Sunday, August 15, 2010

How I lost $1,000 in Sheich-Jerach

Every Friday this past year, a group of young and energetic activists have held a protest demonstration on the corner of a dismally rundown public garden and playground in the Sheich-Jerach neighborhood of EastJerusalem. The police don’t let the demonstrators approach the contested homes of evicted Arabs, and the public garden has become a weekly institution for protest. The trip from my northern haven is long, and I’ve never really been a sign-toting-yelling demonstrator. But Sheich-Jerach is different, somehow, and I come every so often.

But first a brief background. Why the protest? What’s it all about?

In 1948 Jews who were living in East Jerusalem fled westward as Arabs from West Jerusalem fled eastward. Arab homes in West Jerusalem were, in one way or another, legally occupied by Jews. Jewish homes in East Jerusalem were legally occupied by Arabs.

In 1967, as a result of the Six-Day-War, Israel occupied and then completely annexed East Jerusalem To West Jerusalem (including a many-fold area of villages around East Jerusalem), and thus to the State of Israel.

As a result of differing legal mechanisms used by Israel and Jordan to populate the deserted homes of those who fled, our legal minds decided that we (Israelis) have every right to repossess homes in East Jerusalem which belonged to Jews prior to 1948 by evicting Arab families living in those homes. Likewise our legal minds decided that Arabs from East Jerusalem who are now legal residents of Israel (albeit annexed against their will) cannot repossess homes they owned in West Jerusalem or any other part of Israel.

Sheich Jerach is a neighborhood of East Jerusalem where a number of Arab families have recently been evicted from their homes, and more families are in line for eviction. Of course, there is no compensation or alternative housing connected with the evictions……..only the legal decisions of our very legal minds which makes it all wonderfully legal.

Oh yes…….and who bought the rights for these homes in Sheich Jerach from the original Jewish owners of 62 years ago? Organizations of extreme right-wing Jewish settlers who openly claim their program of driving Arabs out of East Jerusalem and repopulating it with Jews……..because it is our God given command to do so. Amen. Of course, still, under no circumstance can a resident Israeli Palestinian from East Jerusalem repossess his home from West Jerusalem. Legal logic ??!!

War is awful. It uprooted and relocated both Arab and Jewish families. Both suffered and needed to start anew. War is miserably cruel. Coming 62 years later to repossess from only one side of the human trauma is unjust, unequal, and totally immoral. Leave people in their homes, or at least do an equal repossession for both sides. No….. please, stop this repossession and eviction bull—it, bury the past as best as possible and leave everyone in their homes. That’s what the protests and demonstrations in Sheich Jerach are all about. Actually, quite simple. (Well, not so simple. This is also part of the battle between those of us who want a mutual understanding between the State of Israel and a State of Palestine, and those who are insistent on our God-given rights to all of the Promised Land, come hell or high water, at least up to the dwindling waters of the Jordan.)

One Friday last month I came much too early for the protest. Instead I drove down to the lost homes of the evicted Arab families (police barricades hadn’t yet arrived). On the sidewalk beside their lost homes were sitting members of the evicted families. Also a few young “internationals” who came to hear their story.

A tour guide, representing the Jewish settlers, was standing outside the contested homes with an American couple who were interested in the story of Sheich Jerach for something they were doing. He was explaining to them in English how wonderful and justified is the mission of the settlers by taking over these homes. Needless to say, a fierce argument broke out between him and some members of the evicted Arab families. One or two of the young “internationals” joined in. eventually, so did I.

The settler’s representative used two (worn-out) arguments regarding the legality and the justification for taking over the homes of the Palestinian families:

1. International law allows us to repossess in East Jerusalem while not allowing Arabs to repossess in West Jerusalem.

2. There was no Palestinian People in 1948, and no mention of Palestinians as late as 1964. (It was here that he offered $1000 to anyone who could show a Palestinian People mentioned before 1964.)

The use of International Law by this guide was certainly intriguing if not so ironic. Aside from his utter misuse of the actual laws, it showed a magnificent use of our Jewish “chutzpa” while belonging to a community which has joyfully disregarded countless international laws, starting from the very formal annexation of East Jerusalem into the State of Israel, all the way to settling Israelis on private lands of conquered territories, and so many infringements in-between.

His second argument is where I decided to go home $1000 richer.

History is a problematic teacher. The rebirth of modern Jewish nationalism (called Zionism) and the advent of modern Arab (and specifically Palestinian) nationalism have completely dissimilar roots. Though both were nurtured by opportunities developed in the immediate years of pre-and-post World War 1, the forces driving them were totally different. Our Zionist nationalism was driven mainly by the dismally worsening plight of Eastern European Jewry during the later part of the 19th century. Pan-Arab nationalism began as a rebuke to the dying Ottoman Empire. It was then ripped apart by the Ottoman defeat of World War 1 and the forcible replacement of the Pan-Arab dream by the division of the empire into a number of national States via self-serving decisions made by England and France, then ratified by the League of Nations. Till then Palestine was a region, not a national locality, but already in 1920 the Arab Elite of Palestine had to decide between its previous dream of Pan-Arab nationalism, calling for a Greater Syria (encompassing the areas of today’s Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan), or acquiescing to the completely new national borders drawn up by Britain and France. An important section of the Palestinian elite decided in 1920 that the correct direction would be to work with the British mandate and thereby assert their right to Palestinian self-determination. This was their cross-over point between Pan-Arab nationalism and Palestinian nationalism. Vocal nationalism and greater public (Palestinian) support grew gradually from then, 1920, not 1964. From then on our “conflict” was one of two very differently managed national movements confronting their future.

I corrected our settler’s representative. Unfortunately, heated arguments (and some curses) ensued as a result between him and members of the evicted families and a couple of “internationals”. Our settler’s rep took his guests and drove off. It was then I remembered that he failed to award my answers with the promised $1000.

I sat on a small plastic stool next to the worn and torn old sofa where some members of the evicted Hanun family were sitting. Above our heads was a makeshift canopy that protected some of us from the hot sun. We talked. Others came. We talked some more. Soon the weekly Friday demonstration will begin in the public park, beyond the police barricades which had meanwhile sprung up on all sides of the disputed neighborhood.

(for a short related videoclip:  )

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