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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