We return from Ramallah to East Jerusalem to join the health and human rights delegation and once again I am taken aback by the daily outrages that have now become ordinary. Sitting on the #18 bus, windows caked with mud and grime, we reach the massive traffic chaos at Qalandia checkpoint for the bizarre ritual of getting through. West Bank Palestinians with permits leave the bus for the walk through “security,” half an hour? two hours? Go home? An elderly gentleman with a blue ID card for East Jerusalem stays on the bus explaining that he does not need to leave because of his ID. A muscle man with sunglasses gets into the bus and I hand him my passport. He explains that he is “security” and stands legs apart in the bus, trying to look fierce. A bearded baby-faced soldier then enters the bus and has some argumentative conversation with the driver. He gestures to the old man to leave and the man shows his blue ID, muttering, “Is there now a new law?” He tells us he also has a US passport, “I have everything,” and never goes through security. Frustrated, he is forced off the bus for the never never land of security lines. We drive through the checkpoint and pick up Palestinians on the other side who have crossed the hurdles. A man with piercing green eyes explains that the soldiers told him he could not pass and they started arguing. He demanded, “I talk to your commander!” and the soldier relented. He is still clearly seething with rage and frustration. Suddenly I realize that I am holding my breath as if even the air is suffocating.
A very alternative tour
There are now opportunities to take “Alternative Tours” of Jerusalem and the delegates meet up with Ghadar who starts our tour in front of the historic Damascus Gate. There is an Israeli plan to close, rebuild, and modernize this main gate for the Arab population. This will drastically affect access, housing prices, and the 275,000 Palestinians now living in East Jerusalem, with the goal to reduce the Palestinian population to 50,000.
Walking through Herrod’s Gate, Old Jerusalem is a kaleidoscope of history and communities as well as a reflection of the active Judaization of the Old City. There are now 500 security cameras to protect the Jewish settlers who are buying up homes in quarters that have traditionally belonged to Christians and Muslims for many hundreds of years, as well as encircling the city with Jewish settlements beyond the ancient walls.
I had no idea there was an African community until we are ushered into the tiny living room of Ali Jadha. He explains that in 638 Africans from the areas of Senegal, Niger, Sudan and Chad came to Jerusalem after pilgrimages to Mecca as part of their devotion to Islam. Ali is a handsome dignified man who speaks with a deep voice and a twinkle of humor and is fluent in eight languages. He holds a cigarette in his left hand while placing his right black gloved hand carefully on a table. I wonder if he was injured. He explains that the African quarter is not on the map. His father came from Chad and married a second generation Palestinian Christian from Morocco. Because his father was very religious, he was given a home near the Al Aqsa Mosque.
We are sitting in a room built 800 years ago by the Mamluks for pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. After the Turkish-Arab revolt from 1914-1917 this section become a prison and then was subsequently controlled by the British, Jordanians, and now Israelis. Ali was born in an adjoining room and attended French School until 1967 when the occupation interfered with his studies with frequent harassment and beatings from Israeli soldiers and loud dancing and singing by Israeli civilians celebrating their victory.
Ali felt he lost both his personal and national identity and became increasingly politically and militarily active, joining the PFLP, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1968 at the age of 18, as a reprisal for an Israeli bombardment, Ali placed a bomb in West Jerusalem, injuring nine Israelis. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and released in 1985 in a prisoner exchange. He began working as a journalist and in 1981 moved back to his home in Jerusalem. By 1994 he explains, “I have a dirty tongue. I have a dirty pen. I cannot work as a journalist.” He cannot tolerate lies. He initiated alternative tourism in the Old City and in refugee camps and began lecturing, exploring the meaning of Palestine.
He explains he will never plant another bomb, not because he is afraid of jail, but because he has five children, “I am not ready to harm others,” and also because he is finding Israelis that are serious about peace. “The work I am doing is more effective than the bomb I placed in 1986.” A turning point occurred for him when he went to Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem to pay respects to a “martyr’s” family. He asked the mother what she would do if she saw a wounded Israeli soldier. The woman replied that she would help him. Ali responded, “But they killed your son,” and the woman said, “But don’t forget, I am a mother.”
Ali is fearful that a third intifada is brewing as he has a network of contacts and is in touch with the mood on the street. The majority of Palestinians are fed up with the current rightwing Israeli government and he fears this next intifada will be more dangerous as Palestinians have lost everything and feel betrayed by the entire world. He notes European silence after the Gaza invasion was devastating and he has no patience for all the talk of Israeli democracy. Obama (“He is a coconut,”) may have good intentions, but the US is not one man. Palestinians need to know that they are not isolated, that there is somebody in the world who cares about their future.
Ali reminds us that the main fight is back home, “You have to be honest with yourself if you really care about human rights.” Although he favors a secular democratic state, he is aware that is a utopian idea and that Israelis and Palestinians “are in need of time to overcome the long history [of hatred]. We need to relax. We have to talk, build bridges, both of us are responsible.” He smiles, “My dream is to put my head on the pillow and have a nice dream.” Instead he wakes up anxiously looking for his ID card, worries about his children getting home from school safely, and is afraid to be outside after 8 pm for fear of being beaten. But still, “I love Jerusalem. Jerusalem is my girlfriend.”
His voice turns serious as he looks around the room. “I don’t deny the Holocaust. Because of the Holocaust you were supposed to be the most sympathetic people,” but instead Israelis have committed terrible aggression against people who were not responsible for that catastrophe. He is also clear that the occupation is terribly destructive to Jewish Israelis; the young soldier serving in the Territories is affected by the brutality and brings this home, often in the form of domestic violence. He quips, ‘Sharon is in coma; even the devil doesn’t want him.”
Ali warns that Israelis never understand until they lose physically, “so please don’t push my people into a corner.” When the conversation turns to the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement, he states emphatically the BDS should be total. Israelis need to feel the impact to change.
We emerge from this intense interview into the winding stone streets of the old city, the bustling shopkeepers, hordes of tourists, women in hijabs, men in high hats and peyos, nuns in long habits. Some of the walls are decorated by Muslims who have just come back from Mecca. Ghadar asks them not to do this because this city is for everyone.