Sheikh Jarrah: The Holy City's telling battle on two fronts (Part one)

Jul 14, 2010
*Special to asia!

If Jerusalem were a chain of volcanoes waiting to erupt in the tempestuous landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah must be one of the more volatile peaks. This first part looks at how Israel - touted so often as the region's shining democracy - is struggling to extend these principles to its Palestinian Arab population, in the face of security concerns.

I met Mohammad Toteh through his wife, at the International Red Cross office in Sheikh Jarrah. It was a Friday, and after the day's final prayers, he came over to the women's section, separated from the men's by little more than a small space. He came and greeted the women, Palestinians who had come both from the neighbourhood and Jordan, to meet the men and the families who were facing imminent deportation by Israel.

Mohammad Toteh was one of six legislators to win seats in the constituency of Jerusalem during the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. Four of them had run under the Change and Reform movement of Hamas. Now, all four are facing deportation orders by Israel.

The outcome of those elections had been stunning. Only the second in Palestinian history, this democratic exercise produced a victory for Hamas - which Israel, the United States and various Western nations still consider to be a militant terrorist organisation – over Yasser Arafat's incumbent Fatah party. The Palestinian people, weary of corruption within Fatah and an impasse in the situation with Israel -  delivered a win to the party that had been actively providing them social services like education and healthcare.

After the results were announced, Israel ordered the four legislators to resign within ten days or be thrown into jail on the grounds of their affiliation to Hamas. They refused and were imprisoned for 3 ½ years.

The day after three of them were released this June, the Israeli authorities revoked their Jerusalem residency permits and again ordered them to leave the city within 30 days, or risk arrest. Mohammad Abu Teir, the last of the four who was released a month before, was taken by Israeli soldiers, when his 30 days expired. He was thrown into jail, and it is not known what Israel plans to do with him. Anxious to avoid the same fate, his three colleagues are now taking shelter at the International Red Cross office here in East Jerusalem, where they believe they have some immunity against the Israeli authorities.

Without their Jerusalem residency permits, all four Palestinian lawmakers have now been made stateless, but Mohammad Toteh stressed his right to live in his city of origin. His father was from Jerusalem, he said, and so was his grandfather.

Himself a father of four, Toteh's family now face either separation from him or deportation as well. It was a morose scene over at the women's section, as Mohammad Toteh's wife sat with the other wives in a similar situation.

Toteh's youngest son though was perky. The six-year-old ran over smilingly to us, during the interview.

“He's just did his swimming course today,” the proud father told me.

While he was in jail, Toteh had promised his children that he would spend time with them and take them places. But since his release, he has been holed up in the Red Cross compound. His family visits every day, but Toteh is so busy entertaining well-wishers and supporters, that he manages just to snatch an occasional moment with his children.

It has not been easy for the children in this situation. They have nightmares at night of Israeli police coming to take their fathers away again. Some of them are too young to understand what is going on, but when they saw their fathers leave - after being freed from jail - with a suitcase of clothes and never returning to sleep in their homes at night, their mothers tell me, the children have an inkling something is not right.

One of the young boys had now started a sit-in of his own. He was refusing to leave the home, until his dad came back to stay.

“They want you to come back home, to sit with them, to play with them,” said Toteh.

Right now, that's a luxury the four Palestinian legislators cannot yet afford for their children. For the moment, they are unable to step out of the Red Cross compound for fear of arrest. Just the day before, his brother was mistakenedly taken by Israeli police when he left the compound. After half an hour of questioning, the police, satisfied that he was not Toteh, let him go.

This is a situation that the small but cozy diplomatic community in Jerusalem are well aware of. Diplomats and ambassadors have visited, but many had requested for their identities not to be revealed. The four have also written to the US, leaders of various European and Arab countries, as well as the United Nations.

“We must do our best to break the silence of the international community,” declared Toteh.


What now?

According to Article 49,  Section III of the Fourth Geneva Convention,

“Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive. ...”

This places an onus on the international diplomatic community to act against the deportation of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, which is considered territory annexed and occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. A predominantly Palestinian Arab part of the holy city, it has become increasingly Jewish, with the municipality-sanctioned movement of Jews into the neighbourhood.

Right-wing nationalist Israelis want Jerusalem to be Israel's undivided capital. But with the Palestinians seeking East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, clearly only one side can prevail.

For now, the next step for the four Palestinian lawmakers is “hidden”; they say it depends on what Israel does. However their objective is clear.

“We will not leave (the ICRC headquarters) till the decision to deport is cancelled, and Abu Teir is released to his home safely.

“This is not just for four people, or four representatives. The case is for all Palestinians who live in Jerusalem, “ said Toteh.

“This is (opening) a dangerous door of emptying Jerusalem of Palestinian Arabs, using the main reason of illegality. Hundreds and thousands can easily be deported this way.”

Toteh placed a piece of kunafa, a sweet Palestinian pastry into his mouth, savouring it.

“This is the first time I have had kunafa in four years,” he said.

The four Palestinians have little on their side, but they are willing to bid for time. It is a waiting game.

“We are only four, but we believe in our case, our idea, and we are sure one day, we will get our rights,” continued Toteh.

“The strong will not always be strong, and the weak will not always be weak. Maybe you are talking to me now, I cannot move or be outside, but maybe in one year, I will be president.

“You never know.”


What about Israel?

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi