Level Playing Field
Strangers in their homeland
Israel's masterplan for Jerusalem aims at a Jewish majority of around 70 per cent. Palestinian families continue to be evicted from their homes so that this can become a reality…
O n a visit to Jerusalem in December, we met with residents of Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood north of the Old City, where 28 extended Palestinian families are waging a struggle against eviction and displacement by Jewish settlers.
The families came here in 1948 as refugees from Israel. With the sponsorship of the Jordanian government and the United Nations they built their homes and established their community. In 1967, East Jerusalem, including Sheikh Jarrah, was occupied and annexed by Israel. Soon after, Jewish settler groups began laying claim to the land, on the basis of an alleged Ottoman era purchase. But it's only since 2007, as Israel has intensified its efforts to create facts on the ground, especially in Jerusalem, that these claims have secured enough political backing to result in actual evictions. So far, three Sheikh Jarrah families have been removed from their homes, to be instantly replaced by Jewish settlers, who have swathed the occupied building in Israeli flags, barbed wire and surveillance equipment. Eviction orders are pending against the remaining families, with more settlers poised to move in.
The residents of Sheikh Jarrah know their history. They are defending homes built by their families on land that their families have occupied for 60 years, land and homes which they had every reason to believe they were legally entitled to. They have kept vigil under trees. They have camped out in their own gardens. They and their children have been assaulted — by settlers and police. They have tried every conceivable legal recourse, though the Israeli courts rebuff them time and again. They have organised non-violent demonstrations. They have appealed to Obama, the EU and the UN. But the Israelis have plans for Jerusalem and at the moment they see no reason to allow the residents of Sheikh Jarrah — or Silwan or Al-Bustan or any of the other Palestinian neighbourhoods under similar pressure — to stand in their way.
Within weeks of the 1967 war, Israel announced the annexation of 70 sq km of land captured from Jordan and the creation on that land of an enlarged Jerusalem municipality. It declared the “unified” Jerusalem its capitol and shifted its national institutions there. This annexation is in clear violation of international law and has never been formally recognised by other countries, which retain their embassies in Tel Aviv. Yet, at the same time, these governments have been willing to tolerate and, in the case of the US, subsidise the Israeli policy of “Judaisation” of Jerusalem, the policy that ousts the people of Sheikh Jarrah from their homes.
The “master plan” for Jerusalem, endorsed by the Israeli Government and the Jerusalem Municipality, aims explicitly at preserving a Jewish majority of 60 or 70 per cent (the exact ratio is in dispute). It's hard to think of another example, since the fall of South African apartheid, of an ethnic planning quota being adopted as state policy.
In pursuit of ethnic dominance, Israel has created a complex regime of discrimination — in planning, residency rights, restrictions on movement, and provision for education, healthcare and infrastructure. Palestinian private land is confiscated (as at Sheikh Jarrah), settlement building and road construction fragment and limit Palestinian development, and the wall, in its tortured progress through, across, into and out of Jerusalem, sets in concrete the whole policy. This has nothing to do with the security of Israel and everything to do with Israeli control over Palestinians and Palestine as a whole.
Though they were born in the city, have spent their lives there and have no other home, Palestinians resident in Jerusalem are treated like foreign citizens. Unlike Israelis, they must prove that Jerusalem is their “centre of life” if they are to retain the Jerusalem ID card without which they cannot gain access to the city, its markets and services. In order to safeguard their residency status, families crowd into inadequate housing. When they seek permission to expand their homes, they are refused. When, left with no option, they build unapproved extensions, they face demolition.
In the Old City, the Jewish Quarter feels sanitised. The restoration has a heavy touch. The area is colonised by tour groups and the souvenir industry, whose wares include tee shirts bearing the slogans: “Super Jew”, “Don't Worry America Israel's Behind You” (illustrated with a tank), and “Guns n Moses”. In this city of multiple, entwined histories, only one history, one thread, is permitted. The Muslim Quarter, though physically more decaying, lives more in the present. It's a marketplace similar to marketplaces in other Arabic cities, with Palestinians mainly buying from and selling to each other.
Here and there in the Muslim Quarter Jewish settlers have occupied buildings, easily identified by the Israeli flags and bulging security apparatus. I watched Jewish kids playing football on barbed wire enclosed rooftops — a strange form of self-imprisonment. If nothing else, it testifies to an ideological will power strong enough to compel parents to subject their own children to a life of fear and stress.
It's a platitude that Jerusalem means different things to different people. Even in the Bible itself, and certainly in the Talmudic literature that followed, Jerusalem is more a symbol than a geographical space. The city is a metaphor, an object of longing, a place from which we are all exiled, a better world to which we all aspire. In some parts of the tradition Jerusalem is an ideal of social justice. The literalism of Zionism, and of many pro-Zionist Christians, is very much a modern, reductive twist. At Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and elsewhere, it is thin cover for a naked land grab.
Shortly after our visit, the Jerusalem Municipality demolished part of the Palestinian owned Shepherds Hotel, perched on a ridge above the Sheikh Jarrah homes. It is to be replaced by a new apartment block for Jewish settlers. Another blow followed soon after: the revelation in the Palestine Papers — leaked documents published by Al Jazeera and the Guardian — that Palestinian Authority negotiators were prepared to barter away Sheikh Jarrah. The families we met expected little from the PA, but not outright betrayal.
Nonetheless, they feel they have no choice but to continue their struggle. It is a duty to themselves and to the future. They embody the critical Palestinian virtue of “sumoud” — steadfastness. Events in Egypt will have given them new hope. But until world opinion rouses itself against the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, the odds are stacked against them.
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