“Most people – Christian, Muslim, and Jews – we just want peace.”

Elias Giacaman is a Palestinian Christian who believes in peace. He is an olive-wood craftsman from a multi-generational, familial tradition. He also manages the family business, Joseph E. Giacaman & Sons Co., with his father, Joseph, and mother, Mary.

Giacaman Family - Bethlehem - 16 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann


You may remember Elias’ name from my posting on 25 Dec. 2010. He crafted the Nativity set that demonstrates the scale of the Separation Wall in Bethlehem. He and his family know the story of the Wall very well.

Nativity Set, E. Giacaman - Bethlehem - 25 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann


The family business was established in 1928 by Elias’ grandfather, a time when Christians made up about 9% of the population of what was then British-Mandate Palestine, roughly what is now Israel-Palestine. The shop was located in a building in the centre of Manger Square. By the 1970s, that building had been taken down. The shop is now located in a newer building on the right-hand side of Manger Square when facing the Church of the Nativity.

The Giacaman family is part of a diminishing Christian community in Israel-Palestine. People are emigrating primarily due to a lack of freedom and security, a poor economic situation, and political instability (see report). In 2007, Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem made up only 1.37% of the population; the figure in 2010 was estimated at 1.25%.

One of the many impacts of the Israeli Occupation is restricted movement for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The Government of Israel began building the Separation Barrier or Wall in 2002. When completed, the Barrier will be 707 km long. For most of its length, the Barrier is fortified fencing; however, in populated areas such as that between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Barrier is concrete wall. For a sense of scale, the Berlin Wall was 11.8 feet (3.6 metres) high. The Separation Wall stretches as high as 25 feet (8 metres). Fifteen percent of the Barrier is being built on the Green Line and 85%  on land inside the occupied Palestinian territory. (The Green Line is the 1949 Armistice line following the declaration of the state of Israel; the Green Line marks the line between Israel and the West Bank. See this map and how the black line, representing the Separation Barrier, weaves in and out from the green, dotted line.) While the Government of Israel has a right to protect its citizens, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (the principal judicial body of the United Nations) advised in 2004 that the sections of the Wall that run inside the West Bank are illegal.

The Separation Wall - Bethlehem - 13 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Sherry Ann

Through the building of the Separation Wall, Elias’ family lost over 200 olive trees that his grandfather had cultivated in two areas. They lost 10 dunam [about 2.5 acres; 1 hectare] when Israel built the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. They lost over 25 dunam to the Israeli settlement of Har Homa (see map). Elias recalls that the land was taken during the Israeli-state imposed curfews (between 2000-2002) during the Second Intifada. For 273 days in 2002, Bethlehem residents were not allowed to leave their homes. Every four or five days, people were given three to four hours to shop, tend to their businesses, etc. Elias’ family did not see that the Separation Barrier was being built and their land taken.

Har Homa (background) - Separation Barrier (midground) - Bethlehem (foreground) - 12 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Sherry Ann

Despite the curfew, the Giacaman family’s business survived. Elias has said that, “Like any Palestinian, we want to live in peace and to spend life as human beings with all of our rights. In 2011, we are living surrounded by walls. It’s not the thing you can do with humans. That’s not respect. Like animals inside a wall. What’s that?”

Last December, I was introduced to the Giacaman family by Ann Farr, an Ecumenical Accompanier placed in Yanoun in the West Bank. During that conversation, Joseph told us that finally, Elias had been granted a six-month work permit to visit Jerusalem and Israel for business purposes – after seven years of rejected applications. A few weeks ago, I returned to Bethlehem and had a chance to ask Elias about this seven-year effort, about Jerusalem, and about what this renewed access to Jerusalem means to him. He quickly set the discussion in the larger context of Palestine and Israel in 2010-2011.

“Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, for all Palestinians. It has the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al Aqsa Mosque. It is part of religion. Without Jerusalem, the capital, we don’t have access. Jerusalem should be part of the solution that people are seeking to the conflict. They [those seeking to negotiate peace] want to create a state without a capital!”

Elias described that, prior to 2000 and the Second Intifada, people used to receive permission relatively easily to visit Jerusalem for religious feasts (e.g., Christmas) for a few days (e.g., 15 days). Now, however, only a proportion of people who apply receive permission (e.g., of 2000 people, only 500 would receive permits). If a family were to apply for this type of permit, possibly only one or two members would receive a permit.

Most people who are applying for permission to enter Jerusalem are applying for work permits. Before the Wall was constructed, soldiers used to let people go around the existing checkpoint in effect indicating, “Don’t let me see you.” However, that is no longer possible. “With the Wall, it’s more complicated now. Everybody needs permission if they want to work in Jerusalem. If soldiers catch a person without permission, that person would be arrested. Or, if they catch someone without a permit on a bus or in a taxi in Jerusalem, the driver may be arrested too, for three months. Very few people (among those who are labourers) have a permit to work every day in Jerusalem.”

“In general, for example with Palestinians who have to go to Jerusalem for work, they start standing in line at the [Bethlehem] checkpoint at 2:00 am. They are losing half of their lives. For example, for 20 years of their life, they are waiting at the checkpoint for six years.” People choose to do this for the chance of higher pay in Jerusalem (in Israel) compared with what can be earned in Bethlehem (in the West Bank). “For example, if they work in Jerusalem, they might earn 250 NIS [about $80 CDN] per day as a minimum. If they have a professional trade (e.g., as an electrician), they might earn 400 or 500 NIS [about $135-$165 CDN]. But in Bethlehem, they might earn only 80 NIS [about $25 CDN] per day. That is a really hard life.”

Elias’ permit, which he received in December 2010, is valid for six months. It is a business permit and allows him to go and come, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and Israel. He anticipates that he’ll be doing this weekly for his family’s business, to meet with clients and to purchase goods that he can only get in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Now that he has received this initial permit, the likelihood that he’ll receive six-month permits in the future is good. A few years ago, the likelihood of receiving subsequent permits would have been low.

E. Giacaman - Bethlehem - 13 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Sherry Ann

From his perspective, Elias believes that Israel needs the Palestinians. “Nobody from either [Israeli or Palestinian] party wants the conflict to go on. People want what it was like before 2000.” 

“It’s more expensive for Israel to bring in foreign workers (i.e., from outside of Israel-Palestine) because they typically send their earnings back home. But Palestinians, even with spending their earnings in the West Bank, 40% of that money is spent on Israeli goods. So the money goes back into the economy. Palestinians are not a threat to Israelis.”

“Most people – Christian, Muslim, and Jews – we just want peace. In 2002, we were so close to peace.”

He referred to the Nakba (see this and this info), the Naksa, and the disappointment used to describe a missed opportunity for peace that arose in 2002. It is known as the Arab Peace Initiative (API) and was proposed in Feb. 2002, adopted by the Arab League in March 2002, incorporated into the ‘Road Map for peace’ in Dec. 2002, and then officially issued in 2003. The API was re-endorsed by the Arab League in 2007. As of 2009, the initiative was to be incorporated into President Barack Obama’s approach to the peace process. Given this week’s events in Tunisia and Egypt, the API may be very relevant still. For example, see this article published online on 28 Jan. 2011.

Upon reflection, Elias offered that, “Now, we have a kind of peace. We are moving toward peace, in that direction. We’re a few steps away from peace. Who knows when, but it could happen quickly within a two-week timeframe. It will depend on the right players in that moment in time.”

Thinking about the future of Jerusalem, Elias describes how, “The solution [to the Conflict] is that everything is connected. Jerusalem with the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is connected.”

Elias’ vision for Jerusalem is that access would be like before 2000, not with the new borders as outlined by the Separation Barrier: “Palestinians are just looking for access to the Old City, not the new city. We are also seeking to enter Jerusalem, to work in Israel, to have a more comfortable life, a good way together [with Israelis].”

Praying for unity in this place

I’ve just come from the initial prayer service for the World Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As an Ecumenical Accompanier, I was invited to attend to represent EAPPI and the World Council of Churches. The service was held in one part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:   Anastasis Chapel, Calvary, Greek Orthodox Office of “Apodeipnon” (Compline).

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“The call for unity this year comes to churches all over the world from Jerusalem, the mother Church. Mindful of its own divisions and its own need to do more for the unity of the Body of Christ, the churches in Jerusalem call all Christians to rediscover the values that bound together the early Christian community in Jerusalem, when they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and prayers. This is the challenge before us. The Christians of Jerusalem call upon their brothers and sisters to make this week of prayer an occasion for a renewed commitment to work for a genuine ecumenism, grounded in the experience of the early Church. They also ask us to remember them in their precarious situation and to pray for justice that will bring peace in the Holy Land.”

What an honour…to stand with others including so many clergy of various denominations, evident in the array of habit and dress…in such an old place…

Day by day in Jerusalem…

I’m struck by several fleeting yet unforgettable moments this day (18 Jan. 2011) in Jerusalem:

 -On the way to Qalandiya Checkpoint at 4:45 am with my EA teammate, Ruth:  The moon…setting in all her golden, near-full glory above the northwestern silhouette of the city…

-At Qalandiya Checkpoint at 7:30 am after a surge of frustrated men tried to squeeze into the too-narrow turnstile lines:  Another line of 20 Palestinian Muslim men stood and kneeled, shoulder-to-shoulder, in prayer…creating a counter-balancing calm…

-At tea with Georgette, a woman that I met on 2 January 2011 at the Greek Catholic Patriarchate near Jaffa Gate in the Old City. (See my posting on 2 Jan. 2011 at KidsStories4Peace). She lives with her husband, children, and grandchildren in a house that her family has owned for over 200 years in the Old City of Jerusalem. Over Arabic coffee, I asked her about life in the Old City and whether it was easier or harder under the Jordanian government prior to 1967…  “You know what’s easier? When you can go to sleep at night without worrying. Regardless of which government is in power.”

-Returning to the EA team house through the Old City:  A Palestinian Christian, funeral procession proceeding up the narrow street on foot, in community…

After the funeral procession - Christian Quarter, Old City, Jerusalem - 18 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Sherry Ann


-Evening tea with Ronny, a member of Machsom Watch, a group of peace activist, Israeli women who monitor the Israeli checkpoints. She is in the Israeli peace movement in part because she doesn’t like what the Occupation is doing to Israeli society. She said that she is “trying hard not to hate her society”…that was sobering…She is concerned that the Left has become marginalized. She offered some suggestions for us as we develop an EAPPI Fact Sheet on the Israeli peace movement.

  Life is rich here and sometimes overpowering. A friend from home has just shared the following with me and now I share it with you:

‎”When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

“You develop a thick skin…”: Women in Black

For 23 years, the Women in Black have stood in Jerusalem on Fridays from 1-2 pm in Paris Square. Just a 15-minute walk from the Old City, five minutes from downtown, and a hundred yards from the Prime Minister’s residence, the square is anchored by a large, decorative water fountain. Israelis in non-violent protest first gathered around the square in early 1988 in response to the First Intifada – more specifically in response to the shooting and killing of Palestinians (teenagers) who had thrown rocks at Israeli soldiers.

Renate Wolfson, Woman in Black - Jerusalem - 10 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann

Renate Wolfson had joined a group of women and men on the south side of Paris Square; the group called itself, “Israelis By Choice” based on a shared experience of immigration earlier in their lives. As that group started to dissolve, she chose to join the Women in Black in the central part of the square where they continued to stand vigil.

The Women came together in January 1988, in vigil for the deaths of the Palestinian youth. They dressed and continue to dress in black as a sign of mourning. At that time, they were typically 150 women, standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the square every Friday afternoon (from 1-2 pm). Ten to twelve Women-in-Black groups existed at one point in Israel/Palestine.

The Jerusalem Women are not an organized group as such. They only meet to make decisions (e.g., regarding slogans they would use on their signs) and use a consensus-based approach to do so. At each vigil, the Women held, and continue to hold, signs in the shape of a black hand indicating, “stop”, with the words, “End the Occupation”, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. During the attack on Gaza (Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009), they created a banner with the words, “Stop the siege of Gaza”.

Renate & Sherry Ann - Women in Black vigil - Jerusalem - 14 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Helen

During the first Gulf War (1990-1991), when Israelis started experiencing rocket attacks from Iraq (with hits on Tel Aviv and a few deaths), the Women in Black met to decide if they should continue to stand vigil on Friday afternoons. With many Palestinians siding with Iraq during the war, the women debated the future of their own vigil. They never reached a consensus. Finally, some women started standing again in Paris Square. At that point, though, the number of the members of the group began to diminish.

After the Oslo Accords, about 1995, the Jerusalem Women in Black stopped standing for six months. As Renate has recalled, “We thought that things were going to get better – that Israel would pull out of the territories and there would be peace. That turned out not to be true and so we came back”.

Since 1995, they have been gathering every Friday afternoon. They haven’t had a meeting since 1995. As the number of members has continued to drop, making decisions has become informal; the Women simply walk around the Square during their Friday vigils and ask each other about decisions they wish to make (e.g., Gaza banner).

Renate (at centre) - Jeff Halper (at left) - Jerusalem - 24 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann

Renate is one of the early members of the Jerusalem Women in Black. She was born in Germany and was 10 years old when she and her family moved to the USA. Her father had left for England in 1936 to find work abroad as a university lecturer. He taught philosophy of religion and studied how it is expressed in literature. Not finding work in England, he travelled to the United States. In between, he returned home to Germany. Renate remembers that he was disturbed by the changes in German society in his absence:

“It’s not that Jews weren’t allowed to talk on the street. They could talk about the weather. But NOBODY, Jewish or not, could talk critically about the Nazi (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) regime where he might be overheard. He could land in a concentration camp. The totalitarian regime took hold gradually and so my father after a year abroad wasn’t up to date and said things he could have said a year earlier, but no longer.”

The family lived with the threat that he might be arrested at any time. When he went abroad again, life became a little less anxious for them. However, life for Jews became ever more oppressive and threatening. Upon finding work in the US, he called for Renate, younger brother, and her mother to join him. The family left in August 1938, just ahead of the November 1938 Kristallnacht (i.e., Night of Broken Glass), a turning point in the persecution of Jews in Germany prior to the Second World War.

Renate moved in 1958 from the US to Israel. She worked “as a librarian at the Jewish National and University Library at the Hebrew University, and later part-time as an abstractor of German books and articles for a bibliography on antisemitism (books etc. ABOUT Antisemitism, not antisemitic books)”. She continued on the bibliography after she retired from the library and still does a little work for it. She married, in 1967, and had two children. Her husband died in 1986. When I asked why she moved to Israel, she recalled that,

“I was a Zionist. I had been in Israel in 1952-1953, after college, for a year of study (Jewish studies). I fell in love with Jerusalem. But now, I’m doubtful about Zionism. I am someone who loves Israel but I am very critical of what is happening.”

In reflecting on the past, Renate described how, “Our whole family – husband and children, have been active in the peace movement. We used to take the children along, when they were very young, to activities we thought suitable for them, such as planting new trees where settlers had uprooted Palestinian olive groves. My son, Yossi, a lawyer, worked until recently at HaMoked, a legal-aid center for Palestinians, and still does occasional work for them.”

In the early years of the Second Intifada (started in 2000) with suicide bombers targeting Israeli buses and cafes, the Women in Black continued to stand in Paris Square. I asked Renate if the Women were afraid while they stood vigil during that period, “We were not; it’s true that passersby became more hostile in their reactions, but we always had police protection.” In terms of life in general, she remembers being “a little afraid” but also recalls that if “you had to ride the bus, then you had to ride the bus”.  At times like that, “You can’t afford to be too afraid. You can’t give up coffee houses in the long run. That intifada lasted several years, until it died down gradually. After about a year and a half, the Israelis made a major campaign and invaded all Palestinian towns, house-to-house, arresting Palestinians wholesale. It was terrible but it put a partial stop to the terrorism. It was a high price to pay.”

After that spring-2002 campaign, Renate remembers that one Women-in-Black member’s daughter-in-law was killed by a suicide bomber and another member’s granddaughter was also killed in a separate incident. Both women continued to stand with the Women in Black. Renate went on to comment that the Separation Barrier is not a satisfactory resolution to the Second Intifada: “It is built in Palestinian territory separating Palestinians from their fields and from the centre of their lives regarding school, work, and medical treatment.”

In the last month in which I have had the honour to stand vigil with the Jerusalem Women in Black (and also on Friday with the Tel Aviv Women in Black), I have noticed that about 8 to 10 women appear each week.

Tel Aviv Women in Black - 31 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann

At least two internationals, like me and my Ecumenical Accompaniment  teammates, also appear. On some days, up to 10 or 12 additional people stand and they have included two or three men. Renate, herself, has commented on the older age demographic of the Women. They are now all older women with one exception. A younger woman started standing with them about six or seven years ago. She has since had a son who has become part of the vigil group, too. Their oldest member just celebrated her 89th birthday. As the Women marked their 23rd anniversary last week, they have discussed the need to recruit new members. They also know that since 1988, Israeli women have branched out from the Women in Black effort to form other peace groups (e.g., Machsom Watch). “Now,” Renate observed, “only those of us who can’t do other things continue to stand vigil here.”

I asked Renate how she and the other Women cope each week with being called “traitor” by drivers and pedestrians moving through Paris Square. She says, “You develop a thick skin and you don’t really have much respect for people who talk that way.” Now is not an easy time, compared with the Oslo years, to be a member of the Israeli peace movement. As Gideon Levy, the Israeli journalist, has observed, “The Israeli Left collapsed totally and dramatically ten years ago…” (28 Dec. 2010, Alternative Information Centre event). Last week, he reported that, “The Knesset has resolved to create a parliamentary committee of inquiry to look into the activities of left-wing groups ‘and their contribution to the delegitimization campaign against Israel.’ Such a panel would make even Senator Joseph McCarthy blush” (Levy, 6 Jan. 2011). Not only are accusations of “anti-semitism” flying about but also criticisms that standing for a just peace somehow delegitimizes the Israeli state (e.g., see this article from 29 December 2010). In response, Renate has noted the following for me:

My past as a Jew in Nazi Germany, as well as my present work on the history of antisemitism, make me especially sensitive to the oppression of others and to the need for citizens to act against unjust regimes before it’s too late.

My father, by the way, supported (long-distance, from Germany and the US) a group called Brit Shalom and later Ihud in what was then Palestine, (i.e. before Israel’s independence), consisting mainly of German and American Jewish academics, that worked for Jewish-Arab understanding and for a binational state. (I don’t think a binational state is feasible any longer after all that’s happened and all the hostility that created.)”

Renate Wolfson, Woman in Black - Jerusalem - 14 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Helen

What does Renate hope for the future, in particular for Jerusalem, the city with which she fell in love in 1958?

That it would be partitioned with the eastern part serving as the Palestinian capital and the western part as the capital of Israel. Yet, I hope very much that there wouldn’t be a wall in the middle so that we can go back and forth.”

For more information about the Women in Black’s early years, click here. For information about Women in Black International, click here.

“The music managed to get through the checkpoints and the walls…”

“The choice of sounds to go down in Palestinian cultural history as the first ever played by the orchestra attests to the polyphony expressed in this concert: the immediate, clear voice, which calls for revival, independence and freedom; and the hidden, interior one, which sends a message of brotherhood to the society from which liberation is needed, Israeli society, in the form of conceding the tragic refugee history of that society. We are refugees without a country; you were such just half a century ago − we are brothers, the piece seems to say. … . See, it is possible. The music managed to get through the checkpoints and the walls as though they never existed.” (From Haaretz, by Noam Ben Zeev, 14 Jan. 2011)

Bethlehem - The Wall - 13 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Sherry Ann

Demolition: South Hebron Hills

The following report and photos were prepared by members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Team in Hebron, 12 Jan. 2011.

Israeli army demolishes seventeen structures in village near Hebron 

“On the morning of January 12, children of Dkaika were in school and the families were going through their morning routines. Suddenly, the army appeared and the demolitions began,” reported international accompaniers from EAPPI.

Seven households (residential structures) destroyed; 1 animal shelter; and 1 class room. In total 46 people were displaced plus an additional 10 students (not displaced, but have lost their classroom).

The accompaniers’ journey yesterday to Dkaika was delayed by military checkpoints. When they arrived, 17 structures in the village had already been destroyed. They reported that there were four bulldozers present, along with Israeli military civil administration officials and guarded by up to one hundred soldiers.

Classroom demolished - South Hebron Hills - 12 Jan. 2011 - Photo: A Skaardal

One of the village women, Hamdah Najadah, told accompaniers: “Two policewoman stopped me when I wanted to go in to the house and take out the furniture and our things before they demolished it. They would not let me,” she told them.

“They destroyed everything, even the coffee, sugar and flour. Where will we sleep? It is winter, and bad weather is coming. God be with us!”

There are around 39 families in Dkaika village. Nasser Najadah (see photo) is 73 years old and was born in the village. His family lost 7 buildings, including the one where they sleep. Three villagers, among them two teachers, were arrested.

Nasser Najadah - Dkaika, South Hebron Hills - 12 Jan. 2011 - Photo: A. Skaardal

The homes that were demolished yesterday were homes that were not covered by the restraining orders. The 4th Geneva Convention states that “any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property… is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.” (Article 53). No notification was given to the villagers as to when the demolitions would happen.

Many other houses in the village have demolition orders from the Israeli courts, says the Israeli human rights group Rabbis for Human Rights. The group has been attempting to get a master plan for Dkaika approved by the Israeli courts. Some houses are temporarily protected from demolition pending a court decision on the plan.

“When the hearing on the zoning plan happens, the decision will not be made simply on planning criteria, but political criteria will be involved so it’s hard to be optimistic,” Rabbi Arik Ascherman, General Secretary of Rabbis for Human Rights.

The Red Cross provided tents for the villagers who lost their homes yesterday.”

Sherry Ann’s additional note: See this article about a separate demolition in the West Bank on 11 Jan. 2011.

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) brings internationals to the West Bank to experience life under occupation. Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. When they return home, EAs campaign for a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the occupation, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions.

“Ask the citizens of Jerusalem to control Jerusalem.”

Here is the story of one part of one family of Sheikh Jarrah…

Bassem Sabbagh and I met on 7 January 2011at a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem. He lives with his family in Sheikh Jarrah. The name, Sheikh Jarrah, comes from the name of the doctor that accompanied Salah al-Din in the twelfth-century capture of Jerusalem. This neighbourhood is on the occupied, east side of the Green Line, the 1949 Armistice line following the declaration of the state of Israel and the Arab-Israeli War. This is known as the War of Independence ( העצמאות‎, Milhemet HaAtzma’ut) in Israel and as the Nakba or Catastrophe (  النكبة, al-Nakba) by Palestinians.

Bassem Sabbagh – Sheikh Jarrah in background – 7 Jan. 2011 – Photo: Sherry Ann

Bassem grew up in his Sheikh Jarrah home. He has four brothers, Mohammad, Osama, Bassam, and Ghaleb. In 1980, Bassem moved to Bahrain for work, having completed his education in 1979. He had both a Jordanian passport and a Jerusalem ID card. However, in 1996, the Israeli government canceled his Jerusalem ID claiming that he had spent more than seven years living abroad, despite Bassem’s time spent every year with his family in Sheikh Jarrah. At that point, Bassem was forced to decide between leaving Jerusalem forever or returning to live full time in Jerusalem. He chose to stay in Jerusalem. Bassem asked his wife to fly to Bahrain in order to resign on his behalf; she, too, resigned from her position. They had to sell their assets in Bahrain thus losing their savings; they settled in Jerusalem to start their lives again. For four years, Bassem did not have any identity papers. He worked in Ramallah (north of East Jerusalem) and could never be sure if he would be arrested for crossing between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. At times, he wished that he would be caught and then sent abroad rather than live in this uncertain way.

In 2000, after much effort in navigating the Israeli court systems, Bassem and all of his family members were given their Jerusalem ID papers.

Yet, not long after this ID-card issue was settled, another issue arose for Bassem’s family. The ongoing process of dispossessing and evicting 17 of the original 28 Sheikh Jarrah families began to affect the Sabbagh family. (For an overview of the shattering process leading to evictions of 60 Palestinians including 24 children, see UNOCHA’s Oct. 2010 fact sheet).

The five parts of the extended Sabbagh family (as led by the five brothers, Mohammad, Osama, Bassem, Bassam, and Ghaleb) continued to live in Sheikh Jarrah. In 2009, they “received court papers indicating the intention of Nahalat Shimon International [a well-funded, Israeli settler organization] to assert their claim over the land” (see report , p. 17; also see pp. 25-26; p. 12, p. 39) Mohammad, Bassem’s brother, has stated, “This case is very important for the neighbourhood. Because it is new it will allow us to introduce new documents which refute the ownership claims of Nahalat Shimon International” (p. 26). In the cases with the 17 other families, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee have sought to discredit the families’ ownership of the properties. What is critical in the Sabbagh case is that the Committees, in backing Nahalat Shimon International, have been asked to demonstrate their prior ownership (from 1886 – see report, p. 11) of the land. To date, the Committees have been unable to demonstrate this ownership claim for the court.

Bassem has visited the Sabbagh family home in Jaffa. He and his brother, Mohammad, have spoken with the people that have lived there since buying the property from the Israeli government, after 1948.

On 7 January 2011, I asked Bassem for his thoughts about occupied East Jerusalem. He offered the following:

“Democracy in Israel is false. Israelis have the right to get their property back [e.g., property owned prior to 1948]…, while we…are not allowed to do so. Once I spoke to an Israeli about this issue, his answer was “What was in the past is passed” but this is not applicable to them.

Their mentality is odd; they still live in the past. The world has changed but they aren’t changing. Most of the time, they feel they are threatened by unknown powers… . They have created these feelings to control others. They teach their sons how to hate, how to dominate….They are poor by living inside the illusion of fear.”

I asked Bassem for his thoughts on the future of Jerusalem. He said that Jerusalem is the “final obstacle”, “the most difficult issue” preventing a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (See report, p. 50)

Looking northeast over the Old City, Jerusalem – 10 Dec. 2010 – Photo: Sherry Ann

From his perspective, Bassem hopes that, in the future, Jerusalem would be:

“Open for everybody, to be allowed to enter, pray, and visit the holy places. Not just for Israelis, Palestinians, or Jordanians. They all have holy places.”

“No one will accept others’ control of Jerusalem; it’s a place of conflict.”

Bassem considers himself a realist and an optimist.

“Everyone wants peace but what kind of peace? My peace is not like your peace.”

I asked, if he were to dream, what would be ideal?

In response, he asked, “Ideal for Jerusalem or for Palestine? They’re different. What would be ideal for Palestine? Well, after10, no 5 years, you would drive into the occupied West Bank and it would be one of the most developed countries in the Middle East. Already, people are building for the future with streets, industry, culture, sports, music, and more.”

I asked what would be ideal for Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem should be open to everyone. People would be free to come and go. If Israel were smart, Israel would open Jerusalem to everyone and they would make a fortune. Given that Muslims are required to visit not only Mecca but also Jerusalem, three to four million people would visit Jerusalem annually, in addition to the Christians and Jews, from all the world. That would boost hotels, markets, and business. Instead, Israel is asking for security. The culture of Israel has to change. No one is interested anymore in ‘throwing Israel into the sea’. That’s in the past. People just want to build. This is real, not an image. No one is interested in fighting now. That kind of intifada is a thing of the past. Right now, a different kind of intifada is occurring: building. Israel has been doing that [building] since 1948. Abu Mazzen is no longer able to engage Netanyahu in dialogue; that coalition government is not able to sustain dialogue. Instead, Abu Mazzen is approaching directly the streets of Israel, addressing the people. Peace requires courage and the Government of Israel lacks leaders who have the courage to go into the peace process. When you seek peace, you have to abandon part of your dreams and part of your history.”

I asked Bassem about his statement, “No one will accept others’ control of Jerusalem; it’s a place of conflict”. What would he envision? Shared control?

“Ask the citizens of Jerusalem to control Jerusalem.”

Home demolition – What happens then…?

Further to my posting of 1 Jan. 2011 and the reference to home demolitions in East Jerusalem, our EAPPI Team in Jerusalem accompanied a family whose home was demolished on 3 Jan. 2011. Nasser and Lina Seyam and their six children were left with one “legal” room in which to live. See these two online news articles for photos and more info: “Palestinian property demolished in French Hill” and “Israeli authorities on Monday demolished part of a Palestinian home in occupied East Jerusalem”. 

Nasser Seyam with his demolished home - 4 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Sherry Ann

Nasser Seyam with his demolished home - 4 Jan. 2011 - Photo: Sherry Ann

On the morning after the demolition, two of our team returned to check on the family.

Day after: “How are you?”

Blank yet deepest wells for eyes:

Slight shrug. “We’re trying to move forward.”

As we left, the family was expecting a visit from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). We think that the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) may visit, too. What then…

Drawn by hope…into 2011

Through this past week, I was lucky to have a few days off. This meant that when two alerts came in from the Displacement Working Group (DWG), my team mates responded while I was away. We are finding our way as a team, with members coming and going on placements and days off.

When I arrived in Tel Aviv for my break, I was thankful to sit on a rocky wharf by the beach to meditate on the sight and sound of the Mediterranean Sea…to try to make sense of the intensity, particularly of the home demolitions, of the past week and a half…and of the inhumane checkpoints…and of wide ranging degrees of optimism that we are hearing from Palestinian and Israeli people who stand against the occupation…

Gideon Levy - AIC - 28 Dec. 2010

Gideon Levy - AIC - 28 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann

On Tues., 28 Dec. 2010, we attended an Alternative Information Centre evening with Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy. I heard him speak in Edmonton earlier this year about his new book, The Punishment of Gaza. This time, he spoke on the role of the Israeli media in the Occupation. His perspective, which he admits, is rather bleak, for example:

“The Occupation is totally not on the Israeli agenda.”

“No one in Israel wants to tell or wants to know this story [about the Occupation].”

“The Israeli media shapes those concepts [the lack of attention about the Occupation and what is covered, is covered “in a very twisted way”].”

“The only effective, active group in Israeli society is the settlers.”

“The Israeli Left collapsed totally and dramatically ten years ago… . In the Oslo years, there was no price to pay for speaking about peace… .” He did acknowledge the ongoing courageous efforts of Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights, and Machsom Watch. Note: EAPPI has contact with these groups, standing with them toward a just peace.

Levy reflected on how he perceives the Palestinians and their “basic sentiment, to live together [with Israelis] as two peoples”. He also appears troubled by what he sees as Israelis’ approach: “Let’s separate so that they [Palestinians] won’t be in front of our eyes.”

In the larger context, Levy regards the Middle East as “endangering the world” and that “the world is doing nothing”. He is hopeful that, much like the fall of the Berlin Wall and South African apartheid, change will come; however, the presence of 300,000-400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank is discouraging.

“There is no discussion about where we are going [in the future].” (See Levy’s article in Haaretz on 26 Dec 2010).

As you might imagine, this evening session with Gideon Levy was sobering…

Yet, the day before, on 27 Dec. 2010, the Jerusalem Team and the Bethlehem Team met with Meir Margalit, an elected, left-leaning (Meretz party), Israeli member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council. He also published a book in 2010, Seizing Control of Space in East Jerusalem. Meir was able to describe part of our context in East Jerusalem regarding the 2020 Jerusalem Master Plan, initiated in 2000. Apparently, the municipality perceived that Palestinians were becoming the majority in Jerusalem and had the potential to elect a Palestinian mayor. Meir said, “This possibility makes the Israelis crazy.” The Master Plan is intended to “freeze the demographic situation” and has become a tool for denying licences for Palestinian construction of homes in Jerusalem. Another tool is home demolitions “to make life so hard for them [Palestinians], that they’ll leave Jerusalem”.

Meir Margalit - 27 Dec. 2010 - Jerusalem

Meir Margalit - 27 Dec. 2010 - Jerusalem - Photo: Sherry Ann

Meir works with Angela Godfrey-Goldstein (see my posting from 17 Dec. 2010) and Jeff Halper at the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). Licences for home construction are “almost impossible” for Palestinians to obtain. Members of ICAHD help families to rebuild.

Regarding his work as “fighting the Occupation from within the municipality”, Meir believes that the next year or two will be critical for resisting settlers’ seizing of East Jerusalem neighbourhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan (see my posting from 25 Dec. 2010). From Meir’s perspective, one critical response is for international support for Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) [See Naomi Klein’s 2009 article]. In response to one EA’s question, “What can we do?” Meir responded by encouraging us to be in the most vulnerable East Jerusalem communities on a daily basis “to send the message to the Israeli government that we [the international community] won’t let this [ongoing effects of the Occupation] happen”.

Mahmoud - Old City - 27 Dec. 2010

Mahmoud - Old City - 27 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann

Reaching further back into last week, on the morning of 27 Dec. 2010, the Jerusalem Team embarked on a walking tour of the Old City with Mahmoud. He was born and raised in the Old City in the African area. His family came from Chad before he was born.

To our collective surprise, Mahmoud clarified that Jerusalem is “less than 1 km2 , but it is the most problematic area in the world.” Roughly, 35,000 people live in the Old City with about 23,000 Muslims, 8,000 Christians, and 3,000 Jews. Mahmoud’s vision is for:

  • Jerusalem to be the “capital of the universe with free access to the city, as world heritage.”
  • The Old City to be “a small model of the universe because people would come from all over the world.”

Mahmoud observed that, even now, people have moved from all over the world to the Old City. And, yet, they typically identify themselves as: “I am Jerusalemite.”

I heard hope here.

Mediterranean Sea - Tel Aviv - 30 Dec. 2010 - Credit: Sherry Ann

Mediterranean Sea - Tel Aviv - 30 Dec. 2010 - Photo: Sherry Ann

And, yet, on my days off, I wondered, what can I do…

Then Sune Fahlgren’s (Director, Bilda: Swedish Christian Study Centre, Old City) focus on “cultural freedom” came to mind…from our meeting with him on 22 Dec. 2010.

And Mahmoud’s heads-up about the protection of the Old City and his vision of it being for all…his reference to UNESCO doing its best to protect this endangered World Heritage Site.

And, then I looked to myself…who I am, what I’ve been trained to, what fascinates me…meaning making in terms of place and identity…

And, I picked up a small shell and remembered Margaret Mead’s often quoted observation…

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead American anthropologist (1901 – 1978)

Happy New Year, All…I see a way forward into this next phase of Ecumenical Accompaniment as a member of Jerusalem Team 38… stay tuned…