On foot through the hills of E1 — Palestinians join Bab al-Shams protest village

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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Palestinians walk through the hills of the Jerusalem E1 area to reach the newly established protest village of Bab al-Shams, 12 January 2013. (Photo: Allison Deger/Mondoweiss)

“Go across the street immediately and run,” directed a member of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) this morning to a group of 38 Palestinians on a bus from Ramallah to Bab al-Shams. The activists, all from nearby cities and villages, are the latest to join a protest village erected yesterday in the heart of E1, the last open space for housing expansion in the Jerusalem hills. Although a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem who owns the land gave the organizers permission to build and the area is inside of the West Bank, the Israeli government has set its sights on raising a continuous corridor of outposts and forbids Palestinian construction in the area. 

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Palestinians run into the hills of E1 from an Israeli highway in the West Bank, marching towards Bab al-Shams.
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Carrying building supplies, Palestinians trail through E1 on a one hour hike in order to reach Bab al-Shams.

After instructing the activists to run from the highway into the hills, the bus parked a few kilometers past an intersection in E1. This is the same way medical teams and journalists from mainstream outlets have accessed the village, get down and walk ten minutes to reach Bab al-Shams. However, today doctors had trouble. The Israeli border police, although technically barred from raiding the encampment by a preemptive injunction filed by lawyers supporting the village, had blocked the southbound roads leading to E1. Dr. Mohammad Assayuri, 26, said, “I tried many times entering,” but was not allowed until his fourth time approaching the soldiers. Dr. Assayuri said in the first hour of his shift in the village he had already treated five patients, “many of them have chronic disease and they are out of their medications.” He said that the Palestinians in Bab al-Shams were not expecting that they would be unable to leave and pick up their prescriptions from home and four people had already gone to the hospital. Yet following treatment, all of the four found their way back into the village through the hills of E1.

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Palestinians cheering as they march towards Bab al-Shams.
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View of Bab al-Shams from area E1 near Za’I’m village.
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Bab al-Shams.

As soon as the bus stopped the group darted for the rocky hills carrying water, blankets, cigarettes, fruits and Palestinian flags that had been hidden during the ride. In order to reach the protest village from Ramallah they had already passed through two flying checkpoints likely erected to prevent more Palestinians from joining the 250 already living at Bab al-Shams.

The ever savvy organized tucked their keffiyehs under their jackets and finessed a checkpoint soldier by first telling them we were on a field trip to Nablus, then tourists visiting an anti-drug center in Jericho. While stopped at one of the checkpoints a soldier asked passengers to show him the contents items stored in the bus’s upper compartment. There were around 50 bound Palestinian flags hidden behind bags of bread and a frilly pastel umbrella. One of the organizers showed the soldier the umbrella, which because of its feminine design elicited laughter from the military and the flags were not found. Although the Palestinian flag has been legal to fly, hold and hang since the Oslo Accords it can still make the difference between arriving at a destination and detention.

We pressed on.

Marching up the windy hills the Palestinian flags waved freely in the Jerusalem air. The activists took one of the few unmarked paths to the protest site, while being trailed by Israeli police. It was a one-hour chase that ended with jubilation when the Palestinians finally reached Bab al-Shams reuniting with their friends and relatives, embracing and chanting for their freedom.

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Palestinians living in Bab al-Shams walk through the protest village.
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Palestinian youth living in Bab al-Shams.
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Media crews interview the villagers of Bab al-Shams.
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Dr. Mohammad Assayuri treats a patient for asthma in the medical tent.

Bab al-Shams has been called a symbolic act, but the activists who constructed the tent village are quick to explain that it is a fully functional village. There is a medical tent with a team of two doctors, two nurses, and other six health care workers including EMTs, stocked with light medications, one bed and one stretcher. Nearby there is also a library, kitchen, and media room—all in separate tents that are neatly organized and line a dirt road that sits on a hillside.

“Our hope is to return to our land,” said Hamde Abu Rahme, 25 from Bil’in. Abu Rahme is journalist by profession but he is also one of the founders of the camp. “To set up two tents it takes 10 minutes,” which was a result of practice, he said proudly. He explains the activists arrived at 6:00 am on Friday and constructed 25 tents in just two hours, before being joined by over 200 others. He said the village was the result of one-month of pre-planning where activists trained themselves in every element of creating a city that would be under immediate threat of eviction. “We didn’t want Israeli security to know where we are,” so he and the other organizers scouted the location three times before deciding that they would build on a slope near the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Za’I’m.”

“For us we are here because we want a change. We did not forget our land and never gave it away,” said Abu Rahme.

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“The village of Bab al-Shams.”
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Hamde Abu Rahme, one of the founders of Bab al-Shams discusses the village organizer’s planning and training.
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Palestinians talk in a tent in the center of Bab al-Shams.

For Palestinians, an Israeli expansion into E1 would mean the end to the hope of free access to Jerusalem and a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank, as Israeli settlements and transportation infrastructure would make Palestinian mobility impossible. Already it’s nearly impossible to enter E1 with a car as the hills are gated with metal medians, military roads and the separation barrier. Inside, most of the residents are Jahalin Bedouin, living in informal housing unable to connect to municipal services. And with Bab al-Shams as the latest village, the Israeli military is now also perched on in the sprawling hills with undercover units deployed to the hilltops.

But Palestinians have no intention of being chased out of Bab al-Shams. The villagers have five days left before their eviction injunction from the High Court runs out. Saving their new home is more than a rebuke of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu’s announced intention to construct 3,000 residential units and 1,000 hotel rooms in E1. Protecting E1 from new settlements is essential to keeping Jerusalem as a Palestinian cultural, economic and social center, and maintaining the occupied Palestinian territories as a unified region, staving off Israel’s plan to create a series of Palestinian Bantustans.

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Sign in the village of Za’I’m, near Bab al-Shams, directing foot traffic to the new village.

“It has been a dream of mine to do this since I came here,” said a Palestinian attorney from the U.S. who sat next to me on the morning bus ride and requested to not be quoted by name. She was interrupted by one of the popular struggle coordinators who said to the group, “Three years ago we tried to do this in E1,” pointing out Bab al-Shams is “not controlled by the Israelis, we picked it because we have documents from the owner.” By building the village Palestinians have engaged in a historic action to reject the Israeli military code that governs their daily life more then the Palestinian Authority does. And although they can only arrive to their new village by foot through the cover of the hills, the Palestinians in Bab al-Shams have taken back their land from the occupation authorities.

All photographs were taken by the author on January 12, 2013.

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