Heroism in a Vanishing Landscape

“Disputed” is a word often used about East Jerusalem and homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Would the international community have considered the homes of American blacks attacked by the Ku Klux Kla as “disputed”? Or those of Jews ejected by Brown Shirts in the early 1930s?

The rule of law exists to protect the victims of war and occupation by imposing sanctions and responsibilities on invaders. It is not to be stretched for the convenience of the US at Guantanamo, Russia in Chechnya, Israel in Gaza, or in East Jerusalem. Under the law East Jerusalem and all the Arab homes it contains are part of the occupied West Bank. Despite endless palm-greasing, casuist apologetics, semantic distortions and brute force, Israel’s responsibilities towards the territories it occupies remain articulated in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and Chapter 5 of the 1907 Hague Convention IV. Occupying states are forbidden to seize the land and property of those they occupy, and forbidden to settle their citizens on occupied soil.

But Israel and its US patron have small regard for legal niceties, instead preferring Thucydides’ maxim: “The strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must.”

* * *

Late afternoon, October 16, 2009. Nasser Ghawe, 46, barrel-chested, with an expressive face and a ready smile, calls out to his little girl when she strays too far down the street. “Come here, darling,” he says, scooping her up in his arms and cradling her. We’re seated on plastic chairs in the gathering dusk at one side of a street in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The mother watches tiredly as Nasser talks with us.

The usual courtesy cups of strong Arabic coffee aren’t offered here; the family has none. For nearly eleven weeks they have been living on the street opposite the house that was theirs for 53 years. On August 2 Israeli soldiers threw them out; minutes later, settlers from the violent organization Kach (“Thus”, founded by the late Meir Kahane), moved in and have been there ever since. And so the Ghawes are once again refugees, re-living a nightmare they had thought was buried in the Nakba. They watch from the street as settlers carry on life in their former home. When we visited, a guard hired by the settlers picked limes and gave them to one of the Ghawe women: “I am not against Arabs,” he said, “This is just my job.”

In 1948 Ghawe’s grandparents fled from Ein Sfarand near Lydda. Ein Sfarand was bulldozed into the ground along with over 450 other Arab villages. Pretty national parks and kibbutzim erased any trace of the traditional Arab architecture, agriculture and the rest of life which once characterized Palestine. Hebrew names – Lod, for example, for Lydda – replaced the Arabic ones. The Ghawes fled to East Jerusalem where UNWRA (The United Nations Works Relief Agency) housed them as refugees. In 1956 they returned their refugee cards and rented a house from a local Palestinian builder.

There they stayed in peace for nearly twenty years. In the early 70s settler organizations began trying to seize the homes of the Ghawes and those of over two dozen other Sheikh Jarrah families including the Hannouns who lived down the street and around the corner. For 37 years the families staved the settlers off in court. In 2006 the Ghawes were evicted but settlers didn’t move in; the Israeli police simply put locks on the doors. The Ghawe family shattered the locks and moved back in. The Hannouns put up a website and appealed to the international community for protection. According to one of the older Hannoun children, 20-year-old Sharihan, some 1000 internationals came through to sleep in their home, in much the same way as internationals now come to help Palestinians with their harvests. (The website – http://www.standupforjerusalem.org – gives essential historical background.)

When we visited, the Ghawe family was living on a plywood platform under an improvised roof – white sheets stitched together and strung up on poles. In the dim interior we could see mattresses and a simple bed. Children’s drawings were tacked to an improvised wall. There were also stuffed animals, a TV set on a card table, a generator, and other necessities of life – small testimonies to the family’s efforts to impose some normality in the midst of lunacy.

That afternoon Sheikh Jarrah looked like Williamsburg, Brooklyn – settler men strolling about in long black caftans, leggings, fur hats; settler women in long-sleeved shapeless dresses, wigs and hats. A special large enclosure had been erected for the settlers’ holiday festivities, its lights beaming across the area as dusk descended. Many baby-strollers announced a race to the finish with the arabushim. (The settlers address Israel’s “demographic problem” viscerally. Thirty years ago settlers from Gush Emunim – Bloc of the Faithful, the radical right-wing spearhead of Israel’s drive to settle the West Bank — told me with pride that their own large families would win against the Arabs).

In 1979 I reported from Kiryat Arba, a major Gush Emunim stronghold. A settler interviewee whispered with pride that Meir Kahane had an apartment there. For the Gush settlers, Arabs were at very least inferior. One woman said she believed in a “chain of being”: on top, Jews. Then, lesser human specimens. Then animals, vegetables, minerals. Somewhere in the lower reaches of lesser humanity were Arabs. “Let them bow their heads. If they won’t, they should leave,” was a frequent Gush statement about the untermenschen.

At that time the Gush had just established a “squat” in the former Hadassah Hospital in Hebron. Miriam Levinger, the wife of the Gush leader, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, said the squatters were there to stay. Israel let them. Israel’s US patron did nothing but continue its usual $3 billion annual largesse. Today’s visitors to central Hebron can observe the results: the central Palestinian market lies emptied and closed after years of settler pogroms. One of many hate-filled graffiti reads: ARABS TO THE GAS CHAMBERS. (For essential information about these settlers see the late Robert I. Friedman’s Zealots for Zion, Rutgers University Press, 1992, and Lords of the Land by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, Nation Books, 2005, 2007).

Thirty years ago Kach was considered a pariah organization. (In 1988 Israel barred Kach from elections because of Kach’s stated desire to expel all Arabs from Israel. In 1994 the US declared it a terrorist group). Gush Emunim was also considered “lunatic fringe”. But Labor and Likud alike bowed to Gush demands, enabling settlements like Gush Etzion, Kiryat Arba and Elon Moreh – the rest of Israel’s West Bank “settlements” (whole cities and red-roofed California-style suburban sprawl) followed. “The lunatic fringe” is now the mainstream, dominating Israel’s armed forces and its political life.

* * *

Down the street and around the corner from the Ghawes we found the Hannoun family’s house. A line of Israeli flags fluttered triumphantly along the arch of its roof. A dark-green synthetic material hung behind a crude fencing of wire mesh, obscuring the entire front of the house. Through tatters in the green fiber we saw the settlers’ Shabbat candles glimmering. 20-year-old Sharihan Hannoun sat on a lawn chair on the sidewalk with other family members. She wore a black, long-sleeved sweater, jeans and sneakers. A blue hijab framed a pleasant young face with dark, arching eyebrows.

Sharihan said the army arrived at five in the morning August 2nd. One of the police shoved a gun through a window. He shouted, “Open the door!” “They break the door,” said Sharihan, “broken everything they see, threw all the tables, the chairs, and then come to me and hit me with a gun. Even my little brother, they put a gun in his back. My father say, ‘Don’t touch my son, he’s only eight years old.’ But they threw my father and my little brother outside and then go to my mom room. She say, ‘Let me wear my clothes, I cannot be in the street in pajama… [But] they refused. And they let her to walk on the broken glass ‘cause they broken everything they see . . . I sat and I put my arms around the door. [I said], ‘This is my house, I will never leave.’ But [the soldier’s] body is strong. He beat me.”

In the street, their cell phones and cameras confiscated, the family watched as the soldiers displayed their “purity of arms”: they tossed out all the furniture. Then they began playing football, something that particularly astonished Sharihan. “They didn’t care. They kick us outside, they eating my little brother chocolate and playing football. My brother say, ‘I want to sleep in my house.” And I can’t do anything for him.”

The day we visited, the family had been living for two months and ten days on the streets, with periodic help from relatives (bathing, toilet, etc.) The Palestinian Authority put the family up in a hotel during Ramadan, then refused to pay anymore. On our visit, Sharihan had just returned from her classes. How could she study in these circumstances? A shrug: “I study in the street. I don’t have another place. I have to study and, like, have a normal life. I can’t give up. If they took my house it is not the end for me.”

I returned four days later to record Sharihan’s story. The next day she was to leave for the US with other Palestinian representatives of Sheikh Jarrah: all had been granted visas. Sharihan was to be interviewed by press in the US, and also to testify before the UN. Friends kept arriving to say goodbye and wish her luck. Did she want to stay in the US? “I want to return to my country. I want to open hospital, for old people. I think everyone forget what the old people do when they younger.” And how did the exams go? She beamed: “I am second in my class.”

* * *

Days after our visit, the settlers danced in triumph in front of their victims while the latter banged pots and pans to make them leave. http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=234466)  The Jerusalem municipality has approved plans by Florida billionaire Irving Moskowitz, to build twenty apartments in Sheikh Jarrah. [http://middleeastprogress.org/2009/07/debating-jerusalem/ ] The settler organization, Nahalat Shimon International, also filed plans this past August with the Jerusalem Local Planning Commission to demolish Palestinian homes and build a 200-unit settlement. On Nablus Road, not far from Sheikh Jarrah, I saw that one Arab street name had been whited out. All that was left was a Hebrew name at the top of the sign, and the English one at the bottom.

ELLEN CANTAROW, a Boston-based journalist, has written from Israel and the West Bank since 1979. This article is part of a series, “Heroism in a Vanishing Landscape,” about non-violent Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation. She can be reached at ecantarow@comcast.net

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Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.

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