villages. Today, Gilo hosts more than 40,000 settlers. In 1991, the Israeli government confiscated more lands to the South East of Beit Safafa. Ethiopian Jewish settlers built caravans and established Giva’at HaMatos settlement.19 At the end of 2014, the Occupation Government approved the construction of 2,561 new settler-housing units in Giva’at HaMatos. In total, 1,980 dunums have been confiscated from Beit Safafa and the neighbouring Sharafat for colonial expansion.20