Al Quds, or Jerusalem is not like any other city in the world, that much you can say with certainty. Jerusalem is the nexus of the three Abrahamic faiths…they all meet here, they all share history, landmarks and enormous spiritual significance within its territory. Its significance to billions religiously, then translates into a struggle to control it. But it is also a city that embodies the success and fall of empires. To have Jerusalem, is to have this region in your control.
Jerusalem was once fought over by Muslims and Christians- the period of the Crusades and Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem being key moments for both competing world orders. Historically, there are few places still so fascinating and still it is still hugely relevant in geo-politics and competing ideologies. Palestine has been ruled by the Romans, the Ottomans, the British and now brutally occupied by Israel- with Jerusalem at the heart of this.
After the Nakba in 1948, the West Bank was controlled by Jordan and this included half of Jerusalem (East Jerusalem and the Old City). For Israel, this was always unacceptable as they consider it their capital city and their holy land. When the state of Israel was declared, Jerusalem was declared as is capital, despite not being entirely under its control. Things were always tense, within the divided city and after the 1967 war, Israel’s victory meant it now occupied all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
During the Jordanian rule and during the early Israeli occupation holy places for all were desecrated or destroyed, people evicted from their homes and attempts were made to remake Jerusalem into an ‘Arab’ or ‘Jewish’ city.
Jerusalem is a huge sticking point in peace negotiations. It is something neither side wants to compromise on, and having walked the streets of the old city…that is something I can understand! At Camp David, it became a key reason for the disintegration of the talks, but that could also be because Israel hold all the cards and they don’t need to negotiate when it comes to Jerusalem- they have a plan and it is in full swing right now.
There are something like 200,000 settlers living in illegal settlements built within an artifically enlarged Jerusalem municipality, whilst areas actually in the Jerusalem district, like Abu Dis are put behind the wall on the West Bank side. Our friends here cannot go to Jerusalem because they have green IDs and only blue ID holders have permission to go there. The teachers I work with at the UNRWA school have had their journey time to work increased due to having to get through the wall from Jerusalem. One teacher, must get regular permission to see his family (his wife has a blue ID and must live in Jerusalem or give up her blue ID) and was concerned about speaking on our CADFA film for fear of it affecting his chances to see his family.
They need medical permission or the rare ‘special permission’ on religious holidays to go to their holy city, to see their families inside the wall and to walk the streets of a place embedded in their identity. We visited the house of a friend and CADFA supporter, Ahmed, and you can see the wall and the Dome of the Rock from his garden. The Dome is possibly half an hour away on foot, and he talked about his childhood and how his parents would take him to Jerusalem all the time. He said it didn’t feel real that they cannot go, he couldn’t even obtain medical permission when he needed an operation, and it has been years since he went to Al Aqsa. It was really sad to hear him say that he wanted to go back to the days of his youth, and all he wanted was the wall gone and for people to work together for peace.
It is not simply about holy sites, but about a centre point for Palestinian culture and history. It is where Salahuddin beat the Crusaders, washed the streets in rose water and where thousands of years of culture, art, architecture and life are still to be found.
Those who actually live in Jerusalem face constant hardships. There is a clear, obvious and documented system of oppression and discrimination operating against Palestinians in the city. They pay higer taxes than Jewish residents, they pay for services like water and electricity at prices higher than households can afford, they are unable to build on their land, their homes and schools can be subject to demolitions for getting in the way of municipal planning or bylaws and they must cope with aggressive settlers stealing their homes or pressuring them to give them up.
They have to pay for the cost of these demolitions (yes, you read that right!) and sometimes have to destroy their own homes to avoid paying what is a huge amount for struggling families. Schools have been demolished, UNRWA schools funded by the UN are constantly under threat, threatening the security of young people’s education and home life.
We visited Silwan the first week we arrived and the area suffers from a targetted attack by settlers, with the complicity of the Israeli municipality to change Silwan to a Jewish majority area. There are archaeological digs in the area, which mean people’s homes are damaged or they are made to move (because trying to find ancient ruins will somehow justify ethnic cleansing?!). In Sheikh Jarrah, families have been evicted and settlers moved into their homes. All these settler houses have the Israeli flag on top, cameras and also private security walking around in certain areas to ensure people are intimidated enough to stay quiet or leave. In Sheikh Jarrah, families are given eviction notices and forced out by Israeli police, only to have settlers moved in or homes demolished. This is ethnic cleansing.
Aside from the sinister private security, shady land trusts and foundations operate to claim Palestinian land (through deceit or compulsion) and even Israel’s property laws are such that they discriminate against Palestinians by claiming some property as ‘absentee property’.
See here for a brief explanation and more information on East Jerusalem: http://www.en.justjlm.org/what-is-our-struggle-about
There have been attempts to burn down Al Aqsa mosque, and digging work near it has been cited as a way to structurally damage it. Many Zionist groups have said they wish to tear down the mosque and reclaim the Haram (grounds of Al Aqsa). In the old city, there are many soldiers and there are also settlers who have taken over homes and attempted to break in and occupy others. We visited the Saraya Center in the old city which has violent settlers as neighbours and must deal with them trying to force their way in and take the house that was donated to them by Palestinian family to use for the community. The Israeli flag flying in the Arab Quarter on homes surrounded by CCTV cameras is a depressing site in the bustling and beautiful old city.
Much of Jerusalem has been Judaized- Sanaa, who showed us around Jerusalem and is a resident of Silwan told us that Silwan has been renamed the ‘City of David’. There is an attempt to remove the Arab character of the city, and also to remove its disputed status internationally. Many maps we used in school marked Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. This is inaccurate, goes against international law, legitimises Israel’s claim on the city and erases Palestinian people The Palestinians living in Jerusalem have Israeli residence but not citizenship- putting them in a rather ambiguous place legally.
Everywhere I visit, whether it is Hebron or Ramallah or Beit Anan, people ask me if I have been to Jerusalem and Al Aqsa. They always want to know because they can’t go, and I feel terrible for being able to say ‘yes’. The significance of the city isn’t something that can be measured or really articulated….Having seen it, I understand why people have fought so hard for it. I understand why all the children I teach mention they can’t go to me.
The Wall, IDs, checkpoints, permissions, discriminatory laws and municipal regulations and settlement building are all ways to cut off Jerusalem, ethnically cleanse it of Palestinians and cut the heart right out of a possible Palestinian state.