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Another Day in East Jerusalem

Last week, footage of the demolition of Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem went viral. It was a brief glimpse of the daily effort to end Palestinian claims on their capital city.

Last week, the brutalities of daily life for Palestinians in Jerusalem captured the attention of the public, however briefly. The focus was Israel’s demolition of a Palestinian home in the Sur Baher suburb of the city, caught on film by a Palestinian witnessing the explosion. For us, the demolition itself was unremarkable: since 1967 more than 49,000 homes in occupied Palestine have been demolished (not to mention hundreds of Palestinian villages utterly destroyed after 1948, their inhabitants forcibly displaced in refugee camps). What pierced public consciousness here was the absolute glee of the Israeli soldiers carrying out the detonation: a soldier and policeman laughing together, hugging in celebration, as behind them the house falls to the ground. 

In the last three years the right-wing Israeli government—emboldened by the Trump presidency—has dramatically accelerated such policies towards Palestinians in Jerusalem, or as Palestinians call it ‘Al Quds.’ The latest escalation in Sur Baher is the biggest increase in demolitions since the start of Israel’s 1967 military occupation, destroying 16 buildings containing 100 apartments. Their undisguised objective is the ‘demographic containment’ of Palestinians living in the city. For those that do not read Hebrew or follow Israeli politics, it is not easy to appreciate how much this existential threat haunts Israeli public consciousness. It is a familiar feature of settler-colonies but, in the Israeli context, it is extremely visible. Since its inception Israel sought the military acquisition and retention of the maximum amount of Palestinian land, with the minimum number of Palestinians on it. Its present policies in Jerusalem are driven by this same logic.

Under the guise of ‘metropolitan expansion’ and a ‘futuristic vision,’ the Israeli government and Jerusalem municipality aim to establish a ‘greater metropolitan Jerusalem’ where Palestinians will not constitute more than 35% of the population. A ratio of 75:25 or 80:20 is most desirable. The Jerusalem 2050 master plan, the ‘most developed’ plan for a Greater Jerusalem yet focuses greatly on the ethnic composition of the city’s population. Demographic equilibrium is to be achieved by gerrymandering Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to exclude Palestinian areas and include Israeli areas, while implementing policies to force Palestinians out of the city altogether. 

In the plan, the borders of Jerusalem are to be expanded to include the Israeli settlements around the city. A new network of transportation including roads, trains, trams and an international airport are positioned to separate out Palestinian areas from Jerusalem’s centre. This policy is already underway, with the apartheid wall surrounding Jerusalem having now severed a large number of Palestinian neighbourhoods and villages from the city centre, where education, healthcare and work that Palestinians depend on are located. According to the UN and other NGOs, such actions constitute a demonstrable policy of forcible transfer, a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

House demolitions are the most public expression of this policy. To destroy a Palestinian home, Israel sends hundreds of soldiers, police and military police to surround the property, often giving its residents only a few minutes to collect their belongings. A helicopter flies overhead as the D9 bulldozers begin their task, with evicted families sat adjacent their home watching its slow destruction. Throughout the city, and in our neighbourhoods, these ruins are left as monuments to Israel’s demographic plans. As children, these partly demolished ruins were ideal venues for games of hide and seek, much to the ire of our parents.

In Silwan, one of the neighbourhoods next to the Old City and its holy sites, over 500 homes and commercial units have the doom of demolition orders hanging over them. Israeli archaeological digs in the neighbourhood have undermined the structural integrity of buildings, damaging 70 homes and leading recently to the complete collapse of a children’s playground. Altogether 60,000 Palestinians live with this threat of home demolitions, in a city where we are already 43,000 housing units in the red. While Jerusalem grows for Israelis, it shrinks for Palestinians. Alongside demolitions are quieter, more subtle forms of exclusion and forcible expulsion within Israel’s complex ‘centre of life’ policies—where the right to residency in Jerusalem can be stripped if you were deemed to live in the wrong part or stay too long outside the city. Intense surveillance of individual Palestinians can lead to the revocation of our ID cards and residency rights—essentially deportation of those suddenly deemed to be living outside the city limits. 

These state actions are reinforced—and in many cases are spearheaded—by Israel’s renowned settler movement. Throughout the city, focusing on strategic areas, groups of settlers invade and take over homes, and raise Israeli flags over occupied houses to turn them into militarised settlements deep in the heart of Palestinian communities. In the Old City, groups of armed settlers take to the streets daily, intimidating Palestinian shopkeepers and worshippers; in West Jerusalem they harass and attack Palestinians going to school, or going work, or down the road to the shops. These events reach a horrific annual pitch during the Jerusalem Day celebrations, when Palestinians are forced to close their businesses while gangs of settler youth are unleashed across the city, with their chants of ‘Death to the Arabs’.

All of this terror has been legitimated by the actions taken by President Trump: moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem on the anniversary of the Nakba (the Palestinian ‘catastrophe’ commemorating the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from our homes between 1947 and 1949). Israel’s formal—if illegal under international law—annexation of Jerusalem, and its green-lighting by the Trump regime, is intended to signify the end of Palestinian national and collective claims to our city, transforming Jerusalem Palestinians into a minority community with no sovereign claims; strangers in our own home.

The outcome for those of us born and brought up in Jerusalem is visible: all that was familiar is now gone or changed beyond recognition. Damascus Gate, the main Palestinian entrance to the Old City, now has three imposing watchtowers from which soldiers frequently abuse us as we come and go. The old Palestinian women who would sell fruit and vegetables on the Old City’s pathways have nearly all gone, the result of Israel’s wall and intense harassment by military police. In these thousand small and banal ways, the Israeli state is suffocating Palestinian life in Jerusalem. The sense now, in our ancestral homes, is one of constant precariousness, of transience and claustrophobia—of the earth moving under our feet. 

Yet in spite of this mood of defeat and isolation, there is also extraordinary resilience, especially across the young generation. This spirit combines a sort of street smart nonchalance, a carefree—if hard-earned—disdain for authority, with a deep love for Palestine and its cause. Arrestees from protests, journalists facing deportation invariably swagger in from prison for their court hearings with broad smiles on their faces and—prison guards and handcuffs permitting—flash our beloved V for victory sign. Although our political trajectory remains unclear, we still clearly own the place in a manner once described by Mahmoud Darwish: ‘my country is the joy of being in chains.’

In 2017, when the Israeli Government attempted to install security gates at the Al Aqsa mosque, this exuberant approach found its political form in continuous weeks of vibrant popular protests. The gates’ construction was intended as an assertion of sovereignty by the Israeli state and settler movement, who have long had the mosque and surrounds in their sights. Protestors responded by blocking the main entrance to the mosque, and refusing to pass until the gates were gone. Lasting late into the night, illuminated by the lights of phones, thousands chanted: ‘Heaven, heaven, heaven, our homeland is heaven,’ a sentiment completely at odds with the atrocious circumstances Israel has created in the city, but perfectly conveying the Palestinian spirit.

Our struggles in Jerusalem are paralleled by the fate of the majority of Palestinians who were forced into exile by Israel’s policies of expulsion. Since March 2018, Palestinian refugees in Gaza march weekly into the sights of Israeli snipers during the ‘Great Return March,’ carrying our common dream to return home, the central tenet of the Palestinian cause. These past weeks Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have mobilised against a new Lebanese law set to further diminish their already brutally proscribed rights, and to confront Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ intended to destroy the Palestinian cause itself. 

The Palestinian story is always to find a way, no matter the circumstances, to continue our struggle. It relies on a belief that it is only a matter of time before we can again overcome physical and institutional fragmentation and reunite, to give force to our people’s demands for liberation and return. This, and the righteousness of our cause, is the reason we exist as a people today, and is what sustains the collective optimism we have for a future of justice and freedom.