January 9, East Jerusalem
We were in the midst of a political tour of East Jerusalem with journalist and activist Abu Hassan, trying to comprehend the bizarre realities in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. We stand in front of the house of the evicted al-Ghawi family who I met last year living in a tent outside their property. In 2009, 800 soldiers and police evicted 37 members of this family from their homes. We watch a man with a large black hat and long black coat rush, head tilted down, (is he feeling shame or fear?) into the apartment which is topped by a gigantic menorah. The Palestinian family still receives the water and electricity bills as they refuse to change the registration. What kind of insanity is this?
An elderly Palestinian woman has been evicted from her home where she lived for many decades with her family, extending the one story building to accommodate her children and grandchildren. During the recent eviction, Jewish settlers were moved into the front portion of her house, now draped with a large Israeli flag with Stars of David painted around the front window. This poor woman is now forced to live in the back portion of her house with her son and grandchildren. They are watching cartoons when we arrive and a deadly depression weights the air. Their case is in the Israeli courts where there is little chance they will be treated favorably. At any time this family, like others in the neighborhood, can be evicted forcibly by Israeli military and put out on the street with their meager possessions. An International Solidarity Tent stands in the garden, so it seems they have some international support but the tent is empty.
A friend of Abu Hassan’s arrives and shows him a photo on his cell phone. A demolition is underway nearby at this very moment. Abu Hassan explains that the former house of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem which then became a hotel and then a center for the Shin Bet and collaborators, is being demolished in order to build 500 homes for Jewish settlers. We hustle back into the bus and drive to the area which is crowded with cars and press. The scene is absolutely surreal. A metal fence topped with barbwire partially hides the multi-story building, but the large yellow Volvo bulldozers can be seen smashing at the walls, creating clouds of debris. Peeking through metal bars in a gate, I see a crumbling old structure set back from the road. A crowd of reporters, cameramen, and angry protestors quickly gathers. An older woman with a purple hijab talks and gestures animatedly to a white haired man, Elisha Peleg, a member of the City Council. The general tone of the crowd is one of frustration and rage at yet another land grab in East Jerusalem, another violation of international law, another nail in the coffin of a Palestinian state. Elisha argues that this demolition is all totally legal, citing a variety of administrative procedures. “We have a right to have Jewish families in this unified city. I am very proud of what we are doing.” He says Arabs can easily get permits to build in West Jerusalem (not) and then accuses the protestors of racism, of being paid to come, and angrily questions if any Arabs have papers to prove they were evicted from properties in Jerusalem, had gone through the proper channels, etc etc, very legalistic. (Does he actually believe himself?) This provokes hostile responses from a number of Arab men who clearly had personal experiences with dispossession and experience with the Israeli permitting and court systems. People start chanting, “Shame, shame” and I notice heavily armed security guards in civilian clothes (thugs?) moving closer. At one point a women yells,” You are delusional!” He looks at her and said, “What is this, delusional?”
Violations of international law or the Judaization of East Jerusalem are very intellectual concepts, but to see it happening in real time, surrounded by the people who are watching the Israeli government irreversibly colonize their land which the international community recognizes as occupied territory, is a sobering and emotional experience. The future will clearly be built by the steady march of Israeli construction. The silence of the international community is particularly deafening.
But let me take you back to the beginning of this extraordinary tour. Abu Hassan meets us in front the Jerusalem Hotel for a walking/bus tour. He notes that he has been trying unsuccessfully to get a tour license and his case is now almost at the Supreme Court. Consequently he operates his business under the aegis of the Hotel. Palestinians from East Jerusalem are residents of the city, not citizens of Israel, are allowed to vote in municipal elections only. In 1967 when they were occupied by Israeli forces, they refused to accept Israeli citizenship as that would have negated their political rights to the city. Israeli law then became more restrictive and any Palestinian in East Jerusalem has to prove that he actually lives within the Jerusalem borders to retain his residency ID. In 2004, the Israeli government stopped all residency applications. This has caused a host of problems; for instance, if a man from East Jerusalem marries a woman from the West Bank, she cannot legally live with him in East Jerusalem and if he moves to the West Bank, he will not be able to return to East Jerusalem. Hundreds of Palestinian families have “weekend relationships” with each partner retaining residency in his or her place of origin, shuttling themselves and their growing families back and forth.
Abu Hassan’s family has lived in Jerusalem for generations, but an uncle of his lived in the neighborhood of Abu Dis and in 1967, the Israeli government declared his part of the neighborhood as part of the West Bank and he lost his East Jerusalem ID and is unable to return. The Palestinian towns of Aram and Deiht Albareid were among the five East Jerusalem towns that were declared part of the West Bank as well.
We are now on #1 Road (formerly Mandlebaum) which was the border between east and west. Since the Israeli government established East Jerusalem in 1967 as part of a “unified city,” 40% of the land has been confiscated as a military zone or as green space which is then developed as a Jewish settlement or colony. The disappearance of Palestinian visibility continued with the building of a bridge 13 years ago so that Jewish settlers could avoid traveling through a Palestinian area; a tram is now being built to shuttle settlers in East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem, ostensibly to “unite” the city, but in actuality to avoid contact with the Palestinian population.
Abu Hassan points out the settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, established in the 1980s and now one of the biggest colonies in East Jerusalem with 34,000 Jewish settlers, built on land from the villages of Shu’fat and Beit Hanina. The separation wall near Pisgat surrounds villages and the refugee camp of Shu’fat; 60,000 people have one entrance and they need to have an East Jerusalem ID to pass. In this bizarre and complicated world, 20% of the inhabitants within this curve of the wall have West Bank IDs and are married to East Jerusalemites so they have two options: stay on that side of the wall or move to the West Bank. Passive transfer in action. Make life miserable.
I feel like this is some nefarious Alice in Wonderland world run by some crazed Queen of Hearts masquerading as a double headed Netanyahu- Lieberman monster. East Jerusalemites pay the same taxes as the West but receive 20% of the public services. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City is clean and well kept as opposed to the grime, garbage and disrepair in the Arab sector. Abu Hassan points out the roof tops: Jewish houses have a white water tower for hot water, Palestinian houses have the white tower, but also a black water tower because their water supply is not reliable. In addition, they pay five times as much and in the West Bank, Jewish settlers get more water for their animals than Palestinians get for themselves. Racism anyone?
We drive into the expanding Pisgat, rows of neat well groomed apartments, a mall and good transportation, modern local services, playground and swimming pool. On the contrary, Palestinians are faced with a severe shortage of schools and have applied to build another school. For the last 2 years, 150 Palestinian children have been unable to find schooling. The Catch 22 is that when the child is 16 and applies for an East Jerusalem residency ID, the parents have to prove that the child attended school within the Jerusalem borders by providing a yearly diploma and documentation that both parents are from East Jerusalem.
To bring this up close and personal, Abu Hassan explains that he is married to a German woman. He struggled for 12 years to get her a residency ID. For the first five years she was not allowed to leave the country or work and thus had no health insurance as well. After five years, the residency laws changed and he had to start the process all over again. The lawyer’s fees amounted to $15,000, but now he is assured his four children will be able to get their IDs. This feels like an attempt to wear people down by sheer aggravation.
On the other hand, if you are Jewish, the Israeli government encourages you to buy an apartment in the settlement at 1/3 the market value and collects no taxes for five years. A very strange democracy indeed, and an inherently unsustainable political situation.
On the right we pass a cascade of grey houses, the Shu’fat Refugee Camp, established in 1967 when families mostly of Moroccan descent who had lived in Jerusalem for generations, were removed from the area adjacent to the Western Wall. 17,000 people crowd into one square kilometer. They started with the UNRWA tents, then moved into concrete houses and are now expanding vertically. The refugees are surrounded by walls and can see the beautiful Jewish settlements, the land confiscation, the water. Many of the citizens of Pisgat are from Brooklyn, Kahanists famous for their violent racism. Abu Hassan reports that there is now a Jewish Defense League that waits for Palestinian youth at the mall and attacks them. The police do nothing. When do we call this fascism? Jewish terrorists? How do you think this feels to the Palestinian children living under these devastating conditions? What is the message from the Israeli government? How long can this last? Obama are you listening?
Abu Hassan says, “Life here is impossible.” When he goes to work, “anything can happen.” The next settlement we see is Neve Ya’akov, established in 1969 and now actively building new apartments. This is the location of the Union of Shas Movement, a very fanatic segment of Israeli society and a danger to the unwelcomed Palestinian population.
Abu Hassan suspects that Netanyahu is trying to provoke another intifada with the rapid settlement growth and weekly killings. Then he will have an excuse to fight “the terrorists.” In this context, the word terrorism seems to lose its meaning. Abu Hassan mentions that he first went to jail at the age of 13 for the crime of throwing stones for which he was not guilty. He was released six months later, but by then he was severely traumatized and had “lost my childhood.” He said he became more and more hateful and was involved in physical attacks against Israeli soldiers. At 16, after his brother was killed by settlers, he joined the PLO and was arrested and sentenced to eight years. He served four and was released in a prisoner exchange. Then at 22 when he was a student at Birzeit University and a member of the Student Council, he was arrested again and sentenced to 12 years, but released during the Oslo process in another prisoner exchange. He describes his imprisonment as very difficult, every six months he changed jails, he was tortured repeatedly and continues to have back problems. Now he channels his militancy and resistance into these tours, educating visitors to Jerusalem and opening minds and hearts to the Palestinian tragedy.
Last year his seven year old daughter asked him why there is a separation wall. “For me it was so painful, I tried to hide it but she is very smart.” He finally explained the realities to her, but hopes very deeply for a better future for his children. He explains that his conflict is not with Jews, in fact his family took care of an Iraqi Jewish woman in their own home for years. His conflict is with Zionists who clearly want to push the Palestinians out of the land they have called their own for generations.
East Jerusalem is clearly one of the battlegrounds and the Palestinians are losing in the face of byzantine administrative rules, outright lying, brutal violence, a society that has grown increasingly racist and supportive of right wing ideologies and an international community that has completely abdicated its responsibilities. As one Israeli said to me: “Save us from ourselves.”