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 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)
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.”