By Sam Gilbert
Issawiya is nestled in a small valley in East Jerusalem; its modest houses extending up the slopes towards the posh Jewish settlement of French hill and the ivory towers of Hebrew University. These hills, once part of Issawiya, today stand worlds apart. The manicured lawns, trendy food stalls, and spacious parks of the French Hill/Mount Scopus area are in stark contrast to dense Issawiya, encaged on all sides by Jewish Settlements, Hadassah hospital, Hebrew university, and the separation wall, which together have appropriate more than 50% of Issawyia’s land.
Earlier this year the entrance to Issawiya was marked with a "flying" checkpoint, erected by Israeli security forces as a collective punishment for the town’s solidarity campaign with hunger striker Samer Issawi and their continued demonstrations against the discriminatory policies of the Jerusalem municipality. Today the checkpoint is gone, yet the pressures of the occupation are still visible—reflected in the cramped, impoverished landscape of this East Jerusalem neighborhood, its narrow windy roads compressed on both sides by rising cinderblock apartment complexes. Inside, families have been forced to expand vertically, generations stacked on top of each other oldest to youngest, mirroring the stratigraphy of the surrounding hills.
Murad and Rana, activists and residents of Issawiya whose families have lived in the town for over 250 years, spoke to the Palestine Monitor about conditions in the town. Murad points to the adjacent rooftop terrace, an arms length away from the Married couples window. "Since we can’t expand, we are building on top of each other," Murad says. "I don’t have a view. Look at the view from my window, I can’t drink coffee and look at a nice view with my wife in the morning. There is no privacy as a result of this."
The married couple consider themselves lucky to have a house, yet they worry about the future of their two young daughters. "Where are my children going to live?," Murad asked, "We can’t build our houses to the clouds, and Israel takes most of our land and doesn’t allow us to build on what little part we have left! We are suffocated here, when I look to future I do not see a good thing."
Life in East Jerusalem
This is the reality for many Palestinians in East Jerusalem who are forced to build up, often illegally. According to a report by the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 35% of Arab owned land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated for Israeli settlements and another 54% designated "open green space," reserved for public purposes thus forbidding Palestinian construction. This leaves only 11% of East Jerusalem available for Palestinian construction, far below the needs of the 58% majority Palestinian population. Permits on the remaining lands are difficult and expensive to obtain, requiring many Palestinians to build illegally, rendering their homes subject to demolition.
And while Palestinian residents pay taxes, and are afforded permanent residency status (not citizenship), they are largely denied the benefits and services provided to Jewish Israeli Citizens. In Issawiya, a severe lack of educational facilities requires some 70% of children to look outside of the village to attend school. There are no parks in this neighborhood. The one "green" space is an artificial soccer pitch, donated by the State of Korea and green in color only. There is an absolute lack of medical facilities, garbage collection is inadequate and the village sewage system does not function properly. When we left in the late afternoon, the streets of Issawiya were running with sewer water.
The Samer Al-Asawi Campaign
These conditions coupled with aggressive bureaucratic policing from the Israeli controlled Jerusalem municipality have created a powerful resistance culture in Issawiya, exposed to the world earlier this year during the solidarity campaign launched in December in support of hunger striker Samer Al-Asawi.
"It was very violent, there were many demonstrations. People would go to the demonstration and protest in solidarity with Samir Al-Asawi. Then the army would come and they would turn it into a violent event, shooting, throwing sound bombs and tear gas. It was very hard for the peoples especially the young ones, my older daughter never wet her pants, but during that period she would wet her pants just from hearing they entered," recalls Rana, Murad’s wife.
Rana went on to say, "many people were hit in there eyes and there legs, and a big number of children were arrested, children that go to school became very frightened and wouldn’t want to go to school or even leave to house to go outside to the streets because they were afraid of this presence and afraid of being arrested."
While the solidarity campaign period was particularly violent, Issawiya has for years resisted the systematic oppression of the Israeli Authorities, the continued confiscation of their lands and the frequent incursions by the Israeli Security Forces. And as nearby neighborhoods, such as Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, have become household names for international activists and Palestinian sympathizers alike, Issawiya is left largely unnoticed, another East Jerusalem town suffocated by the occupation.
Yet in Issawiya there is pride in this isolation. The absence of NGO’s, internationals, and USAID is lauded, and residents speak passionately about the towns home grown resistance. There is a swagger to the people of Issawiya, an intensity that is both kind and dangerous. Murad reiterated with a smile that it would likely not be a good idea to come to Issawiya without him as tour guide. When asked about the character of Issawiya Murad spoke about the trajectory of the town and its culture or resistance.
"In the beginning Issawiya was not different. When the first intifada burst, Issawiya was just like any other neighborhood around Jerusalem, everyone was resisting the occupation in the same manner. What’s different is that in the last couple of years, the last three years in particular, Issawiya is on the top, leading the community of resistance against not only the occupation’s policy of police violence, arrests, and house demolitions but also the policies of the Jerusalem municipality: the unjust policies of taxation and government collection of fines which are used to invade and arrest our people. All of this even as they deny us the most basic services."
Far from being unique, both Rana and Murad expressed how commonplace this kind of resistance is for the people of the town. As Rana said, "It’s very natural to be part of this resistance culture, it is very natural for him, for any person who suffers from injustice. If we don’t resist we will become slaves of the situation."
Murad added, "Even if I decide to isolate myself from this resistance or the situation outside, and just sit in my home, I look at for example my mother. In the 90’s during the first intifada she was shot with twelve rubber coated bullets by a soldier just because she went out in the streets to look for her children. There is a famous photo of her in an Israeli newspaper. Showing her standing in front of the soldier just raising her hands in a way to show her hands, but still he shot her 12 bullets, one of them hit her here in the mouth, two in the chest."
The Cost of Resistance
If resistance in Issawiya is natural, then its costs have become naturalized too. Murad, like many Palestinian men, spent his formative years in prison (5 separate occasion beginning when he was 14). Not unique in a country where over 750,000 people have been detained since 1967, nearly 40% of the current male population. Murad explains his most recent arrest: "In July 2001, I was released during 2nd intifada. The intelligence summoned me for an investigation; of course, they threatened me that if I return to what I was doing, if I involve myself with politics they will kill me. In November of 2001 I got married, four months after I was released. I spent 86 days with my new wife and then they arrested me again for 7 years."
Families separated from their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and daughters. The people of Issawiya live in a constant state of anxiety from Israel’s night raids. Murad’s aunt has had her house invaded more than a dozen times. "They usually come in middle of night. Begin knocking hard on the door, I stopped being afraid of them (khallas), I cant rest in my own house because of them. They have made my life so miserable and bitter that I am not afraid of them anymore, I yell at them and scream at them," she says. Speaking about her 28 year old son, Mahmoud, she went on to say, "he has been suffering all his life. Arrested first time when he was 12. This is the 8th time. He gets beaten up every time. [They] put bag on [his] head, kicking him and beating him with bag on head. Half his life he has been in prison."
Murad’s aunt expresses a life filled with both suffering and pride. "I have been living a miserable life. I suffered a lot and I am still suffering. Everyone suffers here in this town. There is no one who doesn’t suffer. But we are proud of our children. We have to resist, never kneel."
Driving to the bus station from Issawiya we make a quick stop on the hill where Hebrew University sits. From here, Murad outlines with his fingers all that has been lost over the years. The physicality of rupture, coupled with the systematic oppression by Israeli Authorities leaves little other option but to resist, even if the costs are severe.
Resistance in Issawiya and the violence that often accompanies it is not fetishized, but understood as the only viable response to life under occupation. As Murad says in parting: "One important thing that I want to say and emphasize is that we don’t like violence and we don’t like to be separated from our families. But our love for freedom makes us fight for it, and it forces us to be separated. But we love life, and we would love to live in freedom and stay with our families and not be separated from them. That is what all of this is about, being able to truly live."