East Jerusalem was annexed from Palestine by Jordan after the 1948 war and annexed from Jordan by Israel during the 1967 war. It includes several sites considered to be sacred (holy) within the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In 1980, Israel declared all of Jerusalem to be its capital though this declaration was not affirmed by the United Nations. In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared Jerusalem to be the capital of the State of Palestine. In 2000, the Palestinian Authority (PA) passed a law to that effect, ratified by Chairman Yasser Arafat in 2002. According to a 2013 report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, there are 371,844 Palestinians in East Jerusalem (39% of Jerusalem’s total population); 79.5% of them and 85% of their children live below the poverty line.
In the morning of Monday, January 13, we met two members of the African Community Society Center—Mahmoud Jedda and Mohammed Odeh—and entered the Old City at the Damascus Gate for a historical-political walk. We concluded our walk in the African quarter at the center, where Ali Jiddah joined us for lunch. All three men are former political prisoners. Jiddah is partially paralyzed, a result of the torture he endured while in prison.
Jiddah talked with us about the history of Palestinian struggles against the violence of Israeli occupation. He said that the only viable solution to the conflicts is a secular democratic state of Palestine, which would never be endorsed by “the Coconut” (how he referred to U.S. President Obama). He talked about the serious labor and housing issues that Palestinians confront in the Old City. He said that they have always been known as Palestinians until they are “sitting with outsiders” and then they are referred to as “Afro-Palestinians.” I found him to be incredibly generous and well-spoken.
We then met for tea with Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a Professor at the Institute of Criminology—Faculty of Law, School of Social Work and Social Welfare, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shalhoub-Kevorkian is a Palestinian critical race feminist scholar whose work focuses on the colonial-militarized structures of law in relation to gender and sexual based violence against women and the criminalization of children. She also examines Israel’s desecration of Palestinian dead and burial/grave sites in East Jerusalem.
She provided us with a demographic overview of East Jerusalem and told us many stories about how her scholarship informs her legal advocacy for Palestinian women and children.
She talked specifically about the many instances of Israeli soldiers harassing Palestinian children. In March 2013, first and second grade girls on their way to school in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City were being stopped. Before they were allowed to cross the street, they were made to jump on one leg while slapping themselves in the face. When the brother of one of the girls attempted to intervene he was made to chant, “Fuck Palestinians!” several times before being allowed to cross the street. When Shalhoub-Kevorkian attempted to file a complaint on their behalf, the response by the military commander was dismissive, “Well. The children weren’t hurt, were they?”
Shalhoub-Kevorkian described this as part of the daily “terrorization” of families, including those made to demolish their own homes before being evicted and then charged unpayable fines if they do not comply. She talked about the immediate and long-term impact of these kinds of practices on the children’s psychological health and well-being.
Shalhoub-Kevorkian also discussed her experiences of racist and sexist based discrimination as a Palestinian woman academic at an Israeli university. She shared several stories of Israeli male colleagues—some senior, some not—belittling her and her work and thwarting her applications for funding and other support.
We then met with Nabeel Kurd and her son Um Nabeel Kurd of Sheikh Jarrah.
The neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah is located between the Old City and Mount Scopus, adjacent to a valued cave. Families that were displaced by the 1948 war moved into the area and slept in tents. After Jordan provided the refugees with the land, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees sponsored the construction of 28 housing units. The families were promised that if they paid a nominal rent for three years, they would be given title to the land. However, Jordan never honored the agreement and when the territories were annexed by Israel in the 1967 war, Israel took control of the land.
Quickly, Israelis targeted Sheikh Jarrah for settlement. Using an Israeli absentee law that allowed settlement of Palestinian property that had been abandoned during the war, an Israeli family physically moved into one of the homes whose owner was abroad, giving Israel control over access to the cave. This emboldened the displacement of additional families and a protracted legal case over land title (see http://www.SheikhJarrah.com).
Nabeel Kurd and her son Um Nabeel Kurd have refused to comply with a series of eviction orders, demolition orders, fines, and even the occupation of the front part of their house by an ever changing group of Israelis (often young men who vandalize the house). On several occasions, Nabeel Kurd has been beaten by police and soldiers. On one, when her son intervened, he was severely beaten and hospitalized. On another, the soldiers sent attack dogs after him. He was hospitalized. The doctor asked how the dog was doing.
Both mother and son talked about their experiences of harassment and vandalism, their inability to find adequate legal representation (Palestinian attorneys are not allowed to practice law in Israeli courts), and their steadfast refusals to leave their homes.
We then met with two former political prisoners. The first was released following a hunger strike; his family hosted us in their home. The second had been released in December along with 25 others as a result of an international agreement; he had served 26 years in prison for his participation in the first intifada.
I hesitate to share their names and stories because the terms of their release, as for all Palestinian political prisoners of Israel, are incredibly restrictive and punitive. They are not permitted to engage in political events or activities. I think it is possible that Israel would use a meeting with an academic and labor delegation from North America as a pretext to re-arrest or otherwise harass these men and their families and friends. So I think it is best I merely acknowledge that we met with them and speak more generally about the issues our discussions raised.
One of the things that I was struck by during our conversations was that both men and their families and friends insisted on what their stories represented about the broader historical situation of Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Both gave us their perspectives about the history of the occupation, the failure of the Oslo Accord, and the problems of what they called the Kerry Plan. But both repeatedly aimed their remarks at the over 5,000 men and roughly 16 women who remain in prison since the 1967 war, in horrible conditions of medical neglect and ill health. They appealed to us as a delegation to put pressure on our governments (particularly the United States) to acknowledge Israeli apartheid and terrorism of Palestinians and its ongoing violations of international human rights standards.
I was also struck by how both men talked about the shared humanity of Americans and Palestinians as a point of solidarity. They wanted us to know that they did not blame all Americans for the actions of the U.S. government but also expected us to take our responsibilities as U.S. citizens seriously. To understand the real role of the U.S. in the occupation and to inform others about what is happening.
So as not to paint too rosey a picture of our day, I will say that the last meeting–towards the end of our meeting and a very long day–a Palestinian man who did not speak English asked our Palestinian delegation leader to ask me, “Why do Americans hate us so much?” This question prompted a rather robust discussion about whether or not I–whom he perceived to be a typical American (i.e., “white”)–could represent all of America to him nor that all of America necessarily hates Palestinians. But as would frequently occur during our delegation, not by the majority of people with whom we met but by several individuals, if we did not introduce ourselves at the beginning of the meeting or someone missed those introductions, I would be racialized as a “white American” and responded to with various kinds of assumptions about what that meant. Not unexpected but a clear indication of the political exasperation of Palestinians with people in the United States not understanding or taking responsibility for the role of the U.S. in the occupation and oppression of Palestine.