Jerusalem: Communities Leading Change

Video & Transcript
with Fayrouz Sharqawi
Transcript No. 486 (November 7, 2017)

Mohamed K. Mohamed:
Fayrouz Sharqawi is the Advocacy Director at Grassroots Jerusalem and has a broad and experienced understanding of development under occupation. Ms. Sharqawi’s tours of the city focus not only on the political reality, but on the potential that lies in the Palestinian economy in Jerusalem. They also demonstrate the unity of communities across the divide and attempt to cultivate support and solidarity for Palestinian initiatives in Jerusalem.

Ms. Sharqawi will speak for about 30-45 minutes, afterwhich we will have a Q&A session. Please wait for the microphone before asking your question, so everyone can hear, including our online audience. For our online audience, you can tweet your questions to @PalestineCenter. Everyone, please join in giving a warm welcome to Ms. Fayrouz Sharqawi.

Fayrouz Sharqawi:
Thank you. Hello everyone, my name is Fayrouz Sharqawi. I am representing Grassroots Jerusalem, a Palestinian organization that contributes to the Palestinian long-term strategy for Jerusalem. We think that this is a crucial need for our communities back home and I am here to share the Jerusalem story from a Palestinian perspective.

Usually when speaking of the Israeli occupation, Jerusalem is forgotten and neglected. People tend to think of the military occupation of the West Bank, the siege of Gaza, but people often forget the specific and unique reality that Palestinians live in the city of Jerusalem. I will begin by explaining the political reality that we live in the city, but most importantly, I would like to share the community mobilization and creative resistance that the communities are implementing in the city.

Since the occupation of the East side of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli authorities have openly designed policies of displacement against the Palestinians in the city. The Israeli authorities state this openly in their master-plan for Jerusalem, called Jerusalem 2020, a 50 year development plan for Jerusalem. The Israeli government began implementing this plan in Jerusalem in the early 70s and has the vision for the city of Jerusalem for the year 2020, two years from now. In this plan, it is stated that they wish to achieve and maintain what they call a demographic balance between Jews and non-Jews in the city. According to this plan, that demographic balance is 70 percent Jewish and 30 percent non-Jewish. In order to achieve that “imbalance”and maintain it, if I may correct the term, they have designed a network of policies that lead to the same result: expelling more and more Palestinians from the city.

It starts with the legal status that the Israeli Authorities gave to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem right after the occupation of 1967: this legal status is called a “permanent residency”. According to this legal status, Palestinians basically have permits to live in their own city, regardless of the history or the hundreds of years that their families have lived in the city. Every Palestinian is considered a temporary resident. The term permanent is also very misleading as well. Let’s begin with the fact that this legal status expires automatically every ten years. Every ten years, a Palestinian from Jerusalem has to go to the Israeli Ministry of Interior and renew their permit to stay in the city. We called it the Jerusalem ID. In addition, we also have to prove that Jerusalem has been the center of our life through these years. This is the title that the Ministry of Interior coined in the 80s, after unilaterally annexing the East side of Jerusalem and legislating the law called “Entry into Israel”. According to this law, any resident has to prove that they have physically lived inside the borders. If we talk about residents of Israel, then it means the borders of Israel. However, when it comes to Palestinians in Jerusalem, it means inside the city itself.

So Palestinians have to prove that they have a physical address in Jerusalem; that they either own or rent a house. They also have to prove that they have been paying the taxes in Jerusalem, most importantly, the housing tax.In addition, they have to prove that they have practically lived in their physical address in Jerusalem, by producing water and electricity bills. If you fail to prove all of these criteria, then your residency status will be revoked and you will be expelled out of the city. The Israeli Authorities also don’t wait for us to come every ten years and check in with the Israeli Ministry. They send their officials to our homes to check if we are actually in our Jerusalem houses. They would come to a Palestinian community, knock on the door and check if you are sleeping in your Jerusalem house. If you are not sleeping in your Jerusalem house, then your center of life is somewhere else. If you open the door, they will go directly into your kitchen and check if you have fresh bread and milk in your house. If you are having coffee and toast somewhere else in the morning, then Jerusalem is not the center of your life. They will also go to your bedroom and your closet and check if you have clothes and towels, because if you are showering somewhere else, then Jerusalem is not the center of your life. I see smiles and believe me, it is a literal description of what happens. They go looking for this evidence. If you fail to prove all of this, then they will claim that you have moved your center of life to somewhere else and they will take away this permit. Only through this direct tool of displacement, between 1967 and 2014, the Israeli authorities have revoked almost 15,000 permits from Palestinians. Almost 15,000 Palestinians have been expelled from Jerusalem only because they failed to prove that the city is their center of life.

Counting on this policy, the Israelis make every single aspect of our daily lives in Jerusalem very hard for us. It is hard for us to find land, jobs, schools, and hospitals in Jerusalem. In other words, they are making Palestinians look for those basic needs of life outside the city and use this moving out of the city as an excuse to confiscate your Jerusalem ID. This begins with confiscating Palestinian lands, for example. The last bits and pieces of land owned by Palestinians in Jerusalem are confiscated systematically by the Israeli Authorities for the sake of establishing, what they call, national or municipal parks.This is a good idea. Who can object to a park in their community? If you look more closely, you can see that it is very political. It is serving the goal of taking the last lands of Palestinian residents and not allowing the Palestinian communities to naturally grow in their locations. In addition, Israel only allocates thirteen percent of the lands for public use to the Palestinian population, even though Palestinians account for 40 percent of the general population in Jerusalem. Forty percent of the residents receive only thirteen percent of the lands for their public use.

In addition, there is the very crucial policy of home demolition. Usually, when Israeli officials are asked why they demolish Palestinian homes in Jerusalem they claim that they do not. They say that they demolish illegally constructed homes. Factually, that is true. But let us look at the details of that. In the last six years, the Israeli Authorities have rejected 94 percent of the Palestinian applications for building permits. Basically, they do not allow us to build legally, which forces us to build illegally. Then they use that as an excuse to demolish our homes. Usually, when a Palestinian goes to apply for a building permit on their own privately owned land, the rejection is given with the explanation that the masterplan for the neighborhood has not been developed to include new construction. Again, we have to ask the question, whose responsibility is it to develop those masterplans? It is the only authority controlling the city, the Israeli Authority. So they do not develop our masterplans and use it as an excuse to not allow us building permits and then use that as an excuse to demolish our homes. This whole procedure of applying for a permit and being rejected makes you pay a lot along the way. First phase, you apply and pay a lot of money. Second phase, you pay a lot of money. Third phase, you are rejected. Then you are forced to build illegally.

People always ask us why we build illegally, if we know the homes are going to be demolished. The honest answer is that we gamble. We build and hope that we get to live in those homes as long as possible, before they are demolished. Then when they come demolish our homes, they also make us pay for the home demolition, even though they have an annual budget to cover the demolitions of illegally constructed homes and structures. This budget does not cover Palestinian homes and they make the families pay for the demolition expenses. This whole experience can cost a Palestinian family up to 600,000 Shekels, which is almost 150,000 dollars. This is a huge amount of money, especially when you take into consideration that the Palestinian population in Jerusalem is very poor. This poverty is also not a coincidence. There is an 80 percent poverty rate among Palestinians in Jerusalem and 83 percent of the minors live below the official poverty line. So, 600,000 Shekels basically means that you are bankrupt. Then, there is no alternative housing available to us in Jerusalem, which means these families find themselves having to go outside the city to look for affordable housing. Then it is claimed that they have moved their center of life outside of the city and they lose their Jerusalem ID.

In addition, [Israeli Authorities] are not only literally uprooting Palestinians by denying permits, taking lands and demolishing homes, but again, every basic need of our lives is a challenge. Starting simply with the choice of whom to marry. The Israeli “Unification Law” does not allow Palestinians from Jerusalem to bring their partners from outside of Jerusalem to live with them. If I fall in love with a guy from Bethlehem, I am more than welcome to move there and live with him. But I certainly cannot get a permit for him to live with me in Jerusalem. The Israelis are interfering with the Palestinian love life, literally. In addition, if you are not born in Jerusalem, then you do not get the legal status of residency and with the severe lack of hospitals in Jerusalem, this is another new challenge. Actually, just seeing a doctor in Jerusalem is a challenge for Palestinians. There are only five hospitals in Jerusalem that have to serve all of the 300,000+ [Palestinian] residents. There are only two emergency rooms in those five hospitals.

It is clear to the Israeli Authorities that to keep a population under control, you have to keep them poor. What better way is there to keep a population poor than to prevent that population’s schools and educational institutions? So there is a severe lack of schools for Palestinian kids in Jerusalem. The number of missing classrooms right now is standing at 2,000 classrooms, which means that there are thousands of Palestinian kids who have no schools to go to at the beginning of every year. There is also the “battle over the narrative”, the curriculum question. Which curriculum do Palestinian children in Jerusalem learn? The Israeli Authorities try to impose the Israeli curriculum on the Palestinian schools in the city by conditioning budgets by the type of curriculum used. So if you use our curriculum, the Israeli curriculum, we will give you the budgets needed to maintain your schools. If not, then there is no money for you. That is another way of forcing Palestinians to adopt the Israeli curriculum, which of course dictates what agenda, narrative and history you are learning.

In addition, there is a Palestinian university in Jerusalem, Al-Quds University. But it is isolated from the city by the annexation and expansion wall. That is not a coincidence. The only Palestinian university is not accessible to the vast majority of youth inside Jerusalem. They are forced to go through this long journey through the checkpoints, be searched and humiliated on the way. It is a two-hour journey to campus and then back again to get home in Jerusalem. So it is a very challenging reality. Even if you are very stubborn and want to go to Al-Quds University, then you have to hope that the Israeli army does not raid your campus. The army goes to the campus to arrest Palestinian youth, who they claim participated in demonstrations in their neighborhoods. Usually, it is a very aggressive visit, which means tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets and live ammunition. This disrupts the whole education process for these students. Let us say that you are persistent and graduate from Al-Quds University, then the Israeli Authorities do not recognize your certificate. Unlike the rest of the universities inside the West Bank that are recognized by Israel, Al-Quds University is not. So any Palestinian youth from Jerusalem who graduates from there, cannot actually practice their new profession in their own city. So if a 26 year-old woman just graduates medical school after seven years and becomes a doctor, she cannot practice her profession in Jerusalem. She will then go look for a hospital in nearby Bethlehem in the south, or Jericho in the east, or Ramallah in the north to find a medical center to work at. Then she might rent an apartment in one of those cities, because again, that two-hour journey each way is difficult. Then the Israelis will say you moved your center of life and you cannot come back to Jerusalem.

Alongside all these policies, there is also the annexation and expansion wall of course. It was built around Jerusalem in the year 2003. It has finished the job of isolating Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. That is the Israeli Authorities’ goal, to isolate the Palestinians in Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank; cutting off political, social and most importantly, economic ties. Jerusalem has always been the center for its surrounding towns. It has been the economic center for Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah in the past. Today, these relations have been cut off. Goods do not flow in and out of Jerusalem anymore. That has led to a drastic rise in unemployment and poverty. Hundreds of Palestinian businesses closed down in Jerusalem after the construction of the wall. Suffocating the Palestinian economy is also an important tool that is leading to the displacement of Palestinians from [Jerusalem]. Within this reality, we also do not have our own political leadership active in Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction in the city, as a result of the Oslo agreements. So the Palestinian Authority cannot do much and it is not even doing the little that it can in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is sometimes neglected by the Palestinian Authority as well. So Palestinians in Jerusalem live in this political vacuum. No one is speaking our name and we are not represented. So, advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians of Jerusalem and the development of our communities is left in the hands of the United Nations agencies and international NGOs.

These NGOs treat Palestine like it is a place struck by a tsunami. They only have this humanitarian aid approach towards Palestinians and treat it like a place that has experienced a natural disaster. They mainly provide emergency relief and responsive. They provide alternative shelter to Palestinians who have lost their homes to demolition. They provide legal aid for Palestinians that are prosecuted in the Israeli legal system. But they do not do anything to end the source for that need of assistance. They do not end the home demolition policy and do not end the occupation. So there is always a Palestinian need for this support. They do not create any sustainable change that is helping the Palestinian struggle for liberation and freedom. On the contrary, they maintain our dependency on them. These agencies and NGOs come with their own approach and perception of what Palestinian liberation should look like; what development of Palestinian communities should look like. So it is a very top-down approach, “We know better what is good for you. We know better than you what is good for Jerusalem”. So they do not take into consideration the Palestinian needs the way we Palestinians define them. They do not adopt our own prioritizing of these needs. This means that their change is not sustainable and does not allow our own civil society to strategically resist the occupation.

This criticism is also the same one that we Palestinians have against donors. These donors that fund Palestinian civil society organizations in the West Bank and Jerusalem come with the same approach [as NGOs]. They come with their own agenda and perception of what we should be doing. Usually, grants come with many strings attached and with a manual. This is what you should be doing and they dictate where every cent should go. It is very top-down again. Unfortunately, in recent years, it has been very project-based and temporary. The funding only comes for three months or five months, which does not allow Palestinian civil society to strategize and build long term plans.

Within this reality, Grassroots Jerusalem was born six years ago. We decided that we want to gather and collect Palestinian voices that do exist in Jerusalem, that make up together a long-term strategy for Jerusalem. We do our work through three different departments. The first is our Mapping and Assessment Department. This department initiates the relationships with different communities, with community organizations, grassroots movements, volunteer groups and individuals who are very active in their neighborhoods and communities. This usually involves a lot of tea and coffee drinking. We ask them to tell us their story and they tell these stories about themselves and their communities the way they experienced it. These include the history of the place, the reality of today and the challenges faced under the occupation. We upload these stories online. Our website is designed to be an online platform for communities to mobilize and network. There are 38 community stories on our website right now. We have not done all the mapping of Jerusalem but have done this so far.

The next question we ask in these communities is who is doing what regarding this reality [of life under occupation]. Who are the community organizations, grassroots movements and individuals who are active in your community regarding these challenges? We profile those actors and ask them what their vision is for Jerusalem. That is the toughest question you could ask a Palestinian: their vision. People find themselves always having to be reactionary to the policies of occupation. If I ask a 50 year-old man what his vision is for Jerusalem, the answer will probably be something like, “I have a demolition order over my house, I do not know right now what I envision in Jerusalem ten years from now.” That is usually the toughest question and I think it is crucial to create the space for communities to begin discussing it.

In addition, our Mapping and Assessment Department creates actual maps. We think there is a great need for Palestinian maps of the city. The maps we create for Jerusalem have two main goals. The first is to reflect Jerusalem the way we know it and the way we saw it growing up, and not divide into East and West, or stopping on municipal boundaries, or the wall. In addition, there is a need to know the Palestinian Arab identity in Jerusalem, knowing that the Israeli Authorities constantly change the names of neighborhoods in the city, from Palestinian Arabic names to Hebrew Zionist names. The greatest example is the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Sheikh Jarrah is the historic Arabic name of the place and has been renamed by the Israelis to Saint Simon. Saint Simon is buried in a cave in the neighborhood and that justifies the Zionization of the place that is happening right now. There are settlements being built and Palestinians being evicted from their homes to allow settlers to move in. There are settler organizations that are being built. There is one settler organization whose headquarter is being built in Sheikh Jarrah. There are also official Israeli institutions that also have a presence in Sheikh Jarrah; the headquarters of the police, the headquarters of the border police and now they are building the national insurance institution.

[The Israelis] are zionizing the space on the ground and zionizing the identity of the city on the maps. If you take a look at an Israeli map of Jerusalem, they will not show the entire East side of the city. The entire side east of the wall is not on the Israeli map. There are 100,000 Palestinians that live behind the wall that do not even show on the Israeli map. The ones that are lucky enough to be on the map, the areas are shown as empty green zones with national and municipal parks. So they are not just deleting the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem on the ground, but on the maps as well. We create community based maps, organize mapping workshops for communities, where youths go out and map their communities using GPS devices. They go out and mark different points, they show their elementary schools, [grocery stories, historic landscapes, etc.]. They just go out and reflect the identity of their own community on their own map. Our maps are available online for everyone to see and use.

The next department is our Mobilization and Networking Department. In order to strategize long term, Palestinians need to be able to address their issues of immediate concern. We map resources available for communities to mobilize. We know that the people who led the First Intifada, which was a great example of proper community organizing, strategic resisting and boycotting of Israeli goods and homeschooling children. It was a huge moment for Palestinian initiatives. The people have been led to believe that they are incapable and need the hand to come from outside and show us the way. So our goal is to remind ourselves that we can actually do it, if we can find the resources. We map resources in different communities and these resources for the community are never financial. It is usually expertise, experience and knowledge and it is older generations teaching younger ones. It is skills that are available that can actually help the different communities and the civil society actors around them to mobilize around those issues of concern, the way they prioritize them.

Then comes our networking moment. We think it is very important to overcome the divide and conquer policies of fragmenting Palestinian communities in Jerusalem. It is important to build networks among different communities and the different organizations in Jerusalem. Our idea is for civil society actors to start this conversation, looking ahead and envisioning what kind of Jerusalem they want to live in. And not just how to end the occupation, but what kind of Jerusalem they want to see the day after the occupation ends. It is our responsibility to build this healthy place and healthy society for us to live in. We need to start that strategizing urgently.

Our third department is our Global Mobilization. This is basically what I am doing here right now. It is talking to people outside of Palestine, giving them the Jerusalem Palestinian story, telling them about the Palestinian initiatives and mobilization that are happening back home and asking them for support in a strategic way. We do this back home by providing tours of Jerusalem in the city. Many groups and delegations come to discover the realities of life in Palestine. They come to Jerusalem and take our political tours of the city. It is this very same as this presentation but three and a half hours long. We take the bus on go to the different communities and see these realities are translated into. Another part of our Global Mobilization was the publishing of our political tour of Jerusalem guideline called Wujood.

Wujood is Arabic for existence or presence. The idea behind it was to provide the political story of the holy city. Millions come to Palestine and Jerusalem every year, but have no idea about the political reality that they are visiting. They are usually brought through Israeli channels, like the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and Israeli tourist agencies. Their whole itinerary is in Israeli areas: Israeli hotels, shops and restaurants. They hardly come into touch with any Palestinians, maybe only in the Old City, because it is hard to hide all the Palestinians there. Other than that, they do not come to our communities and see the realities we live in Jerusalem. We provide that political reality in Wujood. We tell the different community stories that we have gathered in a shorter version and put them all in there for people to discover the Palestinian communities. We also include the contact information of the different community organizations that we have mapped, so the people interested in knowing more about their work or visiting them can have an open channel of communication with them. Wujood also aims at bringing back tourists to our markets. Tourism is the main engine for Palestinian economy in Jerusalem. With the very clear Israeli strategy of not allowing tourists to come to our market, our economy has suffered a lot lately. We offer a lot of practical information for tourists: where you can sleep, eat and shop in Palestinian areas of the city. There is a list of hotels, hostels, restaurants, shopping areas, taxi services and whatever practical service that these tourists need. Millions of tourists come to Jerusalem every year, but they hardly invest in our economy. Other international search engines, such as Google, support very well the Israeli approach. If you google a hairdresser in East Jerusalem, you will probably get either a hairdresser on the west side or a hairdresser in a settlement on the east side. You are drawn to an Israeli business and not a Palestinian one. We think there is a need for Palestinians to start smartly using those tools to draw this movement back to our communities.

When we speak about this whole reality in Jerusalem, people sometimes think mistakenly that it is a lost cause. What can you do? It is devastating. Palestinians have so much to resist and battle. People sometimes think that the Palestinian communities in Jerusalem cannot do anything about it. But the truth is, Palestinian communities in Jerusalem are resisting every day in many creative ways. There are communities that are developing and planning projects and initiatives that answer the needs of the community. And since it is community based, then it is loyal to the community’s priorities and needs. So we think that these are the initiatives that deserve that strategic support. These are the initiatives that deserve to build long-term strategy. We believe this model should be applied everywhere in Palestine, in the West Bank, Gaza, in ’48 territories, even outside of Palestine. We think this is a model that can help many others, because there are so many different struggles around the world that face the same reality.

Usually, we as Palestinians are told that we need to use the toolbox of human rights. You need to know the Declaration of Human Rights, International Law, the Geneva Convention and you are expected to do advocacy using those tools to change the political situation. But we do believe that a huge part that is maintaining the status quo today is the money. It is who is invested in the status quo, in Israeli occupation, in Israel corporations and whether it has occupied 1967 territories or not. We think there is a need to continue this conversation about who is invested in this and invested in continuing the status quo. This actually makes us our struggle connected to different struggles around the world. The Dakota Pipeline is the same story. It is about corporations and economic interests that are calling the shots and moving the political players. Human rights are nice and cute but there is a need to look at the other factors in the story.

I suppose I will finish with that great moment we had in the summer, because we do think that many people around the world do not know what happened in Jerusalem or how powerful that moment was. The Israeli Authorities decided to impose restrictions on Al-Aqsa compound. They decided that they were going to put metal detectors on every single gate at Al-Aqsa compound and monitor every single Palestinian that came to worship there. Since Al-Aqsa is a symbol for our Jerusalem and our Palestine, it is not just a religious symbol for Muslims. That is why everyone was there, everyone was in the streets protesting. People decided that they refuse to enter Al-Aqsa under any restrictions and decided that they are not going through those gates. So they started lining up right at the gate and praying in the streets, both inside and outside the Old City. Tens of thousands of people, sometimes up to 200,000 on Fridays, would be standing outside on the streets peacefully protesting. The protest simply was just standing in the streets and praying three, four, or five times a day. Whatever prayer time you were there, you just prayed there in the street.

Usually this type of peaceful protest, which we know from experience every single day, is responded to with the excessive use of force by the Israeli Army and Police. There were many photos and videos of how people would be praying on the ground and there would be tear gas and sound bombs all around them. And even ones of soldiers beating up Palestinians as they were praying. So I suppose that when this made it to the media, it said something like “Palestinians riot in Jerusalem”. But despite all of this pressure and aggression, Palestinians did not give up. I am not just talking about religious Muslims; there were secular Muslims, Christians and even Druze. There was a small group of Druze from the Galilee and Syrians from the Golan Heights who were there. Everyone was there because this was not a religious conflict, it was about Palestinians reclaiming their city and practicing ownership over their public space. It was a good reminder to everybody that even though we are so busy resisting the occupation in Jerusalem, we still had the drive to go to the streets without anyone calling them or pushing them. People would finish after an eight-hour workday and come for the evening prayer. It was a beautiful moment to be in Jerusalem when the Israelis eventually backed off. They backed off, took away all of the metal detectors and the bridges that were put up for the surveillance cameras. They took everything down and called these new arrangements off. It was a very nice and short moment of victory in Jerusalem. This is the bottom line that I want to finish with: it is a very sad reality that Palestinians live in Jerusalem, but still there are many people that are just waiting for the moment to cooperate together and lead the Palestinian struggle for freedom and dignity. Thank you very much.