My father was a social worker on Los Angeles’ skid row for decades. He felt deeply about the humanity of homeless people, and he did what he could to help each person to have a better life. Herb Lester, my father, saw homelessness as a humanitarian disaster; he saw it as the failure of governments to ensure the well-being of their people. And he felt a responsibility to act.
If my father were still living, he would have been appalled to hear about the demolition of Ashraf and Islam Fawaqa’s home in the Sur Baher neighborhood of Jerusalem. He would have been furious that Israel intentionally and systematically makes Palestinian families homeless.
I was thinking about my father on June 13 at the “Iftar on the Rubble,” which I organized with my friends at the site of Ashraf and Islam’s demolished home.
We planned the Iftar to show solidarity with Ashraf and Islam, and the tens of thousands of Palestinian families whose homes have been demolished, partially demolished, or sealed, and who live every day under the imminent threat of demolitions by the Israel authorities. I felt compelled not only by the humanitarian instincts I inherited from my father (and mother), but also by my profound disappointment in the United Nations coordinated humanitarian response, a prominent feature of the Jerusalem landscape, but not, in my point of view, an effective one.
Home demolition is not merely an Israeli administrative policy, as it is often presented in the western media. Home demolition is part of Israel’s political strategy to expel Palestinians from any place they want control, often through the establishment of Jewish settlements.
Given the magnitude of the impact of demolitions on Palestinians, I have long felt that the humanitarian sector should do more to fulfill its “protection” mandate. Protection involves reducing vulnerability, and for me, this means humanitarians should provide proactive, robust help to strengthen at-risk communities. Even after demolition, the response of humanitarian organizations is inadequate, bureaucratic, and according to some families, demeaning.
My friends and I felt that the least we could do to show these families–families who are on the frontline of the continuing Nakba–that they have real allies, that they are not alone.
On the night of the Iftar on the Rubble, local and international media were in attendance as Ashraf and Islam Fawaqa talked about the demolition of their home on May 4 and how they now live in limbo on the rubble of the demolition site.
Munir Nusseibeh of the Al Quds Community Action Center, one of Jerusalem’s most prominent lawyers, spoke about how demolitions are increasing and the danger demolition poses to the ability of Palestinians to stay in Jerusalem. Nurredin Amro, whose home was demolished on March 15, talked about his experience. His wife, Nabiha, spoke about the terrible psychological impact the demolition had on their children.
Powerful as it was to hear these families talk about their experiences, I think my father would have agreed that the real accomplishment was the Iftar itself. Muslims break the Ramadan fast at the sunset call to prayer, and that’s when the nearly 75 attendees pulled out the dishes they brought and set them out on long tables the Fawaqas had rented for the occasion. There were grape leaves stuffed by the Domari of Jerusalem, home baked cookies, whole meals contributed by the zakat society, and roasted chicken donated by Jerusalem Hotel and Café La Vie, dried figs and juice and more donated by Tanour Market and Abu Zahra Market. People from different walks of life, Palestinians and international solidarity activists, sat elbow to elbow and ate.
The sun went down and the temperature dropped, but people did not rush to leave. They stayed and talked and talked and talked. In the dim spotlight Ashraf rigged, an unusual mix of human beings enjoyed the cool Jerusalem breeze together on the rubble of the Fawaqa family home.
I felt my father’s presence with us that night in Sur Baher, Jerusalem. Like me, he would have been heartened by this real humanitarianism. It wasn’t programmed. It wasn’t funded. And it wasn’t part of anyone’s three-year plan. It was just people caring for people. And it felt hopeful.