Heart of Palestine

2010/05/25, Day 01
2010/05/26, Day 02
2010/05/27, Day 03
2010/05/28, Day 04
2010/05/29, Day 05
2010/05/30, Day 06
2010/05/31, Day 07
2010/06/01, Day 08
2010/06/02, Day 09
2010/06/03, Day 10
2010/06/04, Day 11

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26 May 2010, Wednesday

6:00 A.M.

Woke up to the morning call to prayer after the first restful sleep I’ve had in days.

7:00 A.M.

Breakfast at a table with E.H., D.M., H.K., and H.P.

8:00 A.M.

Took in the scenic view of East Jerusalem on the roof of St. George’s College Guesthouse.

8:30 A.M.

Maya, an activist representing Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD), introduced us to the type of work her NGO is involved in. We were given a crash course on relevant history — Balfour Declaration, the United Nations Special Fact Finding Team, Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Checkpoints in the West Bank numbered over 600; Palestinian movement is severely restricted by a permit system. Through the permit system, Israel exerts undue influence over the Palestinian economy because the health of any economy is highly dependent upon the unrestricted flow of goods and labor. Unemployment numbers in the West Bank is high as a result. Over ¼ of the West Bank is persistently under the control of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

9:30 A.M.

After the hourlong presentation, we boarded the bus to embark upon our tour of neighborhoods that are under the threats of evacuation orders and housing demolitions in East Jerusalem. Along the way to the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumin, we passed the destroyed ruins of a Palestinian village, which pine trees supported by the Jewish National Fund threaten to hide from human sight.

9:45 A.M.

We stepped off the bus at the top of the hill near Ma’ale Adumin. (“My country has a funny sense of humor,” Maya wryly remarked. “This place is called ‘Park of Tolerance.’”) In 1967, after Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza, one faction proclaimed, “This is great, some of the holiest places to Judaism now belongs to us, we should annex both territories and extend Israeli citizenship to all their inhabitants.” “Are you crazy? Look at the birth rate of the Arabs — we would soon be a minority in our own country again,” came the voice of the opposing faction. And so, it was determined that residents of East Jerusalem would be given the status of Jerusalemite without ever annexing either territories. Maya then explained to us just what the status as a Jerusalemite entails to Palestinians:

• As a Jerusalemite, or resident of Jerusalem, the individual is entitled to work in the city of Jerusalem without owning a work permit;

• Both parents must be Jerusalemites in order for the children to be also considered Jerusalemites; and

• If one is absent from Jerusalem, his or her status as a Jerusalemite may be revoked, and his or her home demolished.

Living with the persistent fear of losing their status as Jerusalemites, the population density of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem had dramatically increased due to natural growth as a function of higher birth rates among Palestinians over the years.

The Silwan neighborhood is visible beneath the old city walls

Maya pointed to the map of East Jerusalem to indicate the location of 3 Israeli settlements to the north, west, and south; Irving Moskwitz was bankrolling a 4th planned settlement to the east. (“Surrounding East Jerusalem and cutting it off from the West Bank,” Maya remarked, “but the plan was frozen during the Bush administration years because the intent to surround East Jerusalem would have been too obvious.”)

Maya drew our attention to a neighborhood beneath the old city walls of Jerusalem. “That is the neighborhood of Silwan, a village that is home to 88 Palestinian families, and is now under threat of expulsion,” said Maya, “because the Jerusalem municipality of plans suggested that King David used to come down from Jerusalem to stroll in his garden. According to the municipality, it would therefore be appropriate to expel Palestinian families, destroy their homes, and redevelop the area so that tourists may appreciate King David’s Garden.”

Jerusalem collects from Palestinians living in East Jerusalem a steep tax rate of 36%, roughly the same as residents of downtown Jerusalem, but in 2009 disbursed only a paltry 7.29% for infrastructure and services in East Jerusalem.

The 8-meter tall concrete wall in the neighborhood of Abu Dis

10:40 A.M.

We reached the so-called “security wall” — an 8-meter-tall (approximately 26 feet) concrete wall topped by razor-sharp barbed wire and guard towers — in the neighborhood of Abu Dis. Part of this wall cuts straight through a football [soccer] field. It incensed Maya that her government exploited its citizens’ fear to construct these walls that separated Palestinian families and devastated Palestinian businesses. (“More than 80% of the wall’s projected path are inside the West Bank,” said Maya.) Maya also imparted us with a morsel of statistic from the World Bank: according to its report, 40% of the projected economy in an independent Palestinian state would be in Jerusalem; a wall that separates the West Bank from East Jerusalem places those projected findings very much in doubt.

A demolished Palestinian home in East Jerusalem

11:00 A.M.

We stopped to take pictures of a demolished Palestinian home and listened to Maya speak at length on the subject of home demolitions. In order to build or renovate an existing home, Palestinians must pay the equivalent of $30,000 US dollars to apply for a building permit. Despite paying the application fee, few ever receive the required permits. (To wait 14, 16 years and still not receive a permit is commonplace.) Meanwhile, Palestinians can ill afford to wait for a permit, ’cos growing families aren’t constrained by the rules of men, so most Palestinians build without one. Today there are 6,000 outstanding demolition orders assessed against Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, because they were deemed constructions and renovations that proceeded without building permits. The first demolition notice that most Palestinians receive is in the form of a bulldozer and the police showing up in front of the house; one Palestinian mother described it like this:

The first thing I do at the top of the morning is to take a look outside the window for signs of a bulldozer or police. After I have visually confirmed their absence, I may then take care of breakfast and get the children prepared for school.

On average, the city of Jerusalem demolishes 100 homes a year. The disparity between the number of demolition orders and actual homes demolished is attributed to funding; the annual city budget towards demolition can cover the costs of no more than 100. What Maya then described was a real Twilight Zone moment: bill for a demolition would be sent to the demolished home’s owner. Some Palestinians have begged to demolish their own homes upon the bulldozer and police showing up because it’s cheaper [to hire their own demo], which is humiliation on top of humiliation.

Israeli settlement Ma’ale Adumin

11:05 A.M.

The settlement of Ma’ale Adumin in East Jerusalem, about 20 minutes from downtown Jerusalem, is a pretty development with good schools, affordable 2 story [cookie cutter] houses, lots of stores, and a scenic view of its surroundings from a strategic elevated position. This development would not be out of place in the United States, save for one caveat: only Jews are allowed to live in this settlement.

11:45 A.M.

Israelis have been indoctrinated by a victim mentality: the notion that Israel is always on the verge of complete annihilation because it is under siege, both geographically and politically, from enemies on all sides. Psychologically, military conscription makes it difficult not to feel defensive when Israel comes under criticism; an attack on Israel felt like an attack on her own father, said Maya.

The policy of settlement expansions in the West Bank [and East Jerusalem] is not limited to mere land disposession: Israeli water companies control the water source of the West Bank and distribute it at a ratio of 80% to Israelis, 20% to Palestinians; the famous AHAVA brand cosmetics uses mud from the West Bank side of the Dead Sea and West Bank water.

12:05 A.M.

After dropping off Maya, we stopped for lunch.

1:00 P.M.

We met Judith Harel of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) for a presentation focused primarily on the humanitarian crisis perpetuated by Israeli’s blockade on the movement of goods into and out of the Gaza Strip, but also on the movement restrictions that the IDF places on Palestinians in the West Bank, and ideological settlers’ violence against Palestinians.

UNOCHA presentation by Judith Harel

The Gaza Strip has a population of 1.43 million Palestinians; at its widest 16 kilometers, (approx. 10 miles), at its narrowest 8 kilometers (approx. 5 miles). Population density of the Gaza Strip is approximately 3,881 persons per squared kilometer, and more than 54% of the total population fall under the age of 18 years old. In the wake of Fatah’s expulsion from the Gaza Strip, Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip since June of 2007 has resulted in the collapse of 95% of the private sector and the loss of 100,000 jobs. It [the blockade] also resulted in a precipitous drop in the level of service quality provided by hospitals, in the capacity to supply continuous uninterrupted electricity, and the level of hygiene standards.

Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008, compounded the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip: 1,383 persons, among which 350 were children, died from Cast Lead (UNOCHA figures), and 5,303 persons were injured. (MoH figures) Already highly dependent upon charities and NGO, population in the Gaza Strip became ever more dependent upon them after Cast Lead. Furthermore, Israel increased the range of the free fire zone — the area that the IDF designated off limits to Palestinians and would not hesitate to shoot any interlopers — to 1 kilometer. Palestinian farmers owning land that fall within this free fire zone are thus prevented from harvesting their crop or sending their livestock to graze.

Palestinians living in the West Bank experience the effects of the occupation in the forms of home demolitions, movement restrictions, and settler violence. The West Bank, an area of 5,600 squared kilometer, has a population of 2,350,583 (approx. 2.35 million) Palestinians, and 500 thousand Jewish settlers. Jewish settlers regularly terrorize Palestinians in an attempt to control certain areas and land resources. Settler violence against Palestinians is especially concentrated in the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron around the harvest periods of April–June and October–December. (Jewish settlers are allowed to take their service rifles with them, upon completing their conscriptions, into West Bank settlements, where they are once again pressed into the service of terrorizing Palestinians.)

Herod’s Gate

3:00 P.M.

We began our tour of the old city of Jerusalem at Herod’s Gate; our exceptionally knowledgeable guide would periodically dispense history lessons, answer questions, or direct our attention to interesting additions.

Herod’s Gate had an interesting story of its own: its name in Arabic is “The God Who Never Sleeps,” in another example, the Arabic name of Lion’s Gate is Mujahideen Gate, a name dating back to the Crusades. (Mujahideen is the Arabic word for Freedom Fighters) Speculation runs rife that the drive to replace the names of Jerusalem’s gates is a coordinated effort to bury Arabic history.

We came upon the first station of Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked while bearing his cross… or so legend would have it. Our guide told us that Via Dolorosa used to be somewhere else, but after the Crusaders invaded, the path of Via Dolorosa was diverted to the present one, and accepted as such to this day.

The Franciscans have had a long history in Jerusalem. We took in the beautiful architecture and statue reliefs during our short rest in the Franciscan grounds.

The grounds and altar of the Franciscan church
An Israeli settlement within old city walls

Our guide directed our attention to a door with distinctive black handle, which he identified as “Ha’av Bareya,” a Jewish settlement. At first I thought “Ha’av Bareya” was either the Jewish or the Arabic word for a settlement, so I pressed our guide to elaborate; he explained that Ha’av Bareya is the Jewish company that specializes in these steel-sandwich reinforced doors, hence “Ha’av Bareya,” in the same way the brand name Hoover has become synonymous with vacuum cleaners in the UK.

Israeli settlements like these were always cordoned off with fences, barbed wires, sometimes there are military guard posts. I imagine the children who play on jungle gyms behind razor-sharp barbed wires must grow up to be well-adjusted adults.

More Israeli settlements within the old city walls

4:15 P.M.

A tower of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre came into visual focus as we reached the Christian quarter of the old city.

4:20 P.M.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a place of worship, but also a place for considerable political horsetrading. Historically the churches have competed for altar space and jockeyed for control of the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre throughout the centuries; any whiff of impropriety or favoritism often brought different Christian sects to the verge of open hostilities. Eventually, the sects agreed upon returning the Church’s key to the Palestinian family that was its historic guardian — that Palestinian family administers its sacred duty to this day.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

6:05 P.M.

Our trek through the old city took us out through the Dung Gate, which was the name Hadrian assigned to it after crushing the Jewish revolt of 135 A.D. — Dung Gate because garbage was discarded through this gate to the outside of the city. He also forbade Jews from returning to Jerusalem, renamed the city “Elia Capitolina,” and renamed the area “Philistina,” an allusion to “Philistines” in Judaic texts.

Archway, cobblestone road, and Mamluk architecture within the old city walls

7:00 P.M.

Dinner at a table with H.P., H.K., J.B., and D.T.

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