June 15, 2013 Through the Looking Glass

After weeks of anxiety and worrisome emails about security at Ben Gurion Airport, possible demands for computer passwords, email addresses, and various troublesome questions, the 18- year-old at passport control barely makes eye contact. I could see her ipod dangling from her ears. I don’t think she saw me at all.

This is day one of the American Jews for a Just Peace – Health and Human Rights Project and we begin in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the Al Quds Community Action Center established in 2000 to serve the needs of the Palestinian Jerusalemite community. Hamad Shihabi is an attorney who works on the tortured legal issues facing East Jerusalemites, Palestinians who since 1967 have the unfortunate combination of an Israeli residency ID but no citizenship. They are faced with a myriad of challenges including home demolitions, barriers to family reunification, lack of adequate national insurance, (which includes medical, disability, social security), taxes without adequate local services, and face offs with the malignant Department of Antiquities. Their precious IDs can be easily revoked by Israeli authorities and in 2008, more than 4,000 East Jerusalemites lost their IDs out of a population of 250,000. At that point they became stateless, and began a byzantine and circuitous legal struggle to nowhere.

Under a gracefully arched ceiling, the heat permeating the thick walls, Hamad takes us through the Queen of Hearts kind of world that is East Jerusalem. For instance, if an East Jerusalemite takes another nationality, she loses her ID; if he builds without a permit, (which is virtually impossible to get), he loses his ID. Fines are based on each meter of non-permitted building done, 600 shekels ($180) per meter, accumulate on a daily basis, and are only getting harsher. There are legal ways to request extensions but little possibility of ever obtaining one. He talks about families that “self demolish” to avoid fines. He mentions the extensive zoning and permitting rules, but only Jewish families ever get permits to build in the Muslim quarter. Palestinian lands are unregistered in East Jerusalem according to the Israeli Land Authority, so there are always conflicts about the evidence for ownership. In 2011, Israeli authorities revoked the IDs of all Hamas members in parliament and reserve the right to revoke IDs whenever it is “reasonable.”

Hamad’s personal story is equally disturbing: a father who is an originally from East Jerusalem but has a West Bank ID, family lands lost in 1948 and 1967. His mother has an East Jerusalem ID, but their home which was once in Jerusalem is now outside of the city so they rent in Beit Hanina which is in the city. Because of the different IDs and the lack of family reunification, his father has to travel separately and go through different checkpoints than the rest of the family. I listen to all of this in my post travel exhaustion and think, once again I have arrived in a land of official insanity! Then I remember the over arching goal: to force Palestinians one way or the other, to leave their historic and ancestral homes and much becomes clear.

We make our way through the winding streets of the Old City, up and down stairs, through dark dusty stone tunnels and glorious snatches of sun to the Shehaba family quarters. 100 people from 22 families live in 120 rooms, curling around dark stairways, opening into bright courtyards, kids tumbling and playing, a kitchen tucked behind a door, a glimpse of a living room. Their papers date back to 400 years of documented ownership as a waqf, a form of Islamic trusteeship designed to protect the family from dispossession.

In the 1960s a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews claimed that the entry to their quarters was a “religious site” and began praying and performing Bar Mitzvahs and blocking the entry into their homes. The numbers and aggression increased and then came the demands to knock down walls, to make a male and female prayer area, and to connect to the tunnels under Al Aqsa. The local residents complained and the authorities put up police barricades along their entry to separate them from the meshugas and also installed a “security camera.” The nearby sign says in English and Arabic, “Small Wailing Wall,” but in Arabic it says, “Shehaba Quarters.”

We wend our way up the ancient stones and in classic Palestinian fashion we are soon sitting in another Shehaba home where our host was born and raised. We are soon sipping sweet juice, and enjoying his curly haired two year old daughter. The only sign of tension is his cigarette. He studied antiquities in Italy and now works at the Khalidi Library, founded in 1725, but his true passion is restoring old documents. He shows us an elegant book of Islamic laws he restored, the pages dating back 420 years. The living room is filled with stuffed chairs, an Oriental rug, plastic white lilies, paintings of Al Aqsa Mosque, and a muezzin calls in the background. He is dignified and calm in this sea of disordered behavior. As we leave him graciously smiling and reassuring us about the intrusion, he repeatedly states: “You are most welcome.”

As if this is some kind of bad movie, by the time we get to the bottom of the stairs at the entry to the family quarters, a large crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jews has gathered to pray, loudly and boisterously in their self assured religiosity. They are guarded by a cluster of soldiers with large automatic weapons and a clear intent to use them if needed. Dropped down the rabbit hole again. Welcome to the Holy Land.

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