Guest post by KALYANI MENON SEN
Umm Nabil al Kurd is 82 years old. She is tiny and frail – her hands tremble as she takes the mike. But her voice is steady as she describes how she lost her home.
“We came to Jerusalem from Haifa as refugees in 1948” she says. “The Jordanians allotted us our house. We have lived there for 60 years – my children were born there. It was small and broken when we moved in – we extended it and improved it as our family grew. We planted a garden. When my son got married and the grandchildren came, we built a separate unit for him at the back of the main house. We built with our own money, with our own hands. Then, two years ago, the Israelis came with the police and told us to leave. They said the house was theirs. They pushed me to the ground, called me filthy names, turned their dogs on me. They threw out our furniture and moved into the house. We went to court but the judge said we were occupying the house illegally – he told us to pay 100,000 shekels as rent for the years that we had lived in the house. We had to pay – my husband would have been imprisoned if we did not. We are still fighting the case – the next hearing is in July but I don’t know if we will ever get the house back.”
Umm Nabil and the 28 other families in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah are the latest targets of Ateret Cohanim, an organisation that promotes Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem were among some 700,000 Arabs who fled or were forced from their homes during the war that followed the creation of Israel in 1948. The Government of Jordan, which controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem after the war, housed them and several other families on unoccupied plots of land in these areas, on condition that they surrender their refugee ration cards. The allotment was supervised and endorsed by the UN and all these families have papers proving their ownership.
After the Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1967, organisations like Ateret Cohanim began filing claims to Palestinian-owned houses in Israeli courts on the grounds that these properties belonged to Jews before the formation of the Israeli state. In Jerusalem, the targeted properties include not only allotments to the refugees of 1948 like the al Kurd family, but also the homes of Palestinian Arab families that can trace their history in Jerusalem for hundreds of years. The declared aim of groups like Ateret Cohanim is to move as many Jewish families as possible into East Jerusalem, which is on the Palestinian side of the ‘Green Line’ of 1949 and which Palestinians see as the capital of the Palestinian state. This is a strategy that will ultimately strengthen Israel’s claim to the whole of the city that it identifies as the heart of both the Jewish faith and the Jewish nation.
Speaking to BBC last year, Daniel Luria, the founder of Ateret Cohanim, said “Arabs don’t have the same sort of feeling or devotion or roots here. An Arab has his roots here maybe 30, 40, 50, 70 years. Jews have had their roots here for 3,000 years. This belongs to the Jewish people.”
We visit Umm Nabil in her home, a single-story dwelling of creamy Jerusalem stone standing on around 250 square metres of land. The front of the house is covered with crudely painted six-pointed stars, and a grimy Israeli flag droops limply from a makeshift flagpole. The front door is locked and the windows boarded up – the settlers seem to be out for the day. We walk down the path at the side of Umm Nabil’s front garden, now just an expanse of dry clods littered with rocks. The path is blocked by the “solidarity tent” where volunteers from human rights groups used to camp in an ultimately futile attempt to protect the families of Sheikh Jarrah from eviction. The tattered plastic sheeting is covered with defiant slogans. Mattresses and carpets are stacked along the sides – this is where the men of the family sleep at night.
We catch Umm Nabil at her Friday prayers. She bustles out with a Koran in her hands from the extension at the rear of the house where the extended family now lives, thirteen people in three small rooms. Many of the family’s belongings – an upholstered sofa and chairs, a old carved cupboard, a wooden shelf, copper utensils, a computer monitor and keyboard – are piled around the front door and in the tiny yard at the back. Umm Nabil refuses to remove them. They are a sign of defiance, lying where they were thrown by the settlers on the night they took over the house.
As we come out of Umm Nabil’s gate, a police car drives slowly by. The two young troopers turn their heads in unison, reflecting Ray-Bans getting a good look at us. A red-bearded settler comes out of the house across the street and gives us a hard stare as he saunters by, muttering into a cellphone. A car swings into the lane and parks a few houses away. No one gets out. It is Friday morning and the neighbourhood is silent. The men and boys are at Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque in the Old City. Suddenly, the quiet of the street seems menacing.
Clutching her Koran, Umm Nabil waves us off. She looks very small and defenceless as she goes back to her prayers.
Khawla Hanum’s family has lived in Sheikh Jarrah since 1948. They were served an eviction notice by the Jerusalem Municipality in March 2009 but stayed on in the house with a small solidarity group guarding the gate, expecting an attack every moment. Her hot-headed oldest son wanted to be a hero and fight the Israelis – he was sent away to relatives in the West Bank to keep him safe. After five months, when the solidarity group left and the family relaxed their vigilance, the settlers struck. Khawla Hanum was startled awake in the early hours of the morning to find five fully armed Israeli commandos in her bedroom. One man grabbed her seven-year old daughter by the arm and dragged her out of the door, dislocating her shoulder. Another picked up her three-year old and threw him off the bed. As Khawla Hanum screamed and tried to save her children, she was dragged out and thrown on the street. “It was over in just 30 minutes” says Khawla Hanum. “They had planned everything. They came when there was no one around – no media, no solidarity group. They threw grenades into the street to frighten the neighbours. They broke our mobile phones so that we could not call for help. My sister-in-law fainted, and they laughed and asked us if we wanted an ambulance. Within minutes, a truck came and unloaded the settlers. The soldiers dragged out all our furniture, loaded it into the truck and took it away.”
For six months, the family lived in tents outside the house, braving daily insults and threats from the settlers. When the municipal authorities arrested her husband and his brothers for pitching their tents on public land, Khawla Hanum went to court and got a stay order. The family continues to live on the street. “My children cry when they see the settler children playing with their toys” says Khawla Hanum. “When I begged them to at least return my children’s school books, they tore them up and threw them at us. The settler children frighten our children with abuse and beatings. We have complained to the police many times but they refuse to act. Instead, they threaten to arrest our children for throwing stones at the settlers.”
A few months ago, the municipality sent Khawla Hanum a bill for 13,600 shekels for the “service” of loading her furniture onto the truck and taking it away. Her husband was detained until she paid the full amount.
“Steadfast” is the word most often used by the women of Sheikh Jarrah to describe their resistance. They know that their refusal to move out of the neighbourhood is infuriating the settlers, who are becoming more and more aggressive. Mayssa al Kurd is Umm Nabil’s daughter. Her brother-in-law was seriously injured by an attack dog belonging to one of the settlers, which bit him in the genitals. He nearly bled to death. Mayssa went to the police station to lodge a complaint but found the settlers there before her. The police threatened to arrest Mayssa for provoking the dog. Mayssa’s son and Maysoon al Ghawi’s husband have been issued with restraint orders (renewed every three months) that prohibit them from coming within 200 metres of Sheikh Jarrah. Mayssa’s children have been picked up more than once by the police for throwing stones at the settlers, and are released only after payment of hefty fines. Several times, the women have chased away police details from the street, taunting them for their inability to stop the settlers from attacking Palestinian children.
Fearing for their safety, many of these families have sent away their older boys to relatives in the West Bank. The younger children are traumatised and depressed, wandering aimlessly up and down the street or standing for hours at the gates of their old homes. Maysoon’s four year old son cries himself to sleep every night. “He says he wants to sleep in his own bed” she tells us. “It’s the only thing that makes me break down.” Many of the older boys have been sent away for fear that they might do something that would give the police an excuse to arrest them as terrorists. Their mothers can see them only rarely – crossing the checkpoints is not easy for Palestinians, especially for these women who are defying the might of the Israeli state.
The demographics of East Jerusalem are changing rapidly, with hundreds of Jewish families living in settlements dotted across East Jerusalem. Rema Hammami, an East Jerusalem resident who teaches at the Institute of Women’s Studies in Birzeit University, says that the settler strategy is to create “facts on the ground” that will make it impossible for anyone to even consider giving up this half of the city to the Palestinians. Standing on the roof of the Austrian Hospice in the Arab Quarter of the Old City, she points out the tell-tale signs of settler takeover – Israeli flags, massed floodlights and surveillance cameras are clearly visible among the water tanks and assorted junk on the roofs of several of the buildings around us.
The settlers themselves are remarkably open about their agenda. Speaking on camera in a 2009 documentary , Arieh King, who describes himself as a Zionist real estate agent, tells the filmmaker “If we want to make their life difficult and to make their programs of dividing the city difficult, we need to bring Jews to all over Jerusalem. We are already succeeding. We are already in a much better situation than we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago and 30 years ago and 42 years ago.” King claims that he has identified 800 properties that belonged to Jews in the Ottoman era and has tracked down their descendants, many of whom now live abroad. He offers them legal support in coming back and “reclaiming their rights”. Rema confirms that most of the Sheikh Jarrah settlers are recent imports from the US.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been declared illegal under international law. The international community does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which are considered occupied territories. While the Israeli government claims to have no control over the settlers and their activities, it continues to provide settler colonies with police or even military protection. Israeli courts routinely rule in favour of settler claims based on documents from the early 19th Century, ignoring any transactions that may have taken place in the intervening years. The Israeli Municipality is also actively supporting the settler agenda by demolishing Palestinian properties in Jerusalem, usually on the grounds that they have been constructed without proper planning permission – which is in fact the case, since the authorities refuse to grant building permits to non-Jewish applicants. Families whose homes have been demolished are asked to pay for carting away the debris, or face a fine of $200 per day for littering.
On the other hand, Palestinian claims to family property in West Jerusalem are not entertained either by the Israeli government or by the courts. Speaking on camera to filmmaker Sophie McNeill, an official from the Israeli Foreign Ministry explained why. “For a very simple reason” he says, “There was a war. The war was forced on Israel. And I think it’s also time for people to stop whining. You know, you start a war and then you lose, and then you whine about it, that you should be compensated for your aggression.”
Rema points out that, apart from the house-by-house takeover being implemented by private enterprises like Ateret Cohanim, the Israeli government is itself building new suburban housing developments in a ring around East Jerusalem, and offering attractive incentives such as tax breaks for Jewish families who move into them. The Israeli government plans to construct 25,000 more Jewish homes in East Jerusalem by 2015. Rema estimates that the Jewish population in East Jerusalem has already been increased by around 250,000 through this exercise in urban planning that, in contrast to the settler takeovers, attracts neither the attention nor the condemnation of the international community.
Driving with Rema along the Jericho Road we come up abruptly against a high barrier of 25-foot high concrete slabs topped with rolls of razor wire – the “anti terrorist fence” to Israelis, the “apartheid wall” to Palestinians. The Wall is hundreds of miles long (according to Rema, only the Great Wall of China is longer) and constitutes a physical demarcation of the expanding boundaries of Israel. Around 10 percent of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank have already been “annexed” by the wall, as has most of Jerusalem, in violation of the “Green Line” boundary demarcated in 1949.
Originally proposed in 1992 by the Rabin government, construction of the Wall began during the talks in Oslo and proceeded at a fast pace until the Peace Agreement of 2007. The Wall has been declared illegal and in violation of international law by the International Court of Justice, but is supported by Israeli organisations like “Fence for Life” which is pushing for the completion of the target of 750 kilometres and is building some sections with money raised from the public. Incidents like the recent killing of a settler couple and their children in the West Bank are being used by such organisations to drum up support for the Wall.
The Wall follows an apparently arbitrary route that diverges from the “Green Line” by as much as 20 kilometres in some areas. Many Israeli settlements in the West Bank are now on the Israeli side of the Wall, and some Palestinian towns are almost encircled by it. Qalqilyah, a city with a population of about 45,000, is completely surrounded by the Wall and is accessible only through a military checkpoint and an underground tunnel that connects it to one adjoining village.
Palestinian Arab families like the Sheikh Jarrah community who were counted in the census conducted after the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel have the status of “permanent residents” of Jerusalem. In 1995, Israel began revoking the residency of those who could not prove that Jerusalem was still their “centre of life” – to date, more than 3000 individuals have been dispossessed by this policy. In order to retain their status as permanent residents, Palestinians who live abroad are required to visit Jerusalem at least once every three years. The loss of residency status in cases where such provisions are not met is automatic and often occurs without the knowledge of the person concerned.
According to a 1998 judgement of the Israeli Supreme Court, Arab residents of Jerusalem have a legal right to vote in municipal elections, pay taxes and claim social security benefits and state health care. None of this has any meaning for the women of Sheikh Jarrah. “We just want our homes back” they say. “The rest we will take care of ourselves.”
Women like Umm Nabil and Mayssa al Kurd know that the odds are against them. They are cynical about the journalists and people from international NGOs who come for “coffee and photos”, offer money and then disappear without a trace. Some Israeli women’s groups are in solidarity with them and oppose the settlements, but are too small a minority in Israel to have any political impact. The Palestinian women’s movement stands in staunch support, but is itself under siege on several fronts.
As Israel steps up its demographic offensive in East Jerusalem, the women in the frontline of struggle and resistance are aware of their increasing vulnerability but are determined to stand steadfast against the settlers. “Don’t be taken in by our tears” says Mayssa. “This is the land of our ancestors and we’re not leaving. We may weep but we will stay.”
(The author visited Palestine in 2011. She is grateful to colleagues at Birzeit University and to Umm Nabil al Kurd and her comrades in Sheikh Jarrah, for their generosity in sharing their experiences and their political insights on Palestinian struggles in Jerusalem.)
More on Palestine in Kafila archives:
- 7 November 2012: “I’m waiting,” was the response. “I’m waiting for the Third Intifada.”
- 25 October 2012: “We politely make it impossible for them to live here.”