Among the range of emotions I have felt since making East Jerusalem my home — almost three months ago now — there is one particular feeling that has held sway over the others: a feeling of disbelief.
On more occasions than I can remember, I have found myself responding with a mixture of shock and skepticism. Politely challenging, probing, scraping away at what I have assumed must be the sheen. I have had no reason to distrust the people sharing their experiences, but in hearing and bearing witness to these stories, I have had to confront what life under the Occupation really means for Palestinians. Worse still, my previous willingness to accept the ‘Palestinian conflict,’ according to the broad brushstrokes that dominate the political and media narratives, has been laid bare. Those debates, as I have found, conveniently evade the day-to-day; the routine of life under Occupation.
Stand anywhere in East Jerusalem and overtly prejudicial Israeli state policies, laws, and attitudes towards Palestinians can be clearly seen. They have the effect of dehumanizing, stifling, and punishing all those caught in the Occupation’s grip. This has meant that questions about the Palestinian ‘right to exist’ has dominated my first few months here. Take a recent example.
A friend — a twenty-two year old Danish Palestinian woman who is visiting here as a volunteer — travelled from Jerusalem to Akko on Israel’s north coast to visit family. Asma (not her real name) reached the bus station in plenty of time for her return trip; she was due to be part of a Danish delegation touring the Occupied Palestinian Territories on her return to Jerusalem.
She took her place on the bus as it gradually filled up. Just as it was about to leave, a soldier hopped on, hoping to catch a ride. Unfortunately for him, Asma thought, the bus was full. As the soldier was boarding, Asma noticed the driver shouting in her direction through his rear view mirror. She was unable to understand what he was saying at first. Hebrew is one of the few languages Asma doesn’t speak. In response to Asma’s quizzical look and indication she didn’t understand Hebrew, he switched to English, continuing his harangue unfazed. In the same angry, impatient tone he repeatedly said: “no fake blood on my bus.”
It’s hard sometimes to make sense of the idiotic rantings of a racist, so I’m not going to try. Save to say, Asma wears a headscarf, and is evidently Muslim, and, in this context, Palestinian. If her awful experience ended at one nasty, racist individual, it would still be noteworthy. Unfortunately for Asma, who was a young woman traveling alone amongst strangers, people around her in the bus joined in the chanting and ranting. “They started laughing and hitting their seats,” she recounted to me with amazing stoicism. Asma explained that she felt so humiliated, intimidated, and uncomfortable she acceded and left the bus to the cheers of her fellow travelers. In the end, the soldier got the seat he was looking for.
I naively asked Asma whether she could have reported the incident to someone: security, police, someone in charge. She said the bus was full of police and soldiers. They were her tormentors in chief.
Asma sacrificed the bus ticket she had paid for and the spot on the bus she was almost first in-line for. She waited for the next bus in a state of mind I cannot fully imagine and, therefore, cannot accurately represent.
She took a later bus and arrived safely in Jerusalem albeit an hour late. Life went on. Undaunted, Asma would carry on exploring her familial homeland, in the months that followed. As she explained to me,“What else is there but to carry on?”
I felt angry Asma had had such a demeaning experience. Worse still, I felt entirely helpless. As we sat at the summit of the Mount of Olives enjoying a beautiful sunny day and looking over Jerusalem’s breathtakingly evocative and simmering Old City, I was unable to offer anything meaningfully redeeming. Asma had, I could tell, already moved on. She re-told the story as a matter of fact. Filed it away. Waited for a time when its impact would further diminish; and vowed to make sure, in future, to travel around Israel only with other people she knew. Cue further agitation on my part. What had Asma done to deserve this?
Inevitably, Asma was right: there was no one to report such a horrific incident to; no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again.
In passing on Asma’s story, I wonder how many people will suggest or insist there must have been more to it? A reflex to doubt; to disbelieve; to excuse those things which are ugly, unfair, intractable is not an unusual human instinct particularly when we are complicit in the circumstances that permit such behaviors.
Whose Right to Exist?
If this particularly shocking story feels disproportionate, sadly there are others. The weary thread linking the stories of Palestinians in Jerusalem is a feeling of isolation and injustice in a city where they have lived for centuries. My experience of life here in East Jerusalem has unfortunately convinced me that such instances or patterns of behavior are not unusual, and betray a very discriminatory and unequal society. All power is centered in the hands of the Israeli authorities. Palestinians play no part. Exercise no influence. Have no voice.
In Jerusalem, the deployment of state power is influenced by the zealots who cannot accept the city’s status as a place no one religion has the right to claim. The facts on the ground have created a place where Palestinians — a diminishing one-half of Jerusalem’s citizens — have no input in the state institutions they finance through their taxes. Worse still, they are deliberately denied the rights and protections they see those in the western half of the city enjoy, and, inevitably, those Israeli citizens now occupying homes in East Jerusalem.
It is unsurprising that almost all of the Palestinians I have spoken to have described feeling exactly as Asma felt: vulnerable. Who is there for them?
Human decency fares badly in this holy city. Take ‘United Jerusalem Day.’ It ranks high among the worst experiences I have had during my time here. Jerusalem Day, “Yom Yerushalayim” in Hebrew, is an Israeli national holiday that commemorates Jerusalem’s reunification and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City in the aftermath of the June 1967 Six-Day War. Part of the celebration includes an event called the “March of Flags”. In 2014 Leanne Gale of the Jewish Daily Forward described the march this way:
The March of Flags has become an annual tradition in which thousands of ultranationalist Jewish celebrants parade through the city waving Israeli flags. It culminates in a dramatic march through the Muslim Quarter, generally accompanied by racist slogans and incitement to violence. Israeli police arrive in the area earlier in the day, sealing off entry to Palestinian residents ‘for their own safety.’ Those Palestinians who live in the Muslim Quarter are encouraged to close their shops and stay indoors, while any Palestinian counter-protest is quickly dispersed.
I happened to be close to the Old City during this year’s Jerusalem Day march, which was covered in a recent report by Channel 4 News in the UK (below). Whilst not intending to counter-protest, I was by my proximity, deemed to be. The Israeli police and security forces were, I can now say after living here, typically heavy handed and indiscriminate in attacking Palestinians.
I will leave you to make up your own minds about the motives and affect of the ‘March of the Flags’ parade through the Palestinian section of the Old City. For me, the shock at witnessing the sectarian march was also etched with disbelief. International law, and even policy, recognizes that Jerusalem is also a city for the Palestinians. But that means little on the ground. As an event sanctioned and tolerated by the authorities, the impact Jerusalem Day’s abusive, racist sloganeering has on the people it targets is difficult to express in human terms.
Nureddin immediately demanded my respect. He had single handedly established and was now successfully managing a primary school for the integrated education of disabled and able-bodied children. What’s more, he had done this in East Jerusalem without any public funding from local or national Israeli authorities. I should also add that Nureddin is blind.
Nureddin’s story is a deeply personal one, yet still all too common in East Jerusalem. Regrettably, he is among a significant group of Palestinians who have had their worst fears realized, as victims of nighttime assaults against their homes perpetrated by Israeli forces armed with bulldozers.
Twelve people lived in the home Nureddin shared with his brother, who is also blind, along with their wives and seven children, all under fourteen years old, as well as their seventy-nine year old mother. On Tuesday March 31, 2015 at approximately 5 am, Israeli authorities, including the military, police, and others, arrived to give effect to their planning regime. In Nureddin’s own words “They attacked us and locked us in one of the rooms. My son and brother were injured. They stayed for four hours and destroyed four rooms, the garden. They would not give us time to take anything from the rooms. All of our things, the children’s pets, their rabbits and chickens were killed under the rubble.”
Again disbelief, incredulity. Surely this could not have happened? I knew that the phenomenon of house demolitions was a very real one but it wasn’t until the tragedy happened to someone I knew that I began to fully confront the callousness. The justification? It’s as much of a mystery to Nureddin and his family as it is to the rest of us.
The planning laws in East Jerusalem have one thing in common with their counterparts around the world: they are impossibly technical. In every other respect, however, East Jerusalem’s building regulations are a form of community engineering, a very real example of the day-to-day discriminatory burdens faced by Palestinians as compared with their Israeli neigbors. The ‘Layman’s Guide to Home Demolitions in East Jerusalem,’ by Terrestial Jerusalem, an Israeli NGO working to highlight these policies, provides all the context I cannot here.
For Palestinians in Jerusalem, a permit to lawfully extend their homes is all but a straw man. As with all other things in East Jerusalem, they are subject to the laws but afforded no right to influence them.
The Front Line
Life in East Jerusalem is palpably tense, even for an outsider like me. The beauty of the city masks the ugly, underlying anxieties created by concerted and organized attempts by Israeli settlers to move into the city and displace its Palestinian inhabitants.
Anyone who has the disingenuity to suggest this should be celebrated as co-existence has not spent any time living here.
There is certainly no possibility for Palestinians to live in the affluent Israeli neighborhoods of West Jerusalem. And Orthodox Jewish groups have made clear that, in moving to Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem, their intention is to displace and further marginalize the Palestinian population. The Israeli academic Oren Yiftachel has put it this way: “Israel would like the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to see Judaization as ‘inevitable’, a fact to be accepted passively as part of the modern development of the metropolis.” The presence of these settlers also creates a continuing police presence in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians understandably fear.
It is an exceedingly uncomfortable environment in which to live, and, for Palestinians, particularly restrictive, intimidating, and hostile – a constant reminder of a state supported policy to deny them their right to be, to exist.