Monday April 4 : East Jerusalem - the old town - Ali Jiddah and Silwan

Thursday 8 March 2012
popularity : 90%

We have breakfast crowded in one of the corners of the inn : buns filled with dates and some hot chocolate or tea we bought at the grocer’s as the one the first Taayoush Group went to in2009.
He gave the impression he recognized Tanguy and Anne-Claire. It was nice of him to lend us a tray so we could take the food and drinks to the hostel. He speaks Hebrew, Arab, English and… Russian! We were astonished until we recalled that over one fifth of the Israeli population come from Russia.

Today, drizzle falls on Jerusalem, it’s downright cold. Our first meeting with our Palestinian contact in Jerusalem is programmed for this morning: he’s called Daoud, aged 28 and Tanguy and Anne-Claire have spoken well on him. He received the first Taayoush group in 2009. While waiting for him (he is late…), we explore the small shops in David Street, which runs down from the Jaffa Gate into the old town.

Natalia and Laurie already buy one or two things while the others try to remain standing: it has been a short night. We take advantage of getting to know each other a bit better: after all many of us have only experienced a passing acquaintainceship at school. Anne-Claire is chatting away in an anglo-Arab mixture with one of the shopkeepers from whom she remembers buying a Handala T shirt two yars ago. Things haven’t changed much for the Palestinians of Jerusalem: there are still too many soldier patrols and you always have to keep a low profile. Luckily that doesn’t prevent this shopkeeper from talking openly.

At last Daoud arrives, full of excuses for his lare arrival and as usual overwhelmed by all his responsibilities. Anne-Claire and Tanguy greets him warmly, a bit like a long lost friend. Marie-Gaelle says later that she remembers Anne-Claire’s face lighting up at that point. For her it was like being reunited with her Palestinian son. As for us, we are a bit intimidated

Brief status on the progressive judaisation of East-Jerusalem.

Daoud used to work as a coordinator of the Nidal Centre Nidal,. But today, he is taking us to the Spafford Centre for Children. Since the Israelis closed the Nidal Centre (see l’article on the subject), Daoud has installed an office there, where he is able to continue organising his activities for the children of the neighbourhood (see Beautiful Resistance). Once we have sat down in the TV room, Daoud suggests showing us two short films made by international volunteers that illustrate the living conditions in which the Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem villages find themselves at the moment. But before that, he reminds us briefly of key moments of the country’s history. [1]

Palestine is 3,400 years old. There are many archaeological sites on its territory, which makes it an important place for the tourists. Palestine is in a complicated situation: Israel has officially occupied it since 1948 but, in fact, many Jews had immigrated here some years before, in particular after the pogroms [2] that took place in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and because of the judeocide committed by the Nazis during WWII.”

“After the victory of the Allied over the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the territory was shared between France and the United Kingdom (according to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreements). This was done without taking the local populations into account. At that time, many people thought that the Jews deserved to feel secure somewhere on earth. The first places thought of were Argentina and Uganda but, finally, Palestine was chosen because of its religious history. The idea became reality thanks to British support. Indeed, after promising the Arabs of the whole region the creation of a wide Arab nation, the English went back on their promise and favoured the establishment of Jews in Palestine. This was done through the Balfour Declaration of 1917.The Zionist leaders were promised « the establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine », on condition « nothing will be done that may prejudice the rights of the non- Jewish communities » living there at that moment. Before 1948, the Jews were only 5% of the Palestinian population.”

Marie-Gaëlle can’t help reacting: but it is dishonest to promise the same thing to two different people at the same time! Why did the English do that? Tanguy answers: it corresponded more to their interests in the region. They wanted to counterbalance France’s ambitions - the other major nation that had benefited from the division of the Ottoman Empir. Margot comments: That would have driven me mad! Tanguy nods in approval and explains that the Arab populations put up any resistance against what they regarded as an invasion. The Zionist movement then decided to organise private militias (Irgoun, Hagana [3].. which became what is the present Israeli army) to support and accompany the colonisation of Palestine’s territories, which was carried on up until the period following the Second War: many Jewish survivors of the judeocide were refused entry in the USA and in many European countries and therefore turned to Palestine, thereby increasing the already established Jewish population. The 1936-1939 «Major Arab Uprising » was a nationalist movement directed both against British colonial rule and mass Jewish immigration and colonisation. The British intervene harshly against the revolt. Finding themselves overwhelmed by the confrontations between the Palestinians and the Jewish militias, Britain then handed their mandate over to the Society of the Nations... Daoud goes on:

“In 1947, the partition of Palestine was decided between the future State of Israel (=55% of the territory of the ancient Palestine, including west-Jerusalem, although they were a minority) and the future State of Palestine (which is still not recognized today). The Palestinians and Arabs in general refused it. Then ensued a vicious war that ended in the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The humain casualties were considerable. From end 1947 to end 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were thrown out of their houses and lands. Many were killed, many others fled, leaving everything they owned. More than 63 years later, they and their descendants are still living in refugee camps mainly in Jordan, Lebanon, and the West bank… The Palestinian refugees are the oldest refugees in the history. The conflict ended in Israel’s domination of 78% of the territory.”

“In 1949, a ceasefire was finally agreed between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries. It is the amnisty line that separates Israel from the West Bank, which is called the "green line" and should serve as a frontier for a future Palestinian state.”

(Carte : Courrier International)

Daoud explains to us that during their mandate on Palestine, the UK used religious affiliation as the basis to divide Jerusalem into districts, with the aim of giving the Jews a place. The Jewish district (which together with the Armenian district) is the only religious districts of the old city (the Armenian district is 1500 years old and a special place, a closed city with doors to protect it well: only the churches are opened to visitors). But the Jewish district used to be mixed before the Israeli occupation and, like all the other districts of the town, it had mixed buildings. As fot the Maroccan district,“ the Israelis destroyed it, razed it to make place for the esplanade that leads to the Wailing Wall.”

“After 1948, when Israel was officially created, Gaza Strip and the West Bank were under the control of the Jordan and Egyptian armies. As for Jerusalem, which should be considered as an international city (i.e. fallingl under International Law), it was cut into two halves: the western part was Israeli, the eastern part Palestinian. But in 1967, after its victory in the Six-Day war, Israel invaded and occupied Gaza, the West Bank , the Golan (Syria) and part of Lebanon and tried to annex Jerusalem. The Zionist idea was to create the “Great Jerusalem”, which would include all the settlements of the West Bank that surround the city, all of which are illegal according to international Law - and more particularly the IV Convention of Geneva. The aim was to have a majority of Jewish inhabitants in the city: this would be a serious argument in the negotiation aiming at having Jerusalem recognized as the capital of all the Jews of the world. At that time, the Israelis only managed to occupy “West Jerusalem” and the old city but they still dream and work towards making the whole of Jerusalem theirs.”

“Another idea the Zionists have spread is that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”. But, there were people on this land before the Jews arrived from abroad and created Israel. There were Palestinians, some of whom were Jews. Many are still there, in spite of all that the Israelis have done and are still doing to make them leave the place. Some are still living in their villages, many others in refugee camps.” [4]

Daoud tells us now about the villages that surround Jerusalem. Lifta, for example.

“Lifta, at the entrance of Jerusalem is an example of a village that was destroyed by the Israelis in the 1948 Nakba. Its 3,000 inhabitants were forced to leave and just can’t go back to their houses, which are all in ruins now. Lifta is an anomaly. Among the hundreds of Palestinian villages abandoned in 1948, it is the only one that was neither destroyed nor re-inhabited. The villages of Ein Karem and Ein Hod, for example, remained standing but have been inhabited by Jews”. [5]

We look up in surprise trying to imagine our grandparents, parents and ourselves in this situation: having had to escape before soldiers and 60 years later learn that our house is still there but has been stolen and occupied by people only intent in emilinatin our existence … [6]. But it is difficult: we Belgians who have lived in peace for 65 years now don’t feel the same attachment to our homeland as the Palestinians.

But about Lifta: why this particularity? Daoud goes on: “Israel has tried to sell the land to build a luxurious residential and commercial zone on the remains of the village.

The refugees of Lifta and their descendants feel the Israelis want to erase their memory. They fight as they can to save Lifta, holding press conferences in order to engage the international community in saving the village (they have contacted international bodies, including UNESCO, the EU and UNRWA They have also sent a petition to the Court to stop the project, with the support of Israeli non-governmental organizations. As the Attorney who represents Lifat refugees claimed in Court, these lands and house have owners, who are still alive either in east Jerusalem or in the West Bank or in exile. The refugees suggest the village should be preserved in its existing state as an historic site. But the Israeli law considers Lifta’s lands and buildings as “absentee property.” [7] ”

Daoud smiles at our sleepy group: his English is not perfect and he has some problems keeping everyone’s attention. The night was a little short and that makes absorbing a lot of theoretical stuff a bit trying. Especially for Natalia, who ’s translating for Laurie, who in turn seems to have a mental block to Shakespeare’s language. Daoud is going to launch the first film but first he repeats something that we have to understand: “The Palestinians don’t have a problem with the Jews. But they have with the Zionist Israelis, who pretend there is a terrorist problem in order to justify their cleansing policy. This is propaganda. Unfortunately, there are still too many people who believe them, inside and outside Israel.”

Two documentary films: international volunteers testify

The films we are now going to watch were shot by international volunteers, not by Palestinians. They testify the demolishing and taking of the Palestinian houses in Jerusalem, the expulsion of the Palestinians and the occupation of the place by Israeli settlers.

Here is what the first film tells us or reminds us of: at the time of the Oslo Agreements (1993-1994) [8] , the Israelis offered citizenship to the Palestinians of Jerusalem, but they refused: accepting it would have been synonymous to accepting the occupation by Israel. Today, the Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem have an Israeli ID, which allows them to stay in Jerusalem. Daoud, for example, has got one as well as a Jordanian passport. The Palestinians of Jerusalem are considered as “permanent residents” of Jerusalem (which means they can get medical care, for ex.), but they don’t have the Israeli nationality nor any other one.

The Israelis confiscate the IDs if the Palestinian inhabitants leave Jerusalem to go on a trip or go and visit their family in the West Bank. On the other hand, since the second Intifada, the Palestinian workers living in the West Bank have found it more and more difficult to get work permit and so to enter Jerusalem

The next subject of the film is Sheik Jarrah, another village (or district) of East-Jerusalem. Recently, 500 Palestinians have been evicted from their houses even though they had documents proving they owned them. The aim is always the same: make room for (here 200) new houses for Israeli settlers. Most of the 28 Palestinian families that were thrown out of their houses were 1948 refugees from Haifa who had had to live in tents for a while before finding a shelter in East-Jerusalem….

Daoud suggests taking us the next day to show a house whose owners were evicted in 2008. The police and the newcomers were occupuing the property barely an hour after the eviction. The owners took to camping opposite their house but didn’t even have the right to water the flowers in their garden.

After Sheikh Jarrah, the volunteers went to film in the Al-Bustan neighborhood situated in Silwan: another village of Jerusalem whose inhabitants have been progressively evacuated to make room for a « biblical park » for the Jews only. Israel has already decreed a number of demolition orders and pursues this policy in order to clear the area in front of the “City of David” project – a project based on the hypothesis that Silwan was where King David had built his palace. “The judisation and annexation of Silwan are important steps towards the annexation of East-Jerusalem. The aim of the Israeli government is to create a Jewish majority so as to prevent, through realities created on the ground, that East-Jerusalem should ever become the capital of a future Palestinian state.”

“Here is the way it happened for the families: 5.30 a.m., a knock at the door. Soldiers tell the inhabitants they have 3 hours to pack up and leave the place. Parents and children find themselves thrown out on the street and watch the bulldozers demolishing their house”.

Daoud tells us that, in parallel to all this, Israel has launched the digging of tunnels under the Al-Aqsa Mosque that are supposed to reveal archeological proofs of the Jewish millenary occupation of the ground. “Around Al-Aqsa, some Palestinians have been forced to demolish their own house themselves otherwise they would have been put into prison.” And Daoud tells us of a 1959 plan on which the Palestinian houses are given mere numbers as if the inhabitants were non existant: “The parallel with the numbers tattooed on the Jewish prisoners ‘arms by the Nazis is painfully inescapable…”, Daoud comments sadly.

Anne-Claire and Tanguy can’t help trembling when they remember that in 2009, Daoud was already talking about Palestinian deaths and expulsions to the Taayoush group. It’s awful when you realise that nothing has changed for the Palestinians since then. On the contrary, everything has continued as before: expulsions, buildings demolished, deportations, injuries and deaths when the police or soldiers intervened in the Palestinian quarters. How could not believe that this wasn’t deliberately organised? A constant harassment, the aim of it all is to put off the Palestinians, make them leave, empty the country and fill it with Jewish Israelis. As a Palestinian summait in the first film, the Israeli policy is “taking peace by pieces” [9].

Daoud shows us another short film as before. The theme is as before: further incursions into East Jerusalem and ethnic cleaning. “If you look at the map, you can see how the wall goes like fingers around the 22 villages of East-Jerusalem. 211,000 settlers are living illegally on lands that were confiscated from the Palestinians. They simply annexed East-Jerusalem with the Apartheid wall, that way including the settlements of Ma’ale Adumim, Gibeon and Etzion into the city.” [10]

The reaction of the settlers the volunteers interview in the film is alarming. It is of the I don’t care-type. They don’t appear to have a problem with the fact that Palestinians were expelled to make way for them. They just can’t be bothered with it. The more aggressive amongst them justify the situation by invoking religious arguments. No doubt a lot of this has to do with the propaganda injected in the education system: from a very young age, children are taught that they are here at home, and nobody else.

The second film is finished. We asked Daoud about the old town’s Jewish population prior to the creation of Israel. “The native Jews (= Hirosolymitans [11]) used to live in harmony with their Palestinian neighbours around Al-Aqsa Mosque. Because they refused the Israeli occupation, some of them had to spend 28 years in prison. Then, as you know, the Moroccan quarter was taken over by the Israelis in June 1967. Since then, they have gone on taking houses here and there in the old city. Today they completely control the “Wailing Wall”, which is said to be part of the Second Temple: they have started to dig tunnels under Al-Aqsa Mosque, in search of proofs to justify their right to be in Jerusalem.”

“Aggressive settlers use religion, propaganda and education to justify their right to be there. Religious history may be right, but no proofs have been found that this land indeed belongs more to the Jews than to other people. The Israelis have been here for only 60 years, (second generation), whereas the Palestinians settled here already more than 2000 years ago, as the way they call the Damascus gate appears to indicate: while the Jews call it “the Gate of Nablus”, the older Palestinians still call it “the column gate”, or “Herode’s gate”, in direct reference to the history of the city.”

We ask Daoud: how likely is it to have a Palestinien state with East-Jerusalem as capital one day? “The only way the Palestinian villages can grow is outside the wall, whereas the settlements can do so inside it: this is a clear strategic planning aiming at having more and more Jews “in the city”, a fact on the ground that leaves but little hope for the Palestinians to keep East-Jerusalem as the capital of their state. As for a Palestinian state to be born one day… How could it be formed from the 3 ghettos the wall and checkpoints have reduced the West bank into?... It looks more and more impossible because of the too many little pieces and the interlace of colonies that separates all of them and keep spreading…”

To know more about colonisation in East-Jerusalem

Evidence on the ground (1): visit of the old town

We thank the director of the Spafford centre who has welcomes us and, under Daoud’supervision, we proceed towards the Damascus Gate where Moustapha is waiting for us. He will guide us during the first part of our visit of the old town. We dive into the souk. In the middle of the traders’cries and children’s laughters, we feel famished. Daoud guides us to a mini snack-bar run byone of his friends. There are only five or six plastic garden chairs that the regulars gladly give us. We sit on each other’s knees and taste our first vegetable-falafels, except for Natalia who doesn’t fancy them at all. Daoud and Moustapha eat standing up. We notice that they greet dozens of people passing by, up and down the street swarming with people, young children pushing carts filled with bread or fruit... A delicious meal in a really nice atmosphere. And then, we are off to visit the old town.

Moustapha’s itinerary has little to do with the standart tours reserved for religious tourists that come from all over the world to try to grapple with the history of the town and its links with the different episodes provided in the Bible. Our « alternative circuit » reflects the much more recent past and present, which is far less glorious and far less romantic. We visit among other places the old Austrian hospital now transformed into a hotel (we hear that the new Austrian hospital has been requisitioned by Israel too and has become the headquarters of the police - right in the midst of East-Jerusalem!). From the building’s terrasse, the view over the old town is striking but our attention is drawn to numerous Israeli flags flying over the roofs of the houses situated in the Muslim quarter of the old town. They are the proof of the growing judicisation of this neighbourhood, in contravention with international law. [12]

We leave the hotel, passing an ancient mosque which has also been confiscated and transformed into an Israeli military base. As Marie-Gaëlle utters a bitter comment on the presence of three armed soldiers wandering around, Laurie retorks: "it is normal there should be soldiers here since Israel occupies the territory…" Tanguy gasps at this point: but that just the point! They are occupying a territory that doesn’t belong to them! They are occupying it by force just like the Germans occupied Belgium during the war!... But faced with Laurie’s blank look, it is Anne-Claire’s turn to tell Tanguy to be patient. Laurie’ll no doubt understand better when she visit the refugee camp...

A few meters further on, Moustapha leads us towards a block of housing lived in by several Palestinian families as well as by… a family of Israeli settlers on the top floor! These Israeli settlers are literally barricaded in and moreover protected by a small military protection unity placed on the roof. Raising our eyes, we catch a glimpse of the helmet of the Israeli soldier on duty. Moustapha explains to us that this "cohabitation” is understandingly not going well, as the Palestinian families who live there in some destitution take a dim view on the wealthy armed settlers who have moved in under their roof and come and go with a certain arrogance... The housing is in a pitiful state. The Palestinian families live on top of each other with insufficient space. Mousapha asks us to look briefly through a half-opened door: all we can see is a ramshackle room with pieces of corrugated iron or material stretched over metal poles es as separations between two “housing units”. Moustapha comments :“ There you can see how intimate their surroundings are, not quite up to standarts… [13]

Then, Moustapha shows us the « small Wailing Wall », thus named since it relates to remains of the western wall of the Second Temple, close to the ancient and venerated « Saint of the Saints ». For this reason, religious Jews come to pray night and day, to the great annoyance of the Palestinians inhabitants who are prevented from accessing their homes easily because of the sheer numbers ofpraying Jews ! [14].

Close to the entrance of the esplanade of the mosques, we turn right and enter through a great open gate into the poorer neighbourhood of East-Jerusalem (which is not even shown on maps…) : the African Palestinian quarter, with the people ifrom Senegal, Soudan, Niger and Nigeria who arrived here either as pilgrims on their way to Mecca (Jerusalem is the third sacred town for the Muslims), or as soldiers of the British army before 1948. They have remained, have got married and have had children.

Meeting Ali Jiddah

Moustapha takes us now to see his cousin who is none other than Ali Jiddah, whom the Taayoush group already met in 2009. Anne-Claire and Tanguy are both happy and moved to see him again, all the more so because Ali seems to have grown older and is thinner. He still hasn’t got access to medical care, which he needs because of his state of health (pains and paralysis of the left hand, see « Beautiful Resistance »). Not only that but Moustapha lets us know discreetly that Ali has difficulty getting over an attack that he was subjected to some days before: while he was guiding a group of French people in the old city and was giving them an alternative visit (that is to say, experiencing things the way the Palestinians had experienced them), he was stopped by eight Israeli settlers who attacked him violently, first verbally then they hit him to the point where he fell to the ground, his head covered in blood. An ambulance took him to hospital.

Ali has hidden his bandage under a cap. There is nothing you can do. Complain to the police (Israeli police, there is no other in Jerusalem) in order to wait for two to three years before your case is dealt with and finally being told “your case won’t interest the public”… What’s the point? “All Palestinians are likely to encounter problems one day or another either with soldiers, or with settlers. It is like that in the whole country and that doesn’t seem to bother too many people. But that’s it”, he says“, that was five days ago. I’m very happy to receive you in my home.” He smiles but his eyes don’t respond to his lip movements.

“The Palestinians like the Belgians”, he tells us. “They know that the European citizens reacted after the Gaza war in January 2009. But they also know that the official European line is tending slowly but surely towards the right and they are outraged regarding the total silence of the European governments vis a vis this war. The fact that you are here gives some grounds for optimism on the part of the Palestinians, the feeling that they are not on theit own. Your role, Ali says, is to go and speak to your representatives.”

“The Palestinians only aim for one thing: to be able to experience the same life as any other free person. You should know that we are forbidden to going out after 8 p.m., which makes social life and visits amongst friends and families impossible. As I have already told you, we are never spared problems with the soldiers or with the settlers. These take our possessions away, i.e. houses, shops, etc "for security reasons". Each Friday evening and every Saturday, they walk the streets of the old town while shouting and singing their prayers in a completely histerical manner, tapping their feet, etc... They terrorize the population and in particular the children...”

Anne-Claire and Tanguy look at each other: Ali has no longer the same energy. His way of speaking is not as structured as the First time. He often stops without seeming to know what to say nor how to continue. When trying to answer our questions, he takls about the division between the Fatah and the Hamas: "The Israelis, the Europeans, the United States and Arab states have heavy interest to ensure they remain divided", and also what he thinks of Arab revolts: “ Saddam Hussein, Omar Bechir and the rest of them are dictators who were created by the Europeans and the Americans, who play a double role vis à vis Kadhafi, while they don’t react in regard of what’s happeningin Bahrein or Yemen. Economic interest predominates... But what happens with Egypt and the opening of the frontier with Rafah… Gaza is no longer under blockade, and that gives me hope.”

According to Ali, if there was to be a third intifada in Palestine, that would mean more suffering for men and women who have already lost all and who have the impression they have been betrayed by everyone. He reminds us that it was the Europeans who committed the judeocide, but that is was the Palestinians who are paying the consequences. For him, th e most realistic solution would be that Palestinians and Israelis manage to overcome this long story of violence in order to create a lay and democratic state in which they could live together. “But”, he adds, “if ever one day Palestine became independent, there will be an enormous problem with the youth, both the Palestinian and Israeli youth. As much between them as with « the others ». All the young people of this country have been psychologically destroyed.” And Ali mentions a word about the young Israeli soldierst who entered the military service at 18 for three years and when they marry have great problems in relating to theit wife and their children. "In particular, the mentality of the majority of these is that Israelis are superior to Palestinians. How could one change this?"

When Laurie asks him about this, Ali responds that any wisdom is the result of many years in prison [15]. There is no other choice. He explains that “if the Israelis have sentenced few Palestinian militants to death, they nevertheeless kill many everyday if only through the detention conditions that they impose. You can only survive with a very strong personality, but also if are utterly convinced of the justness of your cause.”

We thank Ali for having received us: we don’t want to take anymore of his time up. He is obviously very tired, his voice has weakened, his speech has become far less energetic than what Anne-Claire and Tanguy had remembered. They are both a bit upset because of this.

We leave this small African perimeter and continue in the direction of the esplanade. Just before arriving at the checkpoint which accesses to this area, Moustapha invites us into a restaurant run by Palestinians. It is a wonderful place, organised on two levels: a ground floor opening as a mezzanine on a basement level. The old white stone-blocks are very old, the two rooms really beautiful. There are not many people. The waiters are waiting for the clients, all of them very elegant in their uniforms. Moustapha draws our attention to the dividing wall: the Israelis had started building a tunnel which was to run through all the “unused” cellars of the houses in the roads running toward the Wailing Wall. In order to prevent that, the owners of this house here had decided to open a restaurant in the basement. As a result, the Israelis had to give up this project but that hasn’t stopped them to put tourists off visiting the restaurant by giving it a bad press (bad food, etc.). We shake our heads: are there no limits to this sort of behaviour?

We carry on our walk with Moustapha and Daoud. The surroundings change: more staircase-formed roads, little squares, larger and more beautiful houses. The difference is striking, almost brutal, between the Muslim quarter and the Jewish quarter where we find ourselves in at the moment: the first is really run-down, rather dirty, almost grotty but full of life, shouts, conversations while the second is especially calm, well-maintained, neat but cold, rather dead. [16]

We stop for a moment in a small square at the bottom of which there are signs of archaeological digging. Wonderful view on the esplanade before the Wailing Wall. Above it, the gold of the Dome of the Rock and towards its right, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is here, on the site of this esplanade, that the Moroccan quarter used to stand… Moustapha expands on this : “This neighbourhood was completely bulldozed in rather unusual circonstances: several years ago, workmen who were part of the unit employed subsequently admitted having bulldozed some houses knowing full well that there were still people living there. These people didn’t want to leave their house so the authorities literally locked them in while the bulldozers had started their demolishing work… The workmen were forced not to reveal this but one of them was unable to remain silent and spilt the bean to the media.”

We have some trouble believing everything we hear… We follow the comings and goings on the esplanade. Amongst the crowd of tourists, Daoud immediately spots Israeli policemen in civilian clothes and points them to us: a way of walking, of holding themselves, of speaking to people… Paul, for his part, has started chatting to a man who like us is enjoying the splendis view over the Wailing Wall. They talk about Music: this man explains that he likes listening to old Arab music and the songs of Oum Kalthoum and Abdelhalim Hafez... Nostalgia, nostalgia.

We take up our walk again across the Jewish quarter.
Another small square: in the middle of it, there is a huge chandelier in a showcase with an inscription: “Golden Menorah. Was recreated for the first time since the destruction of the second temple, according to the research conducted by the Temple Institute. Generously donated by Vadim Rabinovitch” - The biblical story here equates with History… [17] A little further, a house: little windows covered with a grill. “You don’t see anything here in particular?” Moustapha asks... Thirteen cameras. Thirteen cameras and several locking systems! “What kind of person needs to barricade themselves in like that do you think?” Someone who feels in danger, responds Laurie. “OK, but in danger for what? And why? Does one feel calm when one has stolen someone else’s place?” Laurie sulks, hesitant. Her reluctance to open her eyes has started to irritate some of us in the group.

Evidence on the ground (2): visit to Silwan

Moustapha leaves us there and Daoud takes up the duties for the visit. Direction Silwan, once avillage of Jerusalem that holds the record for unemployment and poverty in the eastern part of Jerusalem. 55.000 Palestinians and 500 Israelis live there. We have deviated round the esplanade of the mosques by the Jewish quarter and descend once more towards the famousCity of David which was mentioned in the film we saw this morning: an archaeological attraction park with a biblical theme that has gradually eaten into the lower quarter of Silwan and has chased away its inhabitants. We walk along a building site whose barriers are hidden by colourful advertising posters in Hebrew.

Tanguy shares information that he and Anne-Claire received during a conference on March 28, 2010 [18] covering amongst other things the issue of the archaeological digs undertaken by certain Israelis, and which a group of Israeli archaeologists have contested: Silwan is one of the biggest towns in occupied East Jerusalem. It is located to the south of the esplanade of the mosques, at the foot of the wall of the Old City. At the beginning of the 1990s, an extreme right private organisation, Elad (acronym of ’el ir David’ = “towards the city of David”) colonised some houses in the Silwan neighbourhood. In 1998, the municipality of Jerusalem awarded it the management of all the archaeological sites of this area. The conservation work [19] for these sites are financed by the Israeli governmen which has spent 50 millions shekels annually since 2005, with Elad as the principal beneficiary.

Daoud continues : “Some inhabitants protested against the underground excavations that imperil their house’s foundations . They were arreted and interrogated. In 2002 the Israeli-led Jerusalem municipality decided to demolish Al-Bustan neighbourhood. It has since issued orders to demolish at least 88 homes in Al-Bustan, home to more than 1000 people, under the pretext that this land is part of the ancient city of Biblical King David. This should be the proof that indeed all the city of Jerusalem is Jewish and must stay the Jews’ property…. The fact is that the archaeologists found nothing of importance during their 20 years searching but [20] But myth is stronger than reality, as so often."

Anne-Claire, who likes to call a spade a spade, relays the assertion arrived at by certain members of the conference of March 28, 2010 in Brussels: the archaeological work is instrumentalised in the service of ethnic cleasing in Jerusalem [21]. But, she insists, not all Israelis can be put in the same basket: a small group of Israeli archaeologists, members of Emeq Shaveh have decided to divise its own circuit showing the archaeological sites of Silwan in cooperation with the locals living in the neighbourhood.

They want to offer a different perspective to visitors: archaeology without any appropriation, that considers the past as a common good, where each layer contributes to an understanding of the history of Jerusalem without in any way seeking to prove the precedence of an ethnic identity (Palestinian, Israeli, or European) over another. [22]

Daoud goes on: “When the houses are not destroyed, they are occupied by settlers and land which is not built upon is recycled in order to install tourism infrastructures. In the valley opposite the Al-Bustan neighbourhood, for example, there are now a number of parking lots... As for Silwan itself, on June 22 juin, 2010, the mayor of Jerusalem announced a plan to destroy 22 hours in Silwan in order to give way to a tourism centre...” [23]

Inside the park, to the right of the main entrance, a fence hides… a Palestinian house, the only one still standing! By what miracle? All the neighbouring houses have been destroyed… A soft sound of harp music is broadcast in this “haven of peace”, where Israeli soldiers, schoolchildren and tourists groups mingle - all of them catching the message delivered by Elad: the presence of David’s capital 3000 years ago legitimizes the neighbourhood’s colonisation. Caroline’s bitter-sweet remark: you’d think you are in a Disneyland for rabbis...

Wooden staircases lead to a network of underground excavations. We are not clear what we could read into this so we climb back to the surface. Daoud guides us to the very end of the park that opens up onto a small rocky valley on the other side of which we glimpse Ras Al-Amoud, the higher quarter of the neighbourhood of Silwan where Daoud and his family have lived for several generations [24]. For how long still? While Daoud speaks about the whys and wherefores of this biblical park, we are distracted by the comments of an Israeli guide who, quite close to us, tells a completely different story to his group. These are apparently American Jews who have come to admire the progress of the "City of David". We have the strange feeling to be on two such very different tectonic plates, isolated from each other by an invisible wall that cancels o[ ut each other’s viewpoint [Cf. the Israeli director Avi Mograbi’s film: For only one of my two eyes : the moment when the group of tourists visit Massada.]] "Aren’t you likely to have problems?", we ask Daoud. "That other guide must realize that you are not telling the same story he is.” Daoud smiles: “Yeah. No doubt. But so what? Can’t we live our own life?" But it is difficult nevertheless to forget that we are in the midst of a Palestinian neighbourhood: outside the main entrance, all the exits to the site are locked or closed by barriers or turnstiles. David’s park is in effect closed in on itself...

We leave the park, which is still under construction, and follow the little road up to the Pool of Siloe mentioned in the Bible. Right beside it, there is still works in progress. "The Israelis are digging tunnels in order to reveal the ancient draining system… One still doesn’t know where they lead to." We grimace: clearly, there is appropriation of archaological remains going on in the town... . [25]

The Tent of Solidarity

We are now in front of the The Tent of Solidarity, a large tent that was established by the people of Silwan in 2009 along the main road of the downtown of Silwan in protest against Israel’s targeting of Al-Bustan neighbourhood. It is a place where Palestinians meet up, those who have lost their house - the result of the Israeli projects - and those who support them. Cultural events take place here with the aim of drawing attention to the fate of those who are to become homeless in their turn soon. It has been visited by thousands of people since then, all of whom have come to show their support for the people of Silwan. Visitors have included NGO representatives, politicians, ambassadors and human rights activists. Recent visitors include ex-US President Jimmy Carter and former Irish President Mary Robinson. And every Friday, there is a peaceful meeting of Palestinian and Israeli pacifists… with the Israeli military reacting in typical style: tear-gas and numerous arrests.

A representative of the local residents is sitting under the tent, waiting for us. Daoud has organised us a meeting with him. He presents himself by giving us his ten names and those of his ancestors, which makes us laugh. He is the father of the eleven-year- old who was shown in the film Daoud previously showed us. On hearing that, we quickly regain our composure. This gentleman speaks gently. He looks so tired. He is no doubt not so old as he seems if still has such a young child. He tells us first of the situation facing the population hereabouts. The Israeli local authorities have ordered the demolition of houses, without in the least bothering about the fate of the families who have become homeless. Israel claims that these houses are illegal as they were built without a permit but some of the houses were built before 1967, some in the 1970s and some in the 80s, and no one told them not to build or to improve and extend their house. After all, it was their land.

Although the demolition orders have already been issued, there has been no timetable given to the residents. As such, the entire community lives in constant fear that Israeli bulldozers can roll in at any time. The families of Al-Bustan live in an incredible strain all the more as, too frequently, the Israeli police and the army come into the districts to arrest children that are only 9,10 or 11 years old. The aim is to scare them and try to break their spirits. Mothers send their children off to school in the morning afraid that they may not come home in the evening. Most parents make their children sleep in their clothes because they are afraid that the authorities will come in the dead of night and “kidnap” them. The kids live in a constant state of fear. Many of them suffer from sleeping problems and have nightmares. And when it comes to trying to release their children from prison, parents are obliged to pay very high fines...

Our host then speaks about his own son, an 11-year-old boy who has several times already been arrested by the military and sent to prison for no reasons. Soldiers can do that, simply arriving somewhere where children are playing, arresting a few and then taking them without the parents being informed about it other than by on the spot witnesses. Or again, they come to fetch the children at their homes and the parents can do nothing to stop their child being taken away, often under false pretexts. His son, for example, was accused of having thrown stones. This is a very strong motive for arrest as well for children in East-Jerusalem as for those in occupied Palestine. In this case the soldiers accused his young son of having thrown stones at a moment when in fact he was at school. Nothing worked: neither the teachers’testimonies, nor that of the other children who were at school with him at that moment…

How tired this man looks, with sadness weighing down his eyes and his voice exhausted! He prepared a thermos of coffee that he serves us in small plastic beakers. While he speaks and while Caroline translates, a man, then another enter and join our circle. They nod in agreement to what they hear our host say, adding here and there short commentaries. Especially, they look at us with huge eyes as if somehow we could provide a glimmer of hope, an open window. And we confirm: yes we will relate and repeat what we have heard here, we’ll pass on the message so that, at least in our country, people will know what’s going on here and what people here have to go through. .[Watch the short report (February 2009) on the expulsions in Silwan and the 2020 Plan for Jerusalem... Pictures that have never been shown on western screens!]]

We leave the tent, staggered with what we have just heard. Our host spoke in Arabic and Caroline did what she could to translate into French what he had said, but she admits she lacks vocabulary. She has in fact never lived in Palestine, even if she returns every year to see her family, “Arab Israelians”, living in the north of what is Israel today. The poor (!) Natalia and Sébastien almost got to sleep in their chairs (Anne-Claire made them change places: there were sitting just in front of the man, and it was rather embarrassing that they should fall asleep while he was telling us about his little boy who is still in prison!) But we have followed sufficiently to understand that this is a clear example of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem as the government tries to rid the city of its native Palestinian population. This testimony enables us to get an idea of what the inhabitants of Silwan and Al-Bustan are going through.[See more photos of Silwan]]

Meeting Daoud’s family

To close the day on a slightly lighter note, Daoud suggests to take us to his place in Ras al-Amoud. What a good idea! We would really like to see his home environment and meet his family. We don’t know much about him, he is so discreet. As to “personal” questions, Daoud answers that he is so caught up in his activities for the children of East-Jerusalem and also with the contacts that he is taking up, the visits that he organizes for people like us, that he is really forced to admit that he has little time to think about his own life and about starting a family. That really strikes us because he says it so gently, with his wonderful smile that he always wears when he is talking about serious matters.

We follow him through a tangle of narrow streets between the houses, all of them temporary structures, then we pass through what used to be a sports field and is now a rubble field area: the ruins of a house demolished by Israeli bulldozers on March 2, 2009. Then we tackle a pretty steep ascent: a stone-staircase that enables us to thread through the houses of the neighbourhood where Daoud was born 28 years ago.

He invites us to enter his “home”, a kind of a study-and-sleeping-room on the ground floor of his family house, and offers us a drink and biscuits. While his family is finishing their evening meal upstairs, we go with him onto the terrasse. The view over the old town of Jerusalem is exceptional and Marie-Gaëlle can’t help saying out loud what everyone is thinking: what an injustice for these men and women, for all the Palestinians, who are gradually losing their city and can only enjoy it from far!

After several minutes, Daoud suggests we go downstairs to meet the family. We are greeted with warmth and invited to sit on a series of chairs and armchairs set out in a square in the main room, which has been cleared of the evening meal. Our little group, plus Daoud’s parents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters and their partners and a one-year-old Mahmoud, Daoud’ God-son: in all there are about twenty of us. Everyone can see each other over the low table and the hot cups of boiling tea. First a little timidly then quite quickly, we start speaking to our immediate neighbours in a mixture of English, Arabic and sign language that makes everyone laugh. Anne-Claire is sat to Daoud’s father’s right and he confides that he would very much like to see Daoud get married. Daoud, who is not deaf, smiles while playing with the little Mahmoud, whom he is visibly mad about.

Natalia and Laurie admire the grand-mother’s traditional embroided dress, grand-mother who in a sudden fits of coquettishness gets up and twirls around to show off her handiwork. Tanguy is chatting with his immediate neighbours about the political situation. Paul, Margot and Marie-Gaëlle are in the midst of a philosophical exchange of views with other members of the family. Islam is not at all what the West seems to think; fundamentally there is a great respect for Christianity and Judaism, for these religions share the same vision of a sole and unique God. Islam also recognizes Mary and proposes the same rules governing life as the two other religions (the ten commandments, for example). It is sufficient to respect what is written in the Coran to lead a good life. When we they tell them that in the West people are convinced that Islam imposes submission upon women, they smile: Daoud’s aunt tells us that she is a chemist! Waouw! This doesn’t correspond exactly to the image the Westerners have in general of the Muslims... Sébastien takes photos so as not to forget anything about this simple evening enveloped in warmth and peace, despite all the troubles and unpleasantness outside.

We leave once again for the old city with Daoud, this time by "service" (minibus) – good thing! We couldn’t have walked a single step further! The opening day has been very rich and full of interesting encounters and discoveries. We finish up in the Jerusalem Hotel, a typicallyPalestinian restaurant situated close to Damascus Gate where musicians play the oud. Caroline has arranged a meeting with one of her uncles, an Israeli Palestinian. When he arrives with his wife and daughter, we make room for them at our table. The reunion with Caroline is most happy and you feel they are all very moved. Daoud takes his first lesson in French and before leaving, he’ll tell us with his cute accent « j’ai passé une excellente soirée en votre compagnie ». Adopted! Anne-Claire had warned the group: you’ll see, he is a really adorable young man. And she teaches us a word that we’ll use throughout the trip when encountering such nice and gentle people: Habibi. Daoud is our first sweet Habibi… And it is true that we adore him.

See photos of out visit of the old town

See photos of our visit of Silwan

To know more about colonisation in East-Jerusalem

Read on about the trip

[1See our short chronology.

[2Massacres organised against an ethnic or religious community

[3Read the report of our vist of the Haganah museum on April 7, 2011 in Tel Aviv.

[4About the judicisation of Palestine and the Palestinian villages that the Israeli army rased, see among others the work done by Benny Morris and the new Israeli historians, the article des Amis d’Al-Rowwad about the Day of the Earth in Palestine as well as the numerous articles and documents by the International Solidarity Movement.

[5For more informations on the villages that were destroyed in 1948, see Nakba and Palestine remembered.

[6This reminds us of Rula Halawani’s photo exhibition, which we saw in Octobre 2008 : []->art86

[7The Israeli « absentee law » which was voted in 1950 has enabled the massive acquisition by the Israeli state of the Palestinian lands that were left vacant by the recent population of Palestinian refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families were forced to flee during the war, leaving all they had behind them. In the context of this “absentee law », vast stretches of lands fell into the basket of the Israeli government, which in turn transferred the properties to Jewish immigrants. (Source : ABP)

[8Agreements that recognized the Palestinian Authority and decided on the division of the West Bank into "zones" : A- zones, under the theoretical control of the Palestinian Authority (but the Israelis enter it whenever they think it necessary), B-zones, under Palestinian civil control (but security is ensured jointly by the PA and Israel, which means in practical terms that the Palestinians have nothing to say), C- zones under the civil and military control of Israel, which include the settlements and all the main roads. The refugee camps located in C-zones can be subjected to controls by the Israeli army any time.

[9Watch a short film on the reactions of some Israeli activists who are completely upset by these house demolitions.(Source : Compassionate Listening in Palestine)

[11Inhabitants of Jerusalem

[12See map by PASSIA to make an idea of the extent of this judaisation of the old city.

[13read article "Jerusalem confiscated".

[14On this subject, watch the recent short report by Euromideastnews (avril 2011).

[16See more photos of the old town.

[17On the appropriation of the biblical myths, watch Avi Mograbi’s excellent film, "Pour un seul de mes deux yeux".

[18Conference organised in the context of the Day of the Earth by the Halles de Schaerbeek and the Belgian-Palestinian Association : a time of reflection on the issue of Jerusalem with Kareem Jubran, specialist of Jerusalem and field research director with B’Tselem. He reviewed the impact of the wall as an instrument to annex Palestinian territories. Rima Awad, from the Palestinian Counseling Centre in Jerusalem presented the political instruments that allow the dispossession of the Palestinians of Jerusalem. Yonatan Mizrachi, an Israeli archaeologist and a member of Emeq Shaveh, showed how archaeology in Jerusalem is often used for political instrumentalisation. Jawad Siyam, director of Wadi Hilweh – Silwan Information Centre stated the progress of the colonisation in Silwan and of its impact on the inhabitants’ everyday life. Elias Sanbar, Ambassador of Palestine for the UNESCO, talked about the worrying change that is taking place in the way colonisation is carried on, i.e. the settlement of a Jewish Israeli population right in the middle of Palestinians, which makes the latter’s life impossible.,

[19Conservation? In complete scientific inobjectivity, the archaeologists ignore or even destroy some stratums which testify to the presence of other people or civilisations...

[20The former person in charge of the excavations, an English archaelogist, was even fired after she said that nothing could be found in these parts that resembles the period of King David...

[22They have a web-site on which academics are invited to sign a petition calling the Israeli government to take off the management of the archaeological site in Silwan from Elad’s hands :

[23Plan which, according to the legal advisor of the municipality, the lawyer Yossi Havilio, doesn’t respect the legal standards...

[24Daoud had this confirmed when he worked on his family tree

[25Visit site Emek Shaveh for a different archaelogical approach.