‘They changed everything’: A central tension roiling Jerusalem

Heidi Levine/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Ibrahim Abbassi stands on the roof of his family's home in East Jerusalem, May 1, 2021. It's a two-story, 200-year-old stone house built into the foot of a hill in the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem, just outside the Old City walls. Behind his home, Israeli flags and an oversize Star of David hang on one of the buildings where a group of Jewish Israelis moved in, part of a contentious campaign to change the demographics of East Jerusalem.

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In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, outside the Old City’s walls, Jews and Palestinians live in tense proximity. The area is traditionally Arab, but religious Jewish families have bought property and moved in, determined to change the demographics.

Palestinian taxi driver Taha Sarhan lives on the garden level of a house his father built. Two brothers live on the second floor. A third brother sold the top floor to a Jewish group. “I’m mad at my brother, not them,” Mr. Sarhan says, gesturing toward the family upstairs.

Why We Wrote This

Jerusalem’s recent riots punctured a facade of calm that obscures deep fault lines. As Jews seek to change the city’s demographics, Palestinians see their cultural and political life suppressed.

Rioting in Jerusalem in late April may have been sparked by a fairly arbitrary Israeli decision to barricade a popular gathering place during Ramadan. But it also reflected deep fault lines. With Israel jealously guarding the symbols of sovereignty, Palestinian cultural and political life has been suppressed.

“Palestinian youth cannot imagine a trajectory that leads them to freedom; that is the ultimate destabilizer,” says Daniel Seidemann, director of a left-wing Israeli nonprofit. “They get by within the two poles of life in East Jerusalem. One is to adapt; the other is to resist.”

Israeli officials say there’s no legal basis for preventing Jews from buying property. Says Arieh King, deputy mayor of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem is the Jews’ only holy city and we have to protect it.”

Ibrahim Abbassi walks gingerly between shards of glass on the roof of his home outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City – the remains of a pair of solar panels smashed by stones and Molotov cocktails thrown in anger by neighboring Palestinian youths.

Their target was not his home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, but the building across the alley, where Israeli flags fly and upon which is fixed a giant Star of David that glows blue in the night sky.

It’s where several Jewish families now live – an ideological choice they made to live in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood as part of a long-running and contentious campaign to change the area’s demographics.

Why We Wrote This

Jerusalem’s recent riots punctured a facade of calm that obscures deep fault lines. As Jews seek to change the city’s demographics, Palestinians see their cultural and political life suppressed.

Mr. Abbassi, who is Palestinian, feels at times caught in the middle of a dangerous game of chess being played for the fiercely contested city. Once while walking with his children, flying stones missed them by inches. Another time, rubber bullets fired by Israeli forces whizzed through an open window and landed in his then 9-year-old daughter’s bedroom.

“If you get hit or injured there is no one to talk to. If you go to the Palestinians you are seen as a collaborator for blaming them because this is part of a struggle. If you talk to the Israelis, they tell you to tell [the Palestinian youths] not to throw stones,” says Mr. Abbassi, whose complaint to the Israeli police about the rubber bullets was, he says, rebuffed.

One of Mr. Abbassi’s new Jewish neighbors is a woman he first met as a nurse who showed extraordinary compassion tending his mother at the hospital.

Heidi Levine/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Ibrahim Abbassi’s daughter Jena looks out from her family’s home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, May 1, 2021. She says she fears her Jewish neighbors and was traumatized by their behavior.

After his mother died, when he saw the woman walking by near his home, he mistakenly thought she had come to pay her condolences. But when he saw that she and her children were escorted by the same armed guards who protect Jewish families living in Silwan, he understood she was part of a local Jewish drive for supremacy that has come at the cost of Palestinian families being evicted or displaced.

Indeed, the late April riots in Jerusalem, which punctured a recent facade of relative calm in the city, may have been sparked by a fairly arbitrary Israeli decision to barricade a popular gathering place during Ramadan. But they also sit atop deep fault lines.

With Israel jealously guarding the symbols of its sovereignty over East Jerusalem, Palestinian cultural and political life has been suppressed. Cultural or civic organizations seen as aligned in any way with the Palestinian Authority have been shuttered. Israel says it’s merely enforcing the Oslo peace accord stipulating the PA has no jurisdiction in East Jerusalem.

“If you get up in the morning, take your kids to school, or go to your work, without getting a ticket from a policeman or insulted by anyone on the street, that’s a good day, honestly; you would feel good,” says Mr. Abbassi. “They changed everything in Jerusalem, the buildings, the streets, putting up stones that relate to Jewish history.

“We do not see anything that relates to our culture or heritage anymore, except Al-Aqsa,” he says, referring to the mosque that is the third holiest site in Islam, “because it is the only thing that has remained the same.”

Political aspirations

Another stressor is more purely political. Last week Israeli restrictions on East Jerusalem residents’ participation in Palestinian elections, which require all but a token few to cast ballots in polling places outside the city, were offered as a reason for the PA’s postponing of parliamentary elections scheduled for this month.

Heidi Levine/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A set of eyes looks out from the wall of a house in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

The postponement seemed to add to a feeling of malaise.

“Palestinian youth cannot imagine a trajectory that leads them to freedom; that is the ultimate destabilizer,” says Daniel Seidemann, director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a left-wing Israeli nonprofit. “They get along; they get by within the two poles of life in East Jerusalem. One is to adapt; the other is to resist.”

Mr. Seidemann says the goal of Jewish groups acquiring properties in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem is to thwart any future attempts to make it into a future Palestinian capital.

But the groups say it’s the historic right of Jews to live anywhere they want to in Jerusalem. Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and since then has considered the entire city its united capital. Officials say there’s no legal basis for preventing Jewish Israelis from buying property anywhere in the country.

“We are working to settle them in strategic places to ensure as many Jews as possible are living inside the Old City and near the Old City ... so no one will give it to our enemies,” says Arieh King, deputy mayor of Jerusalem and founder of the Israel Land Fund, which acquires property for Jews in East Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is the Jews’ only holy city and we have to protect it,” he says.

In local coverage of the recent unrest, an exchange between a young Jewish woman who lives in the Old City and Suleiman Maswadeh, a reporter for an Israeli TV network, went viral. As far-right Jewish marchers shouted racist chants next to them, including a call to burn down Arab villages, Mr. Maswadeh asked the woman her opinion.

Heidi Levine
Protesters from Lahava, a Jewish extremist group, march near the Old City's Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, April 22, 2021, as violence erupted between Palestinians and Israeli police.

“I’m not saying we’ll burn your village down. I say, ‘Leave the village,’ and then we will come and live in it. That’s what we do in the Old City,” she said.

When Mr. Maswadeh revealed he’s a Palestinian who lives there too, she replied, “Do you want to sell your house?”

Cultural and political organizations

In the past year, several cultural organizations, including one that houses a theater and another that is a prominent music conservatory, were shut down by Israeli authorities, citing tax avoidance and ties to the PA. The organizations denied any wrongdoing.

Orient House, a prominent symbol of Palestinians’ political presence that was shuttered in 2001, remains behind a padlocked gate.

Honaida Ghanim, director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies, says the situation needs to be viewed as part of Israeli policy since 1967, including “settlements, land seizures, home evictions and demolitions, changing the names of neighborhoods, of streets, and putting border police at their entrances.”

Successive Israeli governments have used these methods, she argues, as part of a long-term vision for a city with no Palestinian presence.

Israeli officials say that’s a lie.

“I categorically deny that there is an Israeli policy plan to turn Palestinians out of East Jerusalem,” a senior government official said.

Turf battles

In Silwan, not far from Mr. Abbassi, Palestinian taxi driver Taha Sarhan lives on the garden level of a house his father built. Two brothers live on the second floor. A third brother sold the top floor to a Jewish group.

“I’m mad at my brother, not them,” Mr. Sarhan says, gesturing toward the family upstairs. “Everything is more difficult these days.”

And getting a haircut at his brother’s barbershop, Alaa Somrein describes living in a Silwan house whose ownership has been contested since he was a boy. “We grew up suffering from the settlers. My father spent most of his life in courts; we lived in fear all our lives. And now our children are in the same situation.”

Heidi Levine
Palestinians react to a stun grenade thrown by Israeli police near the Damascus Gate plaza, just outside Jerusalem's Old City, April. 22, 2021. The violence erupted after Israeli police erected barriers to prevent Palestinians from sitting on the stairs outside the gate after breaking their Ramadan fast.

North of the Old City, anxiety is rising over Jewish settlement in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

On Saturday, a group of about 50 young demonstrators gathered under a sprawling fig tree to protest eviction orders regarding four families. On Thursday, an Israeli Supreme Court judge is expected to rule whether those families have a right to appeal the orders.

At issue are 27 houses built in the 1950s by the United Nations and the Jordanian government for Palestinian refugees. A Jewish organization later claimed ownership of the land based on Ottoman-era documents.

Eyal Raz, a Jewish activist trying to prevent eviction, says two Israeli laws are at play: One negates Palestinian rights to property owned before the 1948 Mideast war that led to Israel’s creation; another protects pre-1948 Jewish property in Jerusalem.

“The legal infrastructure is discriminatory. That’s a fact,” he says.

Watching the demonstrators was Maryam Ghawi. She was evicted from her house in Sheikh Jarrah in 2009. Every day she returns to sit next to it, even though it’s now inhabited by a Jewish family.

“Four generations lived here, in this very house,” she says, referring to a home now festooned in Israeli flags and covered in security cameras. At one point, a protester unfurled a Palestinian flag, reached over a metal fence, and waved it across the courtyard.

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