I can’t believe I’m here again, starting a journal four years after my last stint in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Occupation is still both depressingly the same and even more depressingly, changed by hi-tech ‘improvements’.
Plenty has changed on the political front. In the Israeli elections earlier this year, the ruling Kadima Party’s Tzipi Livni won a larger share of the vote but was unable to form a government. Binyamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party eventually formed a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman’s further to the right Ysrael Beitenu party together with an assortment of smaller religious and settler parties. Netanyahu is prime minister, ex-IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon is his deputy and Lieberman is Foreign Minister, a lurch to the right by any standards.
On the Palestinian side, when I was last here, Hamas had just won the elections. They were, however, prevented from governing when the EU cut off funding to the PA. They were also unable to form a coalition government with the previous ruling Fateh party and the subsequent infighting between the two sides resulted in Fateh taking control of the West Bank and Hamas ruling in Gaza. (There is much more to this, of course, including the West and Israel choosing the loser in the elections Abu Mazen as the man to fund.).
Then the two year siege of Gaza started, followed by Qasam rockets, and earlier this year, the Israeli onslaught which killed 1,500 people, dropped white phosphorus on a captive civilian population and left Gazan infrastructure in ruins…
On the brighter side, Obama is taking a potentially more even-handed approach to the conflict, following the Bush administration’s symbiosis with the Israeli agenda. Similar cracks in unconditional support for Israel have been seen in Europe.
So, what will I be doing? That has changed too. On my first stint, I lived up in Tulkarem, a town in the north west of the Occupied Territory. This time I am based Jerusalem. I still hope that by describing what I see and telling the stories of the people I meet I can again illustrate how the Occupation damages both sides: dispossessing and impoverishing the Palestinians and brutalising the Israelis. And how Jerusalem holds the key to peace.
(N.B.Historical note. As you know, Israel unilaterally annexed the Palestinian eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967 and wants undivided Jerusalem to be its capital. The UN and its member states have never agreed to this and deem all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal (Res. 465). Nevertheless, Israel has gradually extended its population into East Jerusalem and now almost as many Israelis live there as Palestinians: 250,000 to 300,000 (300,000 Israelis in West Jerusalem). Many Jewish areas are well consolidated and many residents would not even think of themselves as living in occupied territory. Palestinian Jerusalemites are squeezed into smaller and smaller areas or are eventually forced out over the other side of the Separation Barrier into the West Bank and risk losing their valuable Jerusalem IDs. ( In the complicated system of ID cards, Palestinian Jerusalemites are Israeli residents with many social benefits, but not citizens ).
My team (Jenny, Gianluca, and France) lives atop the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, in the Augusta Victoria guesthouse belonging to the Lutheran Church. It’s a haven of peace and tranquillity, with a purple bougainvillea on the wall and a beautiful soft breeze to cool the scorching August heat. To one side is a view over the Judean desert to the Dead Sea and Jordan and to the other over the domes and spires of the Holy City. And on that side I can also see all the signs of Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem.
The Western press is currently full of Obama’s call for a settlement freeze. But the Ministry of the Interior, Jerusalem City Council and the settler movement seem determined it will not happen in this city. Palestinian population growth needs to be limited in East Jerusalem because according to city council figures, the higher Palestinian birth rate will give them the demographic advantage in Jerusalem as a whole after 2015. Control is achieved by planning laws, house demolitions and transferring property from Palestinians to Israelis. Since I was last here, the settlers’ trademark Star of David flags are flying atop many, many more buildings, both inside the Old City and the Holy Basin around it. Property may be acquired by stealth but once the flags are up they proudly proclaim “This is now ours”. Settler groups are accelerating their claims to long earmarked properties and recently there has been a spate of forcible evictions of Palestinian families. Solidarity with the victims of these evictions and advocacy on their behalf is one major focus of the EAPPI Jerusalem team.
Two main areas are being targeted. One is the smart residential area of Sheikh Jarrah to the north of the Old City where settlers plan to develop 500 settlement units. First to be evicted was the Al Kurd family, in November 2008, in a police raid that left them on the street with their furniture in the middle of the night. Mr Al Kurd later died of a heart attack and his wife Um Kamel pitched a tent on a nearby parking lot which has been destroyed and re-erected six times.
Next, just two weeks ago, on August 2, the Hanoun and Al Ghawi families, comprising 53 people including 20 children, were similarly evicted. Settlers moved in the same day, and the families are now camping on the street opposite their former homes, the settlers having failed to get a court order to move them on. These families have lived in Sheikh Jarrah since the mid 50s when, previously refugee-ed from West Jerusalem, they received funding from the UNWRA to build their homes on land provided by the Jordanian government. But in a protracted court case, the settlers claimed (with documents now proven to be false) that Jews had owned the land before that. The first judge resigned rather than make a decision, the second ruled for the settlers. When we visited Mr Hanoun, he said “OK, if that is the law, let them take this house but give me back my house in West Jerusalem.” Unfortunately, the justice that settlers have access to does not apply to this mild mannered Palestinian.
Legal channels are now closed to the Hanouns and Al Ghawis but 25 of their neighbours’ in Sheikh Jarrah, a total 475 people, have also had evictions orders served on them. Although he is very tired and anxious, Mr Ghawi is still fighting. He told us yesterday that everything must be done to stop Shiekh Jarrah becoming a second Hebron, where Israeli settler families tyrannise Palestinian families after taking over neighbourhoods in the historic centre. The fact that the settlers’ group targeting Sheikh Jarrah is funded by US Bingo king Irving Moscowitz, who also funds the Hebron settlers, is ominous. Mr Ghawi hopes international solidarity and diplomatic pressure can help where justice has failed. And ironically, the evictions are taking place right under our diplomats’ very noses since many of the nearby traditional old stone Palestinian mansions now house Consulates. The consular missions have protested the settler plan but it steams on. The American Colony Hotel where ‘peace envoy’ Tony Blair resides on the top floor is literally just around the corner from the Hanouns. So, how about it, Tony, it’s in your own backyard after all?
Even larger numbers of evictions are planned in Silwan, on the south side of East Jerusalem, to make way for landscaped gardens, shrines and monuments to honour King David who Israelis believe lived there.
Archeologists have been digging in this area for many years without coming up with any concrete evidence but since the settler movement Elad was made responsible for the preservation of the City of David national park, in the heart of Silwan, it has been turned from an archeological into a political project. Our team visits this area regularly to talk to the families, get updates and take part in their protests. After eviction orders have been served, police can come hours, days, or years later but usually at any time. The waiting causes tremendous anxiety and children are traumatised by the fear and helplessness they see in their parents.
So, Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and the Mount of Olives which also has big settler projects, are the current targets. This year alone, from January to July, the UN has documented forcible displacement of 194 people, including 95 children. Another 107, including 46 children, have been affected by house demolitions. Conservative UN estimates show that 1,500 demolition orders are pending. How is it that no compensation is offered and children can be turfed out onto the street in front of homes that their families have lived in for generations without anyone batting an eyelid? (Child protection laws? Organisations defending children?)
Of course, it’s not true that everybody looks the other way. The Israeli peace camp opposes the spread of settlements. Part of our team’s mandate is to support their activities too. The other day we joined a demonstration called by Peace Now to protested ex-US presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s presence at a settler-organised barbecue in the grounds of the derelict Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah, a formerly Palestinian owned hotel expropriated by the Israeli authorities in 1967. The hotel was transferred in 1985 to a settler group that plans to build 90 housing units on its adjacent land. Huckabee, a Christian Zionist, was greeted by peacenik banners saying “Don’t make us Jews part of your Armageddon”, and opposite them settler banners saying “There’s no such place as Palestine” or alternatively “There is a Palestinian state, it’s called Jordan.” It was relatively good humoured until the settlers descended on the nearby Hanoun and Al Ghawi families pavement camp to harass and insult them.
Another Israeli group fighting Palestinian displacement is the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICADH). We went to their ‘key handing over ceremony’ at the end one of their summer rebuilding camps. Speakers included ICADH’s director, Father Christmas look-alike Jeff Halper; Salim Shawamreh who has had his house demolished and rebuilt four times; a spokesperson for the happy owners of spanking new houses; and Bruno a very handsome Finn on behalf of the international construction team. The rebuilding was funded by the Spanish government, which also paid the fares of 42 of the 80 volunteers. The ceremony was interspersed with bouts of music and Dabke dancing, after which everyone retired to Salim’s house for a barbeque-ed West Bank sheep, among the best meat on earth. Our spirits were temporarily lifted by the joyous atmosphere, the kind of moment that makes volunteering worthwhile.
When I was in Tulkarem I had little contact with Israeli peace activists but in Jerusalem I have a lot and it is very inspiring. Increasingly marginalised in recent years but allowed to do their work, organisations like New Profile, Breaking the Silence and Rabbis for Human Rights are now being harassed and stigmatised. One activist currently facing a prison sentence is Ezra Nawi, who has for years tried to protect Palestinian shepherds from settler attempts to drive them from their land in the South Hebron hills. He was convicted of assaulting a policeman during a house demolition, although a video of the incident on YouTube tells a different story. Last Sunday, we waited outside the Jerusalem district courthouse where Ezra was to be sentenced (sentencing has already been postponed once). He is on record as saying he is being targeted because he is not the typical Israeli peace activist: he is gay, a Mizrahi (Arab speaking Jew, from Iraq) and working class (a plumber), as well as a lifelong defender of Palestinian rights. He says the authorities thought he would be a soft touch. But representatives of the US organisation Jewish Voices for Peace were in court with 20,000 signatures supporting him. So, thanks to the internet, Ezra is not alone. Sentencing was suspended again on Sunday; activists outside said the judge was waiting to see which way the political wind blows. They joked that if Ezra got community service, he could maybe do it in the South Hebron hills…
Needless to say, checkpoints will be a major focus for us. Remember that in Tulkarem, checkpoints were stone blocks on dusty roads with a couple of soldiers behind them and may be a watchtower, an earthmover, or a couple of jeeps. You could talk to the soldiers and well, it was inhumane yet it had a human dimension. Round Jerusalem and Bethlehem these checkpoints have morphed into airport terminal-like structures with sophisticated security equipment, x-ray machines, electronic everything. The soldiers sit in reinforced iron cages and shout through loudspeakers.
With the building of the Separation Barrier, 70,000 Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs found themselves on the wrong side of the Wall facing the problem of how to get to their work, school, hospital, holy places and extended families. As gaps in the Wall closed, they were gradually funnelled through a few ‘terminal’ checkpoints, now hugely overcrowded.
Qalandya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem opens at 4.45am (luckily the first call to prayer from a mosque very adjacent to my ear wakes me at 4.30). Workers queue early to be sure of getting to work, since the time it can take to pass is unpredictable. EAPPI has started liaising with the UN and we now count numbers for their statistics. Over 2,000 people (mostly men) pass Qalandya between 5 and 7 am and another 500 before 8. They go first through three main lanes into a turnstile, then into a holding pen before waiting in another line for baggage x-ray and permit checking. At times it is orderly but as soon as a soldier stops a lane or people push in, there is panic. While it may be true that Palestinians don’t have the queueing gene we Brits have, it’s the uncertainty that creates the most chaos and leads to further panic. There is also a Humanitarian Gate for women, children and older men, so they can avoid the first turnstile crush which sometimes looks life threatening. The age limit for this gate used to be over 50 for men but the day we arrived, it rose to over 60 without any warning. The waiting over-50s were turned away and sent to the back to the main lanes. It is hard to watch.
It takes over an hour to pass the checkpoint even early in the morning (plus a bus journey either side). But in reality it’s unpredictable, no one has any idea of when they will get to work. OK, just a harsher, artificially created version of the London Underground, I hear you say, but the consequences are much more serious. Turning up late for work here can mean you lose your hugely valuable work permit since they are often connected to a specific job and with the huge pool of labour available, employers can pick and choose.
However, on my first day I didn’t expect something quite so unpredictable as a power cut. The soldier’s booth blacked out, screens off, loudspeaker down. The turnstiles stopped and an electronic gate next to them sprung open by itself. It lasted about five minutes. There was temporary euphoria as 300 people rushed back out of the lanes and swept through the gate. Of course they only got as far as the pen and to the frustration of those who didn’t make it through, the turnstiles stayed closed while the crowd cleared.
Apart from the odd moment of light relief, it is truly vile and has to be seen to be believed. 90% of people going through this checkpoint have Jerusalem IDs. If it is purely a security check it should be efficient. But Palestinians say it is not intended to be. The fact that the system itself is abusive and also lends itself to petty soldier abuse, suggests that it’s real function is punishment, a system designed to discourage people from using it and ultimately to stop you going to your city.
I’d already come across the Israeli organisation Machsom Watch in Tulkarem but here we see them a lot more. These women go to West Bank checkpoints to monitor their own soldiers’ behaviour. Some of them say they don’t do it to uphold Palestinian rights but to stop the degeneration of their own society that occupation brings. I think they’re altruistic and brave all the same and I hope to get to know some of them personally. Fridays of Ramadan are the worse time of the year at checkpoints into Jerusalem. Think of me and think of the thousands trying to get through to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque.
Disclaimer: Ann Wright is working on the Jerusalem team of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Israel and Palestine (EAPPI). The views expressed herein are her personal opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of EAPPI. For more information on the programme please visit www.eappi.org.