The reality is that for seven decades Israel has been engaged in the crime of ethnic cleansing. If this crime is not immediately brought to a stop, the City of Jerusalem will lose its heritage forever.
JERUSALEM, PALESTINE — It is 2:30 p.m. on a weekday in Jerusalem’s Old City, and one would expect the stores and restaurants to be open and busy. Standing near one of the first stations along the Via Dolorosa, the final path Jesus took as he carried his cross to his own crucifixion, I was looking around me and Abu-Shkri restaurant was closing, as were some of the t-shirt and souvenir stores. I turned to one of the shopkeepers and asked him why they were closing so early. “No business,” he replied.
This seemed like an odd thing to say as the street was full of tourists. There were some tourists walking in groups and others walking in pairs or alone. “There are thousands of people here,” I said to him. “Yes, but they don’t stop to shop, not even to look or ask for prices.” He was right. Not a single tourist was stopping. “Look,” he continued after he noticed I continued to stand there, “if you pay attention you will see: the tour guides tell their groups not to buy from the Arabs. So there is no business.”
Ra’ed Saade’s family has been operating the Jerusalem Hotel in East Jerusalem since 1961. The building sits on the corner of Antar Ben Shadad street and Nablus Road, across from the Old City’s beautiful Damascus Gate. It has a long history and it was established as a hotel in the early 1950’s. When Ra’ed remodeled the hotel he had a line from Antar Ben Shadad poems etched on the beds in each of the 14 rooms. The rooms, each one unique, and the entire hotel are decorated in traditional Palestinian style. Ra’ed and I sat in the garden restaurant that overlooks the street and talked; he is a living encyclopedia of Palestine in general and of Jerusalem in particular.
The restaurant is like a closed-off balcony, covered in vines, and is often used for large family gatherings and social events, as well as private dinners and drinks. A delivery man rushed in to bring supplies to the restaurant. “He needs to hurry because he is not allowed to park here,” Ra’ed said, pointing to the curb where the truck was standing. “For years we have been asking the city for a permit for vendors to drop off supplies but they deny us.” It seems that this is only one of many tactics the Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli authorities use to make life for Ra’ed and other Palestinian business owners difficult.
“They are marginalizing Jerusalem,” Ra’ed commented, “pushing the Palestinian businesses out.” During the month of Ramadan, Ra’ed was asked to host an Iftar dinner for a group of local Palestinian business leaders. Iftar is the evening meal breaking the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and is often used as an opportunity for large social gatherings. “I spent over 4,000 shekel, more than $1,000, in preparations.” As guests began coming in, the authorities showed up and closed the event.
Ra’ed described the scene to me, “A combination of local police, border patrol and special forces all fully armed, and of course the Shabak, the Israeli secret police, raided the place. They said the event was canceled and told everyone to leave.” There were also hotel guests who were not connected to the event having dinner at the time. They too were told to leave.
“They presented a piece of paper that said the event was illegal.” Ra’ed and one other person, one of the organizers of the dinner, were taken in for interrogation. “They said the event was illegal because it was in violation of the Oslo Accords.” According to the accords, the Palestinian Authority, or PA, is prohibited from any form of organizing or even from having a presence in the city. “They determined that this was a PA-sponsored event.”
This was not a rare occurrence. Earlier this year, Israeli authorities closed down events at the Ambassador Hotel, also a Palestinian business, because the Russian ambassador and officials from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah were present. Even though all the guests had a permit to be there, the event was closed down. Last July Hind al-Husseini College and Al-Quds University’s College of Art — both of which are located in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood — were closed until further notice. The stated reason was a conference that was planned to take place and of which the Israeli authorities did not approve. So the event was called of, the school closed, and the Israeli authorities detained 15 people who were going to participate in the conference.
The Hakawati Theatre in East Jerusalem, also known as the Palestinian National Theatre, has been subjected to closures by the authorities precisely because of its Palestinian nature and its presence in the city Israel wants to claim as exclusively its own. Other Palestinian business owners and people involved in cultural affairs in East Jerusalem have told me about being harassed regularly in what is arguably an effort to disrupt and prevent political, business and cultural affairs by and for Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Israel claims a historical connection to Jerusalem that dates back to biblical times, specifically to King David. Silwan, a community of 55,000 residents just outside the Old City is a representation of what is taking place all over the city. Walking in Silwan earlier this month, I heard an Israeli tour guide explain that there is a historical connection that dates back to King David. The problem with that argument is that for at least two centuries Jewish and Christian archeologists alike have tried and failed to find historical proof that King David existed. Since the Bible is a book of faith and not a historical document, the historical argument goes by the wayside. Still, in the name of what this tour guide called “science,” tunnels are being dug under the homes of the people of Silwan to find more archeology. The past trumps the present and the digging destroys the homes’ foundations; the walls become unsteady and city inspectors notify the residents that they must leave because their homes are unsafe.
Ahmed, a local Palestinian, showed me the cracks in his homes, and then pointed to the new Hebrew street names placed in Silwan. Only a few hundred Jewish settlers live in Silwan yet the original streets names have been taken down and replaced with Hebrew names. “They just changed the street names of our community, and made them Hebrew, Jewish. No one spoke to us, we never agreed to this.”
Two organizations that have made it their mission to de-Arabize the city’s Muslim Quarter and Silwan are Ateret Cohanim and Elad, or the City of David Foundation. Facing these two violent, relentless groups that are registered in the United States as not-for-profit organizations, the Jerusalem municipality, and the Israeli government — all of whom want the Palestinians out — local residents find themselves helpless as they see their community being taken over by radical Jewish settlers, both Israeli and foreign.
In a speech given in January 1950 in front of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharet referred to the UN demand to keep Jerusalem sovereign and said that, “Jerusalem’s status as the capital city of the State of Israel is enshrined in history and guaranteed by the present reality.” The history is questionable, and the present reality is that for seven decades Israel has been engaged in the crime of ethnic cleansing. If this crime is not immediately brought to a stop, the City of Jerusalem will lose its heritage forever.
Top Photo | The Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound is seen in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 15, 2017. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)
Miko Peled is an author and human rights activist born in Jerusalem. He is the author of “The General’s Son. Journey of an Israeli in Palestine,” and “Injustice, the Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five.”