Houses of al-Quds: Ethnic Cleansing in East Jerusalem

By Clare Bayard

In Silwan, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem adjacent to the Old City, Palestinian families sometimes demolish their own homes when the notice comes because they can’t afford to pay the fines levied upon people after the army bulldozes their houses. Sometimes the eviction notice gives them days, and other times a few hours to pull out several generations’ of possessions before the house is demolished. Sometimes people are given 15 minutes to get out of their house before tear gas is fired through the windows.

Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since 1967, “transferring” thousands of Palestinians from West Jerusalem, which legally obliges the Israeli government to follow the Geneva Conventions that prohibit destruction of housing and property of occupied people. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem is internationally unrecognized, as is Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem as its unified capital. But Jerusalem, the Palestinian capital known in Arabic as al-Quds, is a key battleground in the demographic war that Israel is waging to “reduce density” of Palestinians, with housing struggle as a primary weapon. The goal is to create a solid Jewish majority throughout Occupied East Jerusalem, with contiguous connections to the massive illegal settlement blocs spreading out into the West Bank. Half a million Israeli settlers currently colonize the West Bank, with more than a third of those in East Jerusalem.

One November morning, we sat in a protest tent built atop the roof of one of the 88 houses scheduled for demolition in the center of Silwan. The walls are hung with banners reading “We will never leave our home,” and renderings of olive trees with deep roots. Organizers from the Bustan local committee explained to us that this area of Silwan has been targeted for demolition to make way for a religious theme parky site. The private rightwing corporation ElAd, which has been developing the “City of David” tourist site in Bustan, while digging unpermitted tunnels under the Old City, gained control over Silwan’s archeological sites when the Israeli Antiquities Authority became dependent on its funding. Just as religious sentiment was used to tear down the Old City neighborhood that was demolished to create a plaza much bigger than the worshipping area adjacent to the Western Wall, ElAd and other settler corporations use religion to access public support (and sometimes public funding).

The plan is to level every house in the Bustan district, leaving1500 Jerusalemites homeless. But East Jerusalem’s Palestinian families, most of them refugees already from the Nakba of 1948, are fighting to keep their homes.

A father of 7 who helps coordinate Madaa (Horizon) Silwan, the protest/community-building center, explained to us his choice of nonviolent struggle. He talked about the challenges of teaching tolerance and peace to kids who watch the demolitions of their own and friends’ houses, and grow up angry. How internal social issues like family violence are exacerbated, and then often not dealt with, as people fight for survival. Several protest/community centers in East Jerusalem prioritize youth programming, against the Israeli restrictions that have even disbanded soccer clubs for Palestinian kids. He talks about feeling robbed of the possibilities that other people experience, struggling for the basics while children in other parts of the world have so much more opportunity.

“The world has to move forward together,” he says. “It’s not just about my happiness, but everyone’s.” He discusses how it benefits everyone for families to be happy, healthy and warm. And then he explains how important it is that there are Israelis like Maya Wind, our shministm friend who’s brought us here and who has formed deep bonds with families in these neighborhoods through her work with the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions and Rabbis for Human Rights. “It’s so important for my children to meet her– someone from the other side– to work together, to know some Jews care.”

Learn more about the Center at http://www.madaasilwan.org/, and please consider donating to them– they operate the only library in Silwan, and are looking for donations of good-condition childrens’ books in English and Hebrew.

After visting Silwan, Maya took us to Sheikh Jarrah, the neighborhood where police and settler violence has been reaching new heights. We went to meet the Ghawis, a family who were evicted in August and still sleep outside their home, across the street. The mattress they sleep on under a tarp must be stood on end every day, or the police will tear the tent down as they have many times already. Private security guards, unsurprisingly dark-skinned as Israel exploits every possible method of divide-and-control based on race and ethnicity, guard the Israeli settlers in the Ghawis’ house. As with another family in this neighborhood, Israelis and internationals slept with the families for the last months before their displacement, until finally on August 2nd the soldiers came before dawn, broke their windows, cuffed the adults and threw the children around, and took their house. The Ghawis are already refugees of the Nakba. They were driven from Haifa, a hilly city where Zionist militias rolled barrels of explosives downhill into Palestinian neighborhoods. The Hannouns down the street were similarly evicted on August 2nd, when “small charges” blew up their doors at 4:30 a.m. A company called Nahalat Shimon International plans to demolish the homes of the Hannouns, Ghawis, and others in order to build 200-unit settlement.

Sheikh Jarrah was built by Jordan and the United Nations after the Nakba to house displaced Palestinians. Rightwing settler movements have targeted East Jerusalem as a key area to colonize, are claiming land ownership from British or Ottoman times, predating the homes. Courts collaborate with racially discriminatory policy by upholding settler claims, often on criminal pretexts– one resident told us of settlers breaking into a funeral to fingerprint his grandmother’s corpse to manipulate their claim’s proceedings. The policy is clearly racist in its absolute one-sided application; Palestinians who still hold keys and deeds to homes they were born in have no ability to claim their houses or return home. Yet the Israelis who are colonizing homes in Sheikh Jarrah are not descendants of previous residents, and have no previous connections to these houses (many Israeli settler/colonists throughout the West Bank are recent immigrants, often from the U.S.), while Palestinian claims of house ownership in West Jerusalem moulder in court, never ratified.

How will the precedent set by Israeli courts here evolve the struggles over land and housing in Israel/Palestine? While courts order Palestinian families onto the streets of Sheikh Jarrah, based on spurious ownership claims by Jews, international negotiations have broken for years over the questions of Jerusalem’s identity and on the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their actual homes. Umm al-Kurd, after being evicted, said she’d be willing to give her Sheikh Jarrah home to settlers if she could move back into her original house in Talbiyeh, West Jerusalem. So will Israel reverse its policy and begin honoring the deeds and claims of Palestinians?

A few days after our visit, news broke of approval to build 900 new housing units in Gilo, one of the biggest settlements adjacent to Jerusalem, where 40,000 colonists already live outside the Green Line. In the same week, more Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem were demolished, despite attempts by neighbors to block the entrance to the neighborhood. Just after we returned home, the al-Kurd family was evicted yet again, and the mural painted on their long low garden wall was painted over with stars of David. They are confined to a section of their house, sharing the yard and entrance with the settlers, who burned out in the yard everything flammable from the section of the house they moved into, and who make death threats against the al-Kurds.

Since the DAM delegation arrived back in San Francisco, we’ve been keeping in touch with Israeli activists in al-Quds/Jerusalem who are involved in the housing struggles. As we were preparing for our first reportback in December, we heard stories of the weekly protests in Sheikh Jarrah on the street where the Ghawis and al-Kurds live outside their houses. All 28 families in this neighborhood are under real threat of eviction; 500 people are slated to become homeless.

On the first night of Hanukkah, the border police broke loose in waves of violence on the Palestinians, Israelis and internationals who were assembling nonviolently, with a police permit, on the street. 23 people were arrested, held illegally for 40 hours including a stint in the al-Kurd’s house where the settlers are living, and then released with an order barring them from entering Sheikh Jarrah for a month.

We heard that in the middle of the violence, police beating, pepper-spraying the face of a handcuffed professor, dragging people across the stones, a typical Palestinian moment occurred. An elder from one of the evicted families had prepared a trayful of strong, sweet coffee in little cups. He went through the crowd offering coffee to the protestors, in the manner of extending hospitality that our delegation experienced so many times while in the West Bank, as the police swarmed and struck people all around him. This struggle is not new to people whose experience of displacement began when they were children, and who know they belong on the land, despite what the police, army, courts and colonists say.

Now, in late December, as police continue to arrest protestors every Friday outside these families’ homes, we hear that Israel’s housing ministry has approved plans to build almost 700 new apartments in three Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem. Ideologically motivated settlers (as opposed to settlers whose primary motivation for becoming colonists is the government subsidies of the settlements) brought their anger into the streets earlier this month when a toothless “settlement freeze” was announced– ten thousand marched in West Jerusalem, houses and cars and a mosque were burned, and settlers threatened to invade al-Aqsa Mosque. Despite the “freeze,” construction continues on thousands of West Bank units. Many of these units are built on privately owned Palestinian land, often seized first by the military for “security purposes” before being turned over to settlement contractors.

Now settlers are expanding what they call a “price tag” campaign– to raise the cost of any slowdown on settlement expansion by targeting Palestinian civilians. On Christmas at midnight, 30 settlers broke into the Sabbagh family’s home, knifed and punched teenagers, and kicked a pregnant woman’s stomach. Later in the day, 20 settlers attacked the Ghawis with stones. When an Israeli ambulance finally arrived, the medics refused to treat or transport the injured Palestinian children. The combination of street violence by rightwing radicals, in collaboration with policies of racial discrimination enacted by state institutions and upheld by its officials on every level from the courts to the police, is not unfamiliar to us as U.S. citizens. We recognize this toxic blend in our home too, just as many elements of Israeli society, which is so heavily militarized it’s hard to call it “civil society,” recall our own.

Palestinian residents of different East Jerusalem neighborhoods and Israeli activists with organizations including the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Anarchists Against the Wall, and Rabbis for Human Rights are strategizing together and marching together. Every week, more people are arrested, settlers attack Palestinian adults and children on the street, and homes are demolished or seized. And every week the protests have grown larger– from 50 just a few weeks ago to 500 this past Friday. New videos of each protest post on Youtube each week. Last week, we saw one of the cofounders of Breaking the Silence being marched by the police into the temporary holding area of the occupied al-Kurd house, tossing off a “Shabat Shalom” to the camera.

In 2002, the year the Ghawis and Hannouns endured their first eviction (they were later “allowed” to return to their homes), then-Tourism Minister and member of Knesset Benny Elon described the intention behind colonizing Sheikh Jarrah. “Our strategic plan for the city is a belt of Jewish continuity from East to West,” he said while leading a press tour through the neighborhood. Elon helped begin this colonization the year before, leading a group of settlers under police escort into Sheikh Jarrah to invade homes and place settlers, in a nighttime invasion during which a two-year old baby was thrown out a second-story window. The focus Elon describes of ethnically cleansing Palestinian neighborhoods adjacent to the Old City is a logical strategy to divide East Jerusalem from the West Bank and connect it to the existing rings and arms of settlements.

Statistics of homes demolished (24,145 since 1967) and new settlement units approved create on-the-ground obstacles to democracy and peace. The continued use of the army to destroy homes and evict families is a continuation of the Nakba– the militarized displacement of Palestinians as part of a plan to control the demographics and establish a fully Judaized Israel, with its capital city cleansed of Arabs.

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Symbols Earned

By Matthew Edwards

I first heard about the weekly protests at Bil’in and Nil’in on a cold and gray March day in 2008 while standing outside the Israeli consulate in San Francisco. I was told that for close to five years, first in Bil’in and then later in Nil’in, weekly protests were being organized by village popular committees against the building of the separation wall that was cutting off Palestinian villagers from their land. A fellow rebel against the empire had been critically wounded by Israeli soldiers while participating in one of these weekly protests at Nil’in near Ramallah, Palestine. I was on the streets that day because I needed to say publicly with the presence of my body that violence against protesters, the building of the separation wall, and the occupation itself are not acceptable with me.

The consulate demo ended with police whacking people with batons and a few arrests.

When D.A.M. was invited to attend the Friday protest in Bil’in on Nov. 13th it was accepted with little question that we needed to see with our own eyes what happens there. D.A.M.’s research prior to us leaving pointed to a few areas that seemed to act as flashpoints of direct confrontation between the IDF and settlers against Palestinians, Internationals, and Israeli activists. Along with Hebron and East Jerusalem, it was decided that Bil’in was a place that needed to be visited for a deeper understanding of the effects of militarism.

In the past two years there have been five murders of civilians by IDF troops at these weekly demos. Over a dozen people have been left in wheelchairs, maimed, shot with live ammunition, or are dealing with the effects of brain damage. Dozens more have been injured by rubber coated bullets and rocket propelled gas canisters. Hundreds if not thousands have been gassed.

When we got to the house of Iyad Bournat, a Bil’in Popular Committee member and the one who invited us to the protest, I met an Irish activist who produced from the bookshelf a high velocity teargas round. These palm length inch and a half diameter rounds are supposed to be fired from great distances and not at individuals. I was told that the particular round that I was holding in my hand was the one that killed Bassem Abu Rahme, the last death to occur at Bil’in in April 2009. He was shot in the chest from a few meters away with this “non-lethal” round. It was said he got up off the ground after the initial impact, took a few steps and collapsed suffering from hemothorax, or blood filling the lung cavities caused by blunt force trauma. This is the same type of round that struck Tristan Anderson and brought me to the consulate that gray March day.

After a series of speeches by local activists, Knesset members, PLO functionaries, and D.A.M., we marched to the fence. Alcohol wipes were passed out to help protesters breath during gas attacks. The smell and sting of tear gas is unforgettable. Even a few parts per million can be felt on the tip of the nose, in the back of the throat, or in the eyes. Besides the acidic twinge of gas was the sulfur undertone from the rocket propellent used to push the gas grenades faster and higher.

As the march rounded the village and opened up into what remained of the agricultural land, it was met by a small skirmish between the IDF forces and masked “shabab” – young men from the village. Over 60% of Bil’in was annexed by Israel when they began building the wall, meaning that the village has lost most of its access to the olive trees and other agricultural land. This was what the villagers were fighting for. The rocket propelled gas grenades produced their first injury of the day. An American had been hit in the head and was bleeding. He would be fine, later taken to a hospital for stitches.

We had heard that it was preferred for Internationals to go to Bil’in first before going to Nil’in. This way folks can acclimate somewhat to the nature of protest in Israel and Palestine. Bil’in’s protest has been going on for some time and because the fence was already in place the protest has turned into a contest of wills. Palestinians, Internationals, and Israelis endure gas attack after gas attack while trying to get to the gate of the fence. A squad of soldiers stands at the ready with rifles, shields, and gas grenades just incase any protester gets to close to the gate. On the hill above the gate more soldiers with rifle fired gas canisters stand prepared, firing in unison, trying to push the protesters back. Rocks are thrown by masked youth presumably from the village. Most hit the fence and bounce off harmlessly, others ricochet off of shields. Soldiers have been known to get injured but none that day.

If people weren’t killed on a regular basis it would almost seem a game. Under fire from multiple grenades one man was able to post a small Palestinian flag on the fence. As soldiers attempted to remove the flag he was met by a shower of stones. The army responded by using the vehicle-mounted gas delivery system that launches 30 canisters at once. Falling from the sky like rocks they blanket the area with thick smoke. Most of the internationals and Israelis had fallen back and the protest was called off. Those two hours seemed to go by like a snap of the fingers. Tea was served at various houses and stories of near misses by rocket grenades were told.

The next week I found myself in Nil’in. I was alone as the rest of D.A.M. was meeting individuals in the Golan Heights. I wasn’t totally sure why I’d decided to go to Nil’in. I hoped it want a silly sense of bravado. I really just wanted to see what it was like for people to truly put themselves on the line for what they believed in.

Two weeks, before activists had torn down one of the eight meter high concrete slabs to mark the fall of the Berlin wall. Last week, two activists were shot with live ammunition. The same was going to happen that day as well. The atmosphere at Nil’in was solemn. A hundred Palestinian males were praying together in an olive grove overlooking the protest sight while another hundred internationals and Israelis stood behind them. There were rumors that the Israeli secret service was going to arrest internationals. The night before the Israeli SS kidnapped a Palestinian activist from Bil’in.

The concrete wall separating Nil’in from the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Illit could be seen on the horizon. I understand now why Internationals are asked to go to Bil’in first. The protest at Nil’in covers a larger area that spans a kilometer of the wall. So while the action is dispersed across a larger area, that action takes a much more sinister form. The crack of live ammunition is unforgettable. The twang and pitch of the sound lets you know how close it came to you. While the wind was with us that day it did not stop the canisters from flying. The falling canisters from the vehicle-mounted systems were raining down on us. Huge plumes of gas were wafting into the settlement on the other side of the wall. Sections of the wall were billowing black smoke either from Molotov cocktails or burning tires. The Red Crescent was rushing into action with stretchers and gas masks as the live rounds fired into the crowd were meeting their marks. It was intense. I left after 3 or 4 hours. It went on longer. In the end people just started to go home. The protest was over.

A Jerusalem-based Israeli activist who has been going to these weekly protests since they began in 2005 told me why for the past few months he’s been training a team of medic to operate as support for the Red Crescent. “The injuries being sustained,” he said, “are horrible, but they can be planned for. They are the injuries that people get when they get shot by bullets or rockets. Some of those who’ve died did not have to. So we train people and supply them with the things they need to keep people stable until they can be driven to a hospital.” Later over drinks this same activist told me about his feelings about the weekly protests. “We’ve made Bil’in and Nil’in into symbols that can be understood by all people, including Israelis. People are fighting for their land in a real direct way. So yes, we’ve made symbols out of Bil’in and Nil’in, the walls were still built, and we’re still out there saying no. But people died creating those symbols, the walls are still wrong, and we’ll be back next week. We all fought to have people pay attention and the people in those villages have earned it.”

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Interview with DAM on Flashpoints Radio

Thanks to Nora Barrows-Friedman for this interview:

http://www.flashpoints.net/?p=479/

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Allies in Struggle

When DAM set out for this delegation to Israel and Palestine, our objectives were: to connect the US-led Global War on Terrorism (The Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan) to the US-funded Israeli Occupation of Palestine; build relationships and show direct solidarity to IDF Refusniks, Shministim, as well as activists and organizers resisting the occupation and militarism of society; as well as create a film documentary of the struggles we’ve seen, the stories we’ve heard, and the lessons we’ve learned to share with others organizing for a better world. Besides the film being not able to view yet, I feel as anti-war veterans, war risistors and anti-militarist activists/organizers we’ve been building and making those relationships, connections and much more. For me personally, being Chicano has also brought me to connect and identify Raza struggle with Palestinian struggle on many levels.

At the surface level, many times upon first meeting me people in the West Bank told me they had perceived me to be Arab. We’d smile, I say thank you, and then when asked my family’s origin  I would reply, “Mexican.”  After that, I would even start to get introduced as “Doesn’t he look Arab?” or “This is Eddie from the other village over…” jokingly in Arabic.

On the flip-side, is what treatment comes from being a person of color by the colonizers. Like when soldiers gave me the eye, asked me questions, not in English, off to the side, and came around to watch my back side after private security called them and locked us in the parking lot of a check-point with Machsom Watch while interviewing Palestinians crossing the border on their way from work in Israel back to their homes in occupied Palestine. Or like when in the Hebron marketplace an Arab woman and myself had sand thrown on the both of us by a settler. Coincidence? Or how about being stopped by the police “randomly” on the streets of Tel Aviv in broad day-light and asked where I was from in different languages. Who else in this so-called civil society would you ask that question?

On a deeper level, after discussing and seeing the walls in Palestine and at the US-Mexico border, racism, exploitation of resources, land and labor, prisons, targeting of youth, home raids, the effects of militarism on society, etc. I think when Shadi the guide at Dheisheh Refugee Camp told me “We have similar roots” pretty much sums it up. As I’m sure that all people of color, share similar roots.

Yes, we do have roots in being colonized and having our land stolen. Roots in fighting against high walls and concertina-wired fences that prevent freedom of movement to work the land and to see our family. Rooted in struggle as being used as a cheap source of labor for the will of white bosses, corporate greed, or state interests. Sharing roots of being profiled, policed and imprisoned due to poverty , racism, and the violence of citizenship laws as second-class citizens. United in keeping our precious roots alive through culture, customs, and heritage in an ever-growing mono-cultural world. Our roots, through struggle have grown into beautiful and thriving communities and we aren’t going with out a fight!

After the damage I have done to Arab communities in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, I am fortunate and glad to have been here taking a stand with the people of Palestine as a natural ally, instead of a foreign enemy.

 La Lucha Continua y Viva la Puebla Palestina.

Eddie Falcon

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This Land is My Land, Your Land is My Land

By Stephen Funk of Iraq Veterans Against the War

If it’s Sunday night chances are Susan Laurenco is having a hard time getting to sleep.  She’s a volunteer for Machsom Watch who has been monitoring checkpoints in the West Bank nearly every weekend for 5 years.  Members of Machsom (Hebrew for “barrier”) sign up for shifts to witness and document the struggles Palestinians face every day.  The work has an emotional weight that can induce insomnia.

Susan tells us that Qalqilya, a city in the area we monitored this week, was once called the “City of Peace” by its inhabitants.  Since the Second Intifada its people dropped the nickname as it became completely surrounded by the wall and bottle-necked into a single checkpoint restricting movement, impeding everything from daily life to emergencies that might involve an ambulance or fire truck.

Contrary to what most people think the checkpoints that cause the most strife are not on Israeli-Palestinian borders, but within the occupied territories.  Qalqilya has had to go through an economic overhaul since checkpoints were erected.  These barriers separate people from work, children from school, and families from each other.  Like most cities in the area, Qalqilya created an agricultural-based economy using the beautiful and fertile land.  Today these places suffer because the barricades have also divided the land in ways that interfere with developing the soil for farming and animal movement for grazing.

One reason people probably believe the cross-border checkpoints are more disruptive than those within the West Bank is the visual contrast.  Unlike the prominent walls designed to physically and mentally imprison Palestinians on the border, the barriers within the West Bank are wire-link fences which are comparatively invisible especially from the settler colonies in the distance that are designed to “protect”.  Israel is one giant military base and the occupied territories are its brigs.

In 2003, when I spent time in the brig for being the first public conscientious objector to the occupation of Iraq, I went from being imprisoned by wire fences to being held behind large concrete walls.  Traveling around Israel and Palestine during the Dialogues Against Militarism (DAM) delegation, it has felt like I’ve transferred back and forth from military base to prison several times.  In both the brig and in the West Bank the walls were more ominous but in many ways I felt more free than when I was stationed on a base or while in Israel.  My liberty was restricted severely but I did have the liberty to follow my conscience; I was free not to kill or die for an immoral and unjust war.  While in Israel I felt burdened with the knowledge that by spending sheckels I was somewhat contributing to an oppressive occupation.

When I talk about being imprisoned I usually say that it really wasn’t that bad.  In the end it was much better to serve six months in the brig than spend six months+seven months+ nine months… on multiple tours in Iraq.  Some Marines have spent over 36 months total on their third or fourth tour due to extensions, and war is a hell that imprisons far longer than after a tour of duty ends.

Palestinians suffer more from the occupation, but Israelis suffer as well.  To cope with the guilt of being governed by a nation that occupies their neighbors, some Israelis choose to remain ignorant about what’s happening in their own backyards, others are compelled to develop religious excuses for setting up apartheid systems.  All the while generations are growing up under unjust treatment breeding anger and resentment and ironically making Israel less safe.  Much like in the U.S. other Israelis choose instead to take responsibility and work against the crimes being committed by their government.

Susan and other volunteers at Machsom Watch may not be able to sleep at night, but their important work along other activists we have met during the DAM delegation are vital pieces to solving the puzzle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Hebron

On Shahuda Street, Hebron, children behind screened-off windows to protect them from stones thrown by settlers.

A father follows his daughter into their house, which means scaling a rope up the back as their front door, facing Shahuda Street, was welded shut by the military years ago.

Soldiers patrol a Palestinian marketplace. Screens cover the walkways to protect Palestinian from objects thorwn by settlers. You can see some of those objects that got caught in the screen.

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Photos of Dheisheh

One of the many murals lining the streets of Dheisheh Refugee Camp

View from the rooftop of Ibdaa Center.

Family portrait, Ibdaa Center, Dheisheh

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