A blurring of boundaries and conscience – Alice Rothchild in Palestine and Israel, part 4

June 14, 2014, ICAHD Jerusalem

I have been on a number of tours of Jerusalem with staff from the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and I never cease to feel this wave of disbelief, shock, and deepening horror. Chaska Katz, a high energy 30-something from a progressive apolitical family, (“my parents were hippies.”) came of age in the small circles of the Israel left, refused to serve in the army, started agitating for animal rights, and ultimately found her way to defending the rights of migrants, refugees, and Palestinians. ICAHD’s focus on fighting Palestinian home demolitions provides her with a concrete nonviolent activity that is often a symbolic resistance, but sometimes produces life changing results. She is fluent in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

We leave the Old City on Hebron Road towards the Jewish settlement of Talpiot and gather on a lookout in the neighborhood of Jabal al Mukabbir. In stifling heat, to our far left we can see West Jerusalem, characterized by tall high rises, apartments, hotels, 14 huge cranes, swaths of green, parks, gardens; a constantly expanding city pushing its boundaries with massive construction. A Jewish success story! The cranes represent not only high rises, but also an exploding public infrastructure, highways, bridges, tunnels, solid “facts on the ground,” i.e. THIS BELONGS TO US.

Rothchild T02025My eye moves east to the Old City with the gleaming gold dome and two adjacent crowded Palestinian villages cascading down the hill, Silwan and Wadi Joz, (dotted with recent Jewish settler homes) and then further east, the scattered grey-white Palestinian houses topped by black water towers, now tending to vertical growth as there are no legal places to spread horizontally. The contrasts are stark: no parks, no green space, no cranes, empty patches of barren dry hills. Remember, these folks pay the same city taxes as the happy Jews in West Jerusalem with their sidewalks and garbage collection and street lights. More than half of Palestinians in East Jerusalem have no sewerage or water connection and often tap into existing pipes, thus dropping the water pressure. Mekrot, the Israeli water company, refuses to lay more pipe and many Palestinians have no water 2-3 days per week. I see a Palestinian boy biking in small circles on his roof, another swinging back and forth, also on a roof. Those are obviously their play grounds. Because there is no garbage collection, Palestinians burn their garbage, so these little boys are playing in air that is directly polluted by the neglect and racism of Israeli authorities. The numbers are stark. The Jerusalem municipal budget allots 8-10% of its finances to 1/3 of its population.

On a more distant hill is the Mount of Olives and the tower of Augusta Victoria Hospital, a major tertiary care hospital in East Jerusalem, and then to the southeast, the neighborhoods of Abu Dis and Azaria, now separated from Jerusalem by the eight to ten meter high concrete separation wall, cutting through the fabric of life and community and its access to the holy sites and medical care of East Jerusalem.

Further in the distance is the expansive Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, stretching its borders eastward to Jericho with the hope of ultimately bisecting the West Bank in two.

Intellectually I know all of this, but the visual reality is breath taking. Chaska reviews the history of 1948, 1967, the various displacements of Jews and Palestinians during the wars, and the ultimate annexation of Jerusalem as the “undivided capital of Israel.” (So much for the two state solution, FYI). She explains that for Palestinians to maintain their treasured East Jerusalem ID, they have to constantly prove that East Jerusalem is the center of their life and work and this requirement creates enormous hardship. There was a massive panicked influx of East Jerusalemites living in suburbs like Hizmeh and Abu Dis when the wall was built and they feared getting stuck on the wrong side. Study abroad? Risk losing your ID. Work in Ramallah because there is no work at home? Risk losing your ID. Build a house just across from the wall because your eight children are now married and having children and there is no place to build and permits are impossible? Risk losing your ID.  And the list goes on. I often feel that Israeli authorities are ethnically cleansing East Jerusalem one Palestinian at a time.

A new piece of information for me is that 60-80 % of the land seized in Jerusalem in 1948 was Palestinian agricultural land. Even more was taken after 1967, so that Palestinians have continuously lost their source of income and employment and have migrated in large numbers into the cities, providing Israel with a source of cheap, easily exploited labor.  (Remember Israeli labor laws do not apply to these folks).  And now (after the intifadas) this exploited labor has returned to the Israeli labor market by the tens of thousands, cleaning the streets, planting the gardens, building the roads and apartments that only displace them further.

With Oslo in 1993, the rapid growth of Jewish settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods began in earnest and the Judaization of East Jerusalem and its ever expanding boundaries.  I found it helpful to understand that Jerusalem actually has three boundaries:

1. The 1967 Municipal boundary includes East Jerusalem; Palestinians with East Jerusalem IDs must live only in East Jerusalem

2. Greater Jerusalem includes the settlement blocks of Giv’at Ze’ev in the north, Ma’ale Adumim in the east, and Gush Etzion in the south forming a giant Jewish ring around East Jerusalem

3. Metropolitan Jerusalem was approved in 1995 and includes Ramallah (!!!), Bethlehem (!!!) and Beit Shemesh.  This boundary is about zoning, development, and of course, ultimately settlement growth.

The net effect is that Palestinian neighborhoods as well as cities are surrounded and constricted by growing Jewish settlements and thus unable to expand; each settlement brings with it an infrastructure of bypass roads and military bases. Palestinian freedom of movement is even further eroded and the areas of Palestinian life are thus reduced to isolated enclaves. Coming here year after year, I am bearing witness to this crushing reality.

Similar patterns exist within East Jerusalem where the Palestinian population has grown from 66,000 in 1967 to 300,000 in 2013, but only 13% of the land is zoned for residential use and no new Palestinian neighborhoods have been built. This contrasts to the 52% of the land that is Green Zoned, i.e. for open space, infrastructure, and ultimately Jewish settlements. This is in addition to the 35% of East Jerusalem already zoned for Jewish settlement development. Apartheid anyone?

This is a long and myth shattering tour. We visit the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Zeiteim, built by the US doctor and casino magnate, Irving Moskowitz.  During the Shalit negotiations, the settlement hosted two large banners: “Kahani was right! Death to the Arabs!” and “One Jew equals 1000 Arabs.” I look at the manicured lawns, the recycling bins, and the lovely baby carriages, the flowers blooming in charming gardens planted in this desert community. And of course the security cameras, the guards, and remember that this is place is actually a bunker overlooking the angry residents of Ras al ‘Amud. There are more settlements like this strategically dotting the hills and gradually the pieces are coming together, the segments of wall are linking up, the massive prison for Judea and Samaria is completed.  Palestinian villages like Beit Iksa and Biddu are trapped in tiny enclaves, surrounded by loops of wall, isolated from their communities.  Some like Anata and Shu’fat have residents with East Jerusalem IDs that just ended up on the wrong side of history. Some now are devoid of any services and basically lawless areas with drugs and arms trafficking and no police force. The bureaucracy of occupation is in full force and it is mean spirited and physically destructive. Meanwhile the permitting system in the West Bank has become more severe, there are increasing physical, social, and emotional barriers, more collaborators drawn from the ranks of the young, the frightened, the desperate.

I peer over the ridge into a deep blue artificial lake built at Ma’ale Adumim and learn of the three olympic size swimming pools and marvel at the series of rotaries graced by thousand year old olive trees uprooted from some ancient village that probably does not have a regular water supply. I remember the poverty stricken Jahalin Bedouin encampments off the highway leading to this paradise in the desert.  I think of the nightmare permitting process for a Palestinian who wants to expand his house and has to prove that it is part of some master plan (there are none), that there is proof of ownership by Israeli standards (never mind the land deed from the Ottoman Empire and the generations of family who have lived there), and then the demolition orders, and the legal maneuvers and the bulldozer in the middle of the night with the fully armed soldiers and the helicopters overhead and the rubble and screaming children, and then of course the fine and the bill for demolition. Half of suicide bombers experienced their homes demolished as children. Trauma, hopelessness, rage anyone?

I wonder: What kind of society have we become?  What kind of people do this to each other, then kiss their children and sleep without nightmares? Do the nice Hadassah ladies, the American tourists having a spiritual moment on the Via Delarosa, the sun burned Birthright teens playing frisbee on a Tel Aviv beach care? What are the ugly consequences of grabbing everything over and over again and then only wanting more?

Alice Rothchild MD, is Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. She serves on the steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace- Boston, and has worked with medical delegations to Israel and the Occupied Territories with the AJJP Health and Human Rights Project. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and director of the 2013 documentary Voices Across the Divide.

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