Journal Number 2                                                                Jerusalem, 22nd September 2009

Dear everybody,

For me, everything is going well here. I am enjoying the diversity of the programme. But for East Jerusalemites things don‟t look so good. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have managed to get East Jerusalem off Obama‟s settlement freeze agenda. Not that East Jerusalemites really believed it anyway. Years of hearing about peace while they watch their half of the Holy City gradually being swallowed up have made them sceptical. As some commentator put it recently “the world discusses how to share the pizza, while Israel eats it.”
However, settlement expansion is still a priority concern for our team because behind the statistics we see real human tragedies. For example, the Hannoun and Ghawi families I spoke of in my last journal are still on the street in Sheikh Jarrah in front of the houses from which they were evicted two months ago. They have a board on the olive tree, like a cricket scoreboard. Today is Day 54. (Check out the Hannouns‟ website www.standupforjerusalem.org)

Heads of Churches in Jerusalem showing solidarity with Hanouns

Heads of Churches in Jerusalem showing solidarity with Hanouns

It may only be a street camp, but they get some pretty heavyweight visitors: religious leaders, diplomats, politicians of all shades, women‟s delegations, and the other day, lo and behold, came The Elders! Unfortunately, it was a bit hush-hush for security reasons and by the time we rushed down there, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, et al. had been whisked away. But it gave the families‟ a boost, and Mr Hannoun‟s daughter says she‟ll never wash her hand again.

Last Saturday, the Hannoun family invited us to break the fast (Iftar) during Ramadan with them on the pavement. Delicious chicken and rice apart, it was a bit surreal.

Iftar at Hanoun's pavement camp (with Jenny)

Iftar at Hanoun's pavement camp (with Jenny)

They are remarkable people; their life is in ruins yet they offer hospitality to wells-wishers, and manage to smile about it. That particular party continued at the Ghawis house where the weekly demo organised by Rabbis for Human Rights morphed into a Dabke knees-up with a live band. 500 demonstrators were there including a bus full of Gush Shalom activists from Tel Aviv.

Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom at demo

Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom at demo

Among them was Uri Avnery (a kind of Israeli Tony Benn) whose weekly column I have read religiously for years. It was an honour to meet this doyen of the peace moment who writes with such clarity, compassion and (at 86) the advantage of an amazing historical memory.

But after the Tel Aviv gang were waved off like Royalty and the fun died down, the reality is that the families‟ houses remain occupied by settlers. Resolve is still strong but with school starting for the myriad kids, they need some normalcy. As if anything is normal here.

Netanyahu insisted in Europe that settlers had a right to „normal‟ lives and space for natural growth! Newspaper headlines can‟t really convey the enormity of what lies behind that statement. Israeli settlements don‟t just spring up like mushrooms or come down from heaven like manna. According to Peace Now‟s settlement watch programme, 40% of Israeli settlements in the West Bank are built on privately owned land, i.e. land taken from Palestinians, land that was being lived on, farmed, where crops were sown and harvested. In East Jerusalem, they are on land where once someone else‟s house stood or where families have been evicted to make way for them. What price a „normal life‟ and „natural expansion‟ for Palestinians?

In this century, Jerusalemites have lived under four different colonial rules: Ottoman, British, Jordanian and since 1967 Israeli. Palestinians in East Jerusalem have come to realise how dangerous their status is under this latest ruler, since they have no citizenship and no recourse when they are refused building permits. Demolitions vary widely, from small rooms added to existing houses, to huge mansions, and blocks of flats. But what all demolitions have in common is they are always done to Palestinians. Jerusalem City Council would say, “Israelis in West Jerusalem get demolition orders too.” But only on minor structures like sheds, balconies and staircases, never on whole homes that people live in.

And yet you can come to Jerusalem and not be aware of any of this. Or you may be aware and think „good, that‟s how it should be.‟ If you join the tourists at the archeological dig in the City of David National Park beside the Old City, you can „walk in the footsteps of the kings and prophets of the Bible‟ as the brochure says, and have a great time on thematic tours of ancient Judean Jerusalem. And why not? Every country has historical theme parks. Except that this isn‟t an ordinary dig. In 2002, the rights to manage the park were handed over to the settler organisation Elad. And Elad‟s agenda is political. To emphasise the link between the state of Israel and its Judean past, it ignores the histories of the many other peoples who have inhabited this hillside over the centuries: the Canaanites and Jebusites before them, and after them the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, and for the last 1300 years the Muslims.

As I said in my last journal, no concrete archeological evidence has been found to link the site with King David. Evidence for that is historical and biblical. The archeological remains are most probably Canaanite, I‟m told. There is intense debate in Israel within the profession over the ethics of private financing by settler organisations of an important archeological site. The debate extends into international circles too.

Demolished house in Silwan

Demolished house in Silwan

As a European archaeologist said to me “follow the money” and indeed, as well as the political rationale, the planned expansion of the site is aimed at the lucrative Jewish heritage and Biblical tourism market. Tourist infrastructure is now being built in the village of Silwan where the site is located, whereas barely a shekel has been spent on community infrastructure for decades. Moreover, in the path of this expansion stand the homes of Silwan‟s Palestinian inhabitants. Uri Shitreet, the Jerusalem City Council engineer who issued the 88 pending demolition orders, says “we need to return the city to a landscape of yore.” Silwan house already demolished A banner in the Silwan residents‟ centre says “No tourist attraction on the ruins of 1500 peoples‟ homes!” and another on a nearby school declares “We are not leaving!” Fighting words for a battle that is so uneven. Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat says openly that he wants to decrease the percentage of Palestinians: “I have to balance Jerusalem and keep it Jewish, as the Jewish capital of the world.” For our team, each demolition order contains a heartbreaking story. We know some of the women whose homes are at risk through visits we have made with fieldworkers from the Women‟s Committee for Legal Aid and Counselling.

Imjan's house with demolition order in Al Bustan

Imjan's house with demolition order in Al Bustan

One of the 88 Silwan orders is on Inham‟s house. She invites us for coffee in her impeccably furnished three-bedroomed home. It has a patio with a beautiful pink bougainvillea, and a painting over the door proudly announcing her husband has been to Mecca. She first received a demolition order after the house was built in 1986 and since then has lived with the fear of it being bulldozed any time. Although she has been charged municipal taxes, and has twice paid heavy fines and lawyers‟ fees, the order has never been revoked. After several postponements, she now awaits what she feels is ultimately a political decision on the home she is so proud of.

Further up the hill, we visit two sisters, Manal and Amani, married to two brothers. They lived in their husbands‟ parents‟ house until their growing families made the overcrowding unbearable.

Demolished extension on Jabal al Mukabber

Demolished extension on Jabal al Mukabber

They borrowed money to build, got demolition orders, paid the heavy fines, but the orders stood. Last year, municipal bulldozers‟ crushed Manal‟s house without warning. This year Amani‟s husband painfully self-demolished the house he had built himself, to avoid paying for the bulldozer.

Mughrabi house with demolition order under Nof Zion settlement

Mughrabi house with demolition order under Nof Zion settlement

The sisters and their six children are back at square one with their in-laws, saddled with a big debt, and only the memory of a brief independent life. This is precisely why Israeli-only „natural growth‟ is so discriminatory. To make it even more painful, on the hill above the demolished houses, is the new Israeli settlement of Nof Zion on sale in the US for diaspora Jews.

Then there is Um Qassem‟s beautiful three-storey home where generations of a very large family live. This famous case is different. Last September her 18 year-old son ran a BMW into a crowd of Israelis, mostly soldiers, injuring several. One of them shot him dead. It was deemed a terrorist attack by the IDF, and as a result the family got a „punishment‟ demolition order. The family, however, insists it was a traffic accident, that the boy lost control of the car when the accelerator jammed. The race is on to have BMW experts prove it in court before their home becomes a pile of rubble. In other countries when a suspected terrorist is shot by security forces in public, (like Jean Charles de Menezes), the circumstances are investigated. The death of the Brazilian electrician produced an outcry in the UK. Not so in Israel. What‟s more, home demolition is collective punishment: illegal under international law.

As you can see, there‟s not much light relief. But I did manage a couple of days off in Jaffa with Barbara, a lovely Irish woman on the Bethlehem team. It has been incredibly hot in Jerusalem (no rain since April I‟m told) and although I can‟t actually see the Mediterranean from my roof as I could in Tulkarem, the thought of it being only an hour away is tantalising. There is an acute water shortage in East Jerusalem. The neighbourhoods aren‟t green and leafy like those in West Jerusalem or in the settlements. Everything is dry and dusty with litter everywhere. So it was wonderful to go to the sea. We couldn‟t get enough of the gorgeous water, with surf just big enough to play in.

As you probably know, Jaffa is the southernmost end of Tel Aviv but its quainter and more mixed Arab/Jewish, and there‟s a brilliant backpacker‟s hotel in the flea market. The historic centre has gone the way of all such places and is sanitised with posh boutiques and art galleries, but the beach is great for a city beach and we did enjoy

letting the tension seep out of our bodies. At the same time I found my mind wandering down the coast to Gaza. It is only a couple of hours drive down the beach, but a universe away in hope. We got a lift back to Jerusalem on (yet another) bus of Tel Aviv peace activists of all persuasions going to the Jaffa Gate for an Israeli demonstration in support of the Sheikh Jarrah families. To thank them, Mr Ghawi made a fine speech in Hebrew about unity and daring to dream of living together. The peace camp‟s power of mobilisation has further waned since Israel veered off to the political right but their support is very important to East Jerusalemites who are so cowed and wary of raising their head above the parapet where they risk arrest or loss of ID. In contrast, the teenage settlers who turned up to disrupt proceedings obviously feel so empowered; they just radiate the pride and sheer enjoyment of being in a common national project. I almost envy them till I remember how mindless they are of the suffering they cause. And now to the last four Fridays we have spent at Qalandya checkpoint during the feast of Ramadan. It is not easy to write about.

Jerusalem is home to the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, one of the three most important shrines in Islam.

Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Going to Al Aqsa to pray has never been easy for Palestinians under Israeli Occupation, but since the construction of the Separation Barrier, and the checkpoints encircling Jerusalem, it is harder still. Most of the year Al Aqsa is out of bounds to them but on Fridays during Ramadan, Israel issues prayer permits to enter Jerusalem. Boys under 12 and girls under 14 can pass without one, so can men over 50 and women over 45. Married men over 45 can apply for a permit; so can married women over 30. We‟re talking about a small percentage of the Palestinian population: children and the not so young, those who fall outside what is considered the potential suicide bomber age group.

The IDF says the chaos and humiliation that occurs is because too many people want to cross the checkpoints. But „too many‟ is relative.

The most we counted on any of the last four Fridays of Ramadan was 29,000. It proves how strong the Palestinians‟ desire to pray at Al Aqsa still is, but it is not actually a large number when you consider that crowds three times as large are controlled at football matches every Saturday all over the world. You present your ticket at the stadium turnstile; if you have one you‟re helped to get in quickly. But things run smoothly only if the idea is to facilitate entry. Checkpoints are designed to keep people out and invite hindrance, harassment, and abuse by constantly changing instructions.

In addition, you would think that after each Friday, lessons would be learned and conditions would improve. But no, recommendations made by the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs (on the basis of a report we made for them, since we are the group that spends most time monitoring) were not implemented. On the contrary, when ideas worked, like opening up the vehicle lanes for women and children when the crush got unbearable, they were discontinued the following week. It‟s hard to second guess the IDF, of course, but you can imagine one courageous person in the line of command who does something sensible being overruled the next day by a senior officer who says „Hell, you let all those grannies in without going through a metal detector, one might have had a bomb up her frock.‟ The vehicle lane didn‟t open again.

Women recovering from the crush at Ramadan at Qalandya

Women recovering from the crush at Ramadan at Qalandya

This meant that on the third Friday of Ramadan, the few internationals present (ourselves, OCHA, UNWRA, and Israeli women from Machsom Watch) witnessed something out of Dante. The day started well at 5 am, with men and women coming into the checkpoint car park from Ramallah through concrete blocks on different sides. The older women were wearing their beautiful hand embroidered dresses, the not so old in colourful hijabs; all were in a good mood, looking forward to the midday prayers. But as the day wore on, and the sun got higher, the permit checking proved too slow, the gaps between the concrete blocks were too narrow for the women to pass freely, and a huge crush build up.

Crowd of women at Ramadan at Qalandya

Crowd of women at Ramadan at Qalandya

Old ladies were squashed against the blocks, screaming kids had to be lifted out by medics, women emerged visibly distressed and some fainted. The soldiers and police started losing their tempers, yelling through megaphones, pushing the women, abusing those without valid permits.

The ones who emerged relatively unscathed and in a state to continue after running this first gauntlet, crossed the car park to the next permit check. Whereas the men waited in the usual three lanes inside the checkpoint out of the sun (plus a „humanitarian gate‟ for men over 60), the women and children, regardless of age and condition, were funnelled down a lane behind a metal barrier erected one metre from the back wall of the checkpoint. The barrier was set in concrete. The line moved painfully slowly, taking over an hour to reach the corner of the checkpoint where passes were checked again. The women then went through a turnstile to be frisked again with metal detectors before they finally emerged to get buses the Jerusalem side of the terminal. Their men folk had waited over two hours for them. Why conditions had to be so much worse for the women was unfathomable.

A barrier falls under crowd pressure at Ramadan at Qalandya

A barrier falls under crowd pressure at Ramadan at Qalandya

By 10.00 am thousands of women were being funnelled down this one narrow lane behind the inflexible barrier in full sun. The crush was unbelievable, there was real panic, again I thought of Hillsborough. Small children were in the middle and forgetting our „observer‟ role, we dived in and helped medics pull kids out. One small boy emerged with a broken arm, another was badly concussed, others were gasping for breath. The metal barrier gave way under the sheer force of the women and the broken concrete caused more injuries. At this point, mounted police arrived to push the women back by riding into them. The OCHA official continually asked the commander to open the vehicle lanes to relieve the pressure and panic but on this Friday they stayed resolutely shut. When he asked why, the commander merely said “these are my orders today”.

Mounted police hitting women at Ramadan at Qalandya

Mounted police hitting women at Ramadan at Qalandya

Riot troops at Ramadan at Qalandya

Riot troops at Ramadan at Qalandya

As the morning drew to an end, and it became obvious many women wouldn‟t get through for midday prayers, the chaos increased and there was more shouting and screaming on both sides.

Old women squeezing through blocks at Qalandya

Old women squeezing through blocks at Qalandya

The soldiers and police lost the plot completely; women were pushed, kicked and even punched. Troops in full combat gear ran across the car park, followed by riot police. I couldn‟t believe my eyes, the IDF had gone barking mad. Many of the women were elderly.

At midday, when the checkpoint was finally closed, with hundreds of women still waiting beyond the first blocks, the commander says, “Well, that went well, don‟t you think?”

Lost children during Ramadan at Qalandya

Lost children during Ramadan at Qalandya

But when we looked over the car park, we saw a battleground littered with lost shoes, strewn with hijabs, medics attending to the injured, children separated from their mothers, elderly ladies who had started the day so happily in their beautiful dresses sitting dishevelled and distressed, unable to continue. I had to pinch myself to remember that these women were merely exercising their fundamental human right to practise their religion by praying at what was by rights be their own holy place in their own holy city.

I wake up the next day and think I‟ve dreamed it. But it‟s all on my camera, and my colleague‟s video. (Soon to be on Youtube)

But in the end no Palestinians were killed, and no tear gas was used. I suppose that‟s what the commander meant. We heard later there had been shooting at Gilo checkpoint, near Bethlehem.

Not all our team‟s tasks are so grim. One of them is to support the ever-shrinking Christian population of Jerusalem (more on this problem in my next journal) by going to the various churches. Being a Quaker attender, I‟m obviously not much used to Orthodox liturgies, rites and rituals but culturally I find the Greek, Russian, Armenian and Melkite services very interesting.

Iftar in Rama with Christians, Jews and Muslims

Iftar in Rama with Christians, Jews and Muslims

One outing I particularly enjoyed was to an Iftar organised by asn inter-faith group called the Abrahamic Reunion held in a Latin Patriarchate (Catholic) school at the half Melkite-half Muslim village of Rama in Israel – what a mix! It is near Nazareth in the Galilee. As well as getting some good nosh, about 200 people heard speeches by rabbis, priests and imams about all believing in the same God. It was heartening to see people still trying for harmony despite the trend to fundamentalism in both Israeli and Palestinian societies.

One thing that keeps me sane in the midst of grim things is my rather childish sense of humour. I know it‟s pathetic but I find two of my colleagues‟ idiosyncratic use of

English extremely funny. I defy anyone who doesn‟t speak French to guess who the „vanishing ladies‟ are that appeared in our checkpoint log. I was about to call Amnesty International to tell them Israel was using an extreme form of human rights abuse invented in Argentina when I recalled „s‟evanouir‟ means to faint (not to disappear). This same colleague always refers to the „crow‟ at the checkpoint, sans d. My Swedish colleague and I have been in stitches imagining one of Hitchcock‟s huge black birds hovering overhead. This „crow‟ was joined at the checkpoint yesterday by my other colleague‟s „slowly moving queer‟ and this misspelling sent us off into hysterics again. Ah well, small things amuse small minds. Let‟s end on a cheerful note. A week after I wrote about the tourist infrastructure in Silwan (see above), the Israeli High Court ruled in favour of an action brought by local residents to freeze this illegal construction. That seems good. A lawyer friend says, however, that Elad will now apply for permission, get it, and say claims against illegal Palestinian building are even-handed. I, perhaps naively, want to believe justice may be being done.

Sharihan Hanoun on the steps of her former house

Sharihan Hanoun on the steps of her former house

And even more cheerfully. Our work constantly brings us into contact with the marginal and the oppressed. But among them is such resilience and power. Mr Hannoun‟s niece Suhalin just got the second highest mark in her year in her university psychology exams. She says, “OK, they have taken my home, and I‟m studying in the street, but I will show the Israelis they can‟t break us, that I am stronger than them.” A very humbling young lady. (photo,in front of former house)

Remember to come and visit me and see for yourself, there‟s still time. Also, spread the word, public opinion is changing, and possibly governments‟ political will may follow.

Love to all, Ann

As Ed Gaffney taught me “service is the price we pay for living”

NB
I am participating in the World Council of Churches‟ Ecumenical Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this email are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of my sending organisation Quaker Peace and Social Witness or the WCC. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please contact the QPSW Middle East Programme Manager teresap@quaker.org.uk for permission.