JERUSALEM -- "I am a question mark," Amal Odeh announces to a few of her Arab friends as she sits in an open courtyard on the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University. Her peers laugh as they puff on cigarettes, shrug and continue their leisurely small talk passing time between classes. But Odeh is serious.
Odeh’s identity conflict colors every aspect of her existence; from her family life and educational choices to her career aspirations. The 21-year-old journalism student at the prestigious Israeli institution, founded by the likes of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, is from Nazareth and wants to work for an Arabic news outlet. However, in order to learn from the best, she must first navigate through the conflicting messages of who she is.
"I am Palestinian even though we have no country. We have no home," Odeh's voice softens, her head drops and she looks to the ground. The word "home" carries a greater meaning to her than it does to the average student. "To this day, we have to fight to keep what little we do have."
But Odeh is talking about a different fight than that waged less than eight years ago when a Arab suicide bomber, dressed as a construction worker, blew himself up in the crowded Mt. Scopus cafeteria killing nine students and injuring 85 others.
Odeh’s fight is about preparing herself for her future in journalism. After graduation, the third-year student wants to work as a journalist in the Israeli media providing an Arab point of view written in Hebrew.
"I must learn in Hebrew, write in Hebrew, and talk in Hebrew. And if I want to express my feelings, I can't in my mother language,” Odeh describes one of the difficulties she faces attending a Hebrew university. “But one day I want to write in my language and have the freedom to talk without limits."
Later, Odeh and her friends will head to the campus quad to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Aware of their limitations, they demonstrate silently. But for Odeh and her friends, the expectation of silence extends beyond the quad and into the classroom for various different reasons.
"In a class of 100 students, you'll find only one or two Arabs, and never more than five," Odeh remarks. "As one of those five Arabs, I feel like I should be quiet and only listen."
This silence doesn't serve her well, she understands, as it keeps her identity a mystery to her Israeli classmates, But she also understands that knowing when to speak is just as important as knowing what to say.
"If a teacher or Jewish student says something you think is wrong, you can't disagree," Odeh laments. "You could be arrested for disagreeing and jeopardize your future."
Odeh lingers on the word “future” remembering the sacrifice by so many family members to secure an opportunity for her future.
In 1948, Israeli soldiers moved into the neighborhood where Odeh’s grandparents lived. Fearful of their enemy, many of the friends and neighbors of Odeh’s grandparents left everything behind and walked to Lebanon, Syria or Gaza. Some families, like Odeh’s grandparents, refused to leave and, after town officials agreed to give control of Nazareth to Israeli forces, were issued Israeli ID cards and nationality, a right that allows Odeh to attend Hebrew University today.
However, the benefits of the Israeli ID cards came with a price. Restrictions on travel to see relatives in the West Bank and Gaza have created walls of separation between family and friends. And although Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel, Odeh and her parents still feel like foreigners in their own home.
"It's hard to live like this. Like you don't belong," admits Odeh. "The basic things that humans have--a home, a life-- were taken away from my family."
Odeh still wrestles with the contradiction of her family staying in their home and receiving Israeli IDs yet, with the exodus of many of extended family and friends, experiencing the loss of belonging.
"So, I am Israeli now," she says with a matter-of-fact nod. "But," she pauses, "I'm not really that either."
Odeh arrives at her concession as the last remaining students make their way to class. Her friends, still deep in chatter, remain oblivious to the scores of Jewish students who've passed them in the courtyard without acknowledgment.
"It is an absolute dream that one day we will have our own place," Odeh says. "I really don't think it's a possibility, but maybe we can one day live together in a quiet society."
(Photo Credit: Tara Graham)
JERUSALEM — "I have five different nationalities. It's not a joke, believe me," the old Arab tailor says with a chuckle and a look of amused bewilderment on his face. "And I am one person who has lived in only one city my entire life."
Sami Barsoum is standing behind the counter of his hole-in-the-wall shop in the Old City inspecting the neatly ironed pair of pants he just hemmed.
"First, I am Turkish because my father was born in Turkey, and we Christians, unlike the Jews, follow the birth line of the father," he explains. "Secondly, I have a British subject certificate from when Britain occupied Palestine. I have a Jordanian passport from when they invaded in 1948, along with Israeli travel documents that were given to me in 1967. But now, I'm governed by the Palestinian Authority, so that makes me Palestinian too."
Barsoum has lived in Jerusalem since birth. When his childhood home was occupied during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, his parents contemplated relocating to nearby Jordan or Syria, but Barsoum, the eldest child in the family, objected.
"My grandfather was a refugee from Turkey," he says. "Why would we leave our country, our everything, only to become refugees in another country all over again?"
When the Six Day War erupted in 1967, Barsoum watched many of his friends and family pack up and leave.
"Every few years, there's a war here," he acknowledges with a sigh. "In my life, I have seen every problem here, and I've seen most everyone leave because of these problems. But me, I love Jerusalem. I am part of Jerusalem."
A dizzying maze of framed photos, pictures of Barsoum posing with high-ranking government officials and religious patriarchs from around the world, hangs on the walls behind the tailor. He quickly folds the pants in his hands and points to one of the photographs.
"That's a doctor from Sweden," he says. "I am designing trousers for him. And this is a priest from Australia. He bought two stoles from me, one of them in red and the other in green, and took them back to his church."
"That's myself, my wife and my sister in Atlantic City," he continues without missing a beat. "And that's the daughter of my niece. Look at how pretty she is! She was the queen of beauty in Long Island when she was 13."
Despite living in Jerusalem for nearly 70 years and single-handedly manning his tailor shop for over 50 years, Barsoum is a worldly man. He speaks eight languages ("but none of them perfect") and has traveled almost everywhere. Given his longstanding residence in the area and devotion to the Syriac Orthodox faith, Barsoum has emerged as a linchpin in Jerusalem's Christian community. His status has granted him the privilege to meet many influential visitors to the Holy Land over the years; hence, all the photos.
But Barsoum hasn't allowed his Arab identity and Christian faith to hurt his business in an Israeli Jewish state.
"Ninety-nine percent of my customers are now Jewish," Barsoum says. In 1948, Christians accounted for 30 to 35 percent of the population in Jerusalem, according to Barsoum. That population has dwindled to 1.5 percent.
"We are now nothing," he laments. "We have been here for centuries, but today, most of us feel like foreigners in our own city."
To keep business afloat, Barsoum treats everyone with respect.
"I stay neutral," he says. "They trust me, and I treat them well."
Barsoum's strategy has paid off, both professionally and socially. The Israeli Ministry of the Interior issued Barsoum a rare V.I.P. pass to use when crossing the checkpoint during his daily commute from his home in East Jerusalem to his shop in the Old City.
"Every day, I have to show my identity papers when crossing that checkpoint," he says. "I am lucky because of my special status, but the others are treated as though they are nobodies."
There was a time when Barsoum, his wife and five children tried to cross a checkpoint for a day in Jerusalem and the Israeli Defense Forces made the exception for Barsoum, but not his family. All of his children, like Barsoum, have Jordanian passports -- but his family doesn't share his V.I.P. status.
"We used to travel all over, but don't anymore," he says. "It's a big prison here."
But Barsoum, who spoils his customers with little chocolates and his big, infectious laugh, says he will never leave.
"It may be gloomy here," he acknowledges, "but every nation has its problems. And if we don't want to run away, then we just have to put up with those problems."
(Photo Credit: Creative Commons)
JERUSALEM — "I am here in government to send a message that the Palestinians have accepted that we are citizens of Israel," Haneen Zoabi, the first woman elected to the Knesset as a representative of an Arab party, says forcefully. "Problem is: the state can't accept the fact that we are citizens, and that the Israelis and Palestinians must live equally."
The 41-year-old legislator, a radical progressive voted into the Knesset in March of 2009, takes a moment to allow the group of American journalists sitting around the table to fully comprehend her statement.
"I am not an Israeli Arab," Zoabi continues. "My people were here before Israel. I am a Palestinian, and I would like to be called such. The Jews cannot decide my identity."
Zoabi, a representative of the National Democratic Assembly, an Arab nationalist party that rejects the idea of the “Jewish state” and seeks equality for all Israeli citizens, irrespective of national or ethnic identity, is seated in a small, cramped government office. Her booming voice fills the room as she explains her motivation to run for parliament.
"When I was a young child living in Nazareth, I used to ask my mother, 'Who am I?'" Zoabi says. "And she couldn't give me a good answer. She would simply say, 'We live in Israel.'"
The plight of Arab children in Israel -- the confused identity handed over to them -- is no small matter, Zoabi explains in heated frustration.
"When I was young, my first experience with politics was in the history books," she recalls. "There is no mention of Palestine or Arab history in those books."
Zoabi wonders aloud how this can be true when 93 percent of the land confiscated by the Israeli government from 1948 to the present originally belonged to Palestinian Arabs. The state destroyed 538 Palestinian villages in the Arab-Israeli War, she says, and expelled around 650,000 Arabs in the process. Over the course of 62 years, Israel has built 600 cities for the Jews, she cites, and zero for the Arabs. How is all this history not in the books, she asks.
"The Zionist ideology encourages the Jews to confiscate the maximum amount of land here, keeping as few Palestinians on that land as possible," she says. "This is a racist ideology, a very, very racist ideology."
Zoabi explains that the problem is compounded by discrepancies in Israeli media coverage. The media devotes only two percent of its coverage to Arabs and 75 percent of that coverage is negative. Is it any wonder, she asks, that Israeli citizens are ignorant about the issues facing Arab communities?
To tackle the problem, Zoabi, a former schoolteacher and the first Arab citizen of Israel to earn a graduate degree in communications from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, helped launch the first media classes in Arab schools.
Both Zoabi and her party ultimately want the state to recognize Arab citizens of Israel as a national minority, which would allow Arab autonomy in education, culture and media. Along the same lines, Zoabi rejects any form of mandated national service by Israel’s Arab citizens. Her party has also objected to every proposed state budget submitted since the party’s inception on grounds that the budgets discriminate against the Arab population.
"Don't say this is a democracy," Zoabi warns, pointing out that only 8 percent of the national budget is invested in Arab villages. Nearly half of the existing villages aren't registered with the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, meaning they're deprived of much-needed funding for schools and industry, because the state says these houses were illegally built, Zoabi says.
"But the state has never given us permission to build," she adds in an exasperated tone. Consequently, 8,000 Arab houses currently face demolition threat.
Zoabi, who supports a two-state solution consisting of one Palestinian state and another Israeli state that's inclusive of both Jews and Arabs, is afraid a third intifada will hit before a solution is ever reached.
"I just want Israel to recognize that the Palestinians are not strangers," she says. "We are an indigenous people. And this is our homeland."
"When my wife and I decided to come here, many people asked if we planned to learn Hebrew," the chaplain of St. George's Cathedral begins with a chuckle. "Well news flash, a vast majority of the indigenous Christians here are Arabs, and Arabs generally speak Arabic."
Dr. Rev. Robert Edmunds sits at a cluttered desk in a small office located near the 100-year-old church where he leads mass for a small congregation of Christians in Jerusalem.
"People always ask the local Christian community here, 'When did you convert?'" Edmunds says while shaking his head. "And we all can't help but laugh. Remember Pentecost -- that day with all the Cretins and Arabs? Well, we're the Arabs. We were here from the very beginning."
"The question is," Edmunds leans in to ask, "When did the Muslim community here convert from Christianity?"
There are around 8,000 indigenous Christians living in Jerusalem today. That number is only a small sliver of the half million people who call the Holy Land home. And there are about 2,000 expatriate missionaries, men and women like Rev. Edmunds, who stay in Israel for a couple of years to fill necessary staff positions.
Expatriate volunteers are critical, if not essential, to the functioning of the Christian community in Jerusalem, says Edmunds, who is originally from Massachusetts. They provide important political and ecclesiastical connections to the West that are crucial to the survival of the small Christian community in the Holy Land.
"It is in Israel's best interest to keep our community alive and healthy in Jerusalem because the Christian community preaches mutual respect and peaceful coexistence at all times," Edmunds says, "which is not so much the case with some of the other religious groups around here."
Edmunds is nearly two years into his Anglican outpost in Jerusalem. During his time in the Holy Land, he's been frustrated and disappointed with how the Israeli government seems to distance tourists form the local Arab Christian community, keeping it a near secret.
"The Israeli-sponsored buses only tour the holy sites and conveniently never reach our church," Edmunds says. "The term 'Palestinian Terrorist' sells, I suppose, while the term 'Palestinian Christian' is almost unknown."
"Yet, there's all these Arab Christians in Jerusalem," he sighs.
Moreover, Palestinian Christians are double marginalized, Edmunds says, because of their Arab ethnicity and also because they practice neither Judaism nor Islam, the two dominant religions in the region.
"The Arab Christian community here is tiny compared to the Jewish community and even tinier compared to the Arab Muslim community," he says. "Being an Israeli citizen throws yet another twist on things."
The local government doesn't treat the Arab Christian community with a lot of respect, according to Edmunds. His community has little to no access to the government, he says, which means Christians have little to no say in important decisions regarding the holy sites.
"A lot of Christians feel isolated and left out," he comments. "They feel they've been good stewards of the holy sites throughout the centuries, but when it comes time to make political decisions now, they feel the churches are given outsider status. And that's a bitter pill."
Control over the holy sites is a big contention in Jerusalem. Those in control ultimately get to decide who gets access, who gets taxed and who gets to oversee the upkeep of the sites.
"The Israelis want total control of the property," Edmunds says. "And in my opinion, there are many folks in government right now who'd be happy to see the Christian community just kind of disappear, so they can turn the holy sites into a theme park and be done with it."
The government officials are to blame for the ongoing battle over real estate rights and access, Edmunds says. The everyday people he's encountered during his short stay in Jerusalem, by and large, just want resolve.
"The political leaders are all screwed up," he says, "but the people here just want to get this thing fixed. This is not a joke to them. They really want to see a compromise happen."
"At least, that's what I see going on," he says with a nod.
EAST JERUSALEM -- "They may be building heaven, but I am living in hell," Fakhri Abu-Diab says in response to the Israeli government's proposed plan to erect a Jewish tourist site in King David's garden.
Abu-Diab, 48, a resident of the Al-Bustan neighborhood in the Silwan quarter of East Jerusalem, is in danger of having his house demolished to make room for the historical destination, which is believed to be the place where King David wrote many of the biblical psalms. But Abu-Diab is less concerned with events 2,000 years ago, than the drama currently unfolding in his neighborhood. In a makeshift tent, which serves as a community center, he presides over a local effort to stop the development, and the bulldozers that threaten his home, too.
"The bulldozers come with a host of soldiers like they are conquering the land, and we can't stand in front of them and stop them," Abu-Diab says with a hint of anger in his voice. "All we can do is use the legal system, call on the international community to pressure Israel and wait for our day."
Abu-Diab's struggle isn't just about the 88 homes that have active demolition orders assigned to them. It's also about the 1,500 residents who will be forced to uproot their families from homes and heritages.
"I was born in my house," Abu-Diab says. "And my house was my father's house, and before that, my grandfather's house. I can still smell my mother in the room where I was born."
Like his father and grandfather, Abu-Diab witnessed the birth of his first child in the one-room house. After the birth of another child, Abu-Diab realized that his family needed more space.
"I went to the Municipalities to gain a permit, and for three years, they refused to let us build," he complains. "And now they're making us into 'outlaws' by alleging that we're illegally building on the property. I had no choice but to build without a permit."
There are nearly 10,000 Palestinian homes on the verge of collapse in the Silwan valley because the municipal authorities of Jerusalem refuse to issue the necessary permits to repair them, Abu-Diab explains.
"But Jewish settlers have built houses right next door to me," he adds. "And the authorities don't give them fines or problems."
There are 14 people, including five grandchildren, living under Abu-Diab's roof. The whole household lives in constant fear of demolition and the possibility of returning home from work or school one day to find an empty lot where their home once stood.
"My kids ask, 'What will happen to us if they demolish our house? What will we do?'" Abu-Diab says with his eyes focused on the ground. "I try to avoid this question, and I lie to them because I don't want them to live under the stress and fear of demolition."
The first demolition order arrived at Abu-Diab's doorstep in 2005. Since then, he lives in fear, which his children sense.
"They ask me how I can speak to the Israelis when they only want to demolish our homes," Abu-Diab says with a pained look on his face. "These problems are pushing young Palestinians to radicalism and extremism."
Despite this, Abu-Diab promotes non-violent means of protest.
"I fear that if we respond with violence, I will not only lose my house, I will lose my people," he says while shaking his head.
Saturday, the Jewish day of rest and worship, is the one day every week when Abu-Diab and his neighbors let their guard down and forget the fear that lingers over the community.
But on this breezy Saturday, Abu-Diab remains tense.
"I love life, but I would rather be in my house when the bulldozers come to demolish it," he says, while looking in the direction of the valley and the clutter of homes in the distance. "That way, they will demolish my house with me inside it."
"I just couldn't bear the sight of my wife and children homeless," he says.
(Photo Credit: Kim Daniels)
JERUSALEM -- By most people’s standards, Rula Salameh enjoyed a charmed life. She was married to a successful businessman, lived in a palace in Dubai, had everything she ever needed, and the money to buy whatever she wanted.
“The only decision I had to make was what to buy,” Salameh says with a laugh. “I had nothing to do but go shopping.”
Salameh’s life, before meeting her husband, didn’t compared to the experiences of the everyday Palestinians she covered while working as a journalist and filmmaker during the First Intifada. Back then, assignments in the West Bank had her reporting on the pressing issues of life under the occupation. But when she went home to Jerusalem, where her family lived for decades, she faced similarly debilitating struggles as an Arab citizen of Jerusalem.
Although her marriage seemed to offer an alternate existence, Salameh's subsequent story belies a happy ever after ending. She tells the tale to a group of journalists gathered in a meeting room at Bat Shalom, a feminist center committed to working with Israeli and Palestinian women.
When she became pregnant, Salameh strategized his seems a little cold could you say decided? to deliver the child in Jerusalem so he could enjoy the benefits of Israeli citizenship. That meant she needed to leave her husband in Dubai and return to her family home until her son was born.
“According to Israeli law,” she explains, “Palestinians living in East Jerusalem must deliver their babies in Israel for the children to get Israeli identification papers.”
The benefits granted to Arab citizens with Israeli identification numbers may fall short of those given to Israeli Jewish citizens, but they do exceed the rights granted to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
Arab Israeli citizens, for example, are entitled to semi-permanent legal resident status, greater mobility within Israel (excluding the West Bank and Gaza), the right to vote, quality health care and better educational opportunities than those extended to non-citizens of the state.
After birthing a healthy baby boy in an Israeli hospital, Salameh turned to the Ministry of the Interior to request her son’s birth certificate. Instead of granting this request, the government office sent a letter outlining the conditions under which Salameh could take her son out of Israel to visit his Palestinian-born father. The response was not encouraging.
“They said I could come and go freely before my son turns five,” Salameh explains. “But after that, my son can’t leave the country or he won’t be allowed to return.”
Salameh reluctantly cancelled a trip to see her husband out of fear of getting locked out of the country and losing citizenship for her son. Her husband made multiple attempts to obtain a temporary visa from the Israeli Embassy in Jordan – to no avail.
His persistent requests eventually earned a response from the Ministry of Interior that detailed two ways Salameh could proceed.
“They said I could sign a document saying I don’t want an Israeli identification number for my son,” Salameh says while shaking her head. “And if he ever needs to return to Israel, he could simply get a visa from the Embassy in Jordan.”
Since the office that repeatedly denied her husband’s requests would then oversee approving her son’s visa in Jordan, she decided this was not a viable option.
“The other option suggested to me was to get a divorce,” she says.
After two years, three lawyers and a depleted bank account, Salameh decided this last option was not an option, but an imperative. She had to move forward with the divorce to protect her son’s best interests.
“We couldn’t move throughout Israel without an official document saying that he is mine,” Salameh explains. “So he needed that Israeli ID card.”
After finalizing the divorce, Salameh picked up her son’s temporary identification card. But the birth certificate, along with the rights and privileges that accompany it, was nowhere to be found.
Salameh’s son was eventually denied enrollment in an East Jerusalem private school because he had no Israeli ID number. A frustrated Salameh pulled out all the stops and requested a favor from an unlikely source. Salameh asked Yasser Arafat, then President of the Palestinian National Authority, to write a “strongly worded” letter on behalf of her son to Israeli authorities and school officials demanding her boy’s admittance into school.
Shortly after, the boy was allowed to attend an Israeli private school.
Salameh continued to fight for her son's birth certificate, the proof of his Israeli citizenship, but she never received it. When the boy turned 12, the age when Israeli children are given permanent identification numbers, Salameh went to the Ministry of the Interior to pick up his card.
“My son’s ID said his nationality was ‘undefined,’” Salameh says with wide eyes. “Not Palestinian, Jordanian or even Israeli. It was ‘undefined.’ And it was still temporary.”
Salameh continues to fight for her son’s birth certificate. But after 12 years, she only has received a temporary identification card and a letter stating that her son was born in an Israeli hospital.
“We want our sons and daughters to make peace with the Israelis,” Salameh says while shaking her head. “But how can we reinforce this into their minds if the Israelis can’t even treat us as humans?”
JERUSALEM — Bashar Abu Ahmad hops on his scooter every Friday afternoon to journey from the Hebrew University campus on Mt. Scopus to nearby East Jerusalem. There, he joins a crowd of demonstrators to protest the demolition of Arab homes by Israeli settlers in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
"The Jews are unjustly occupying the homes of the people living there," Ahmad says. "Some of those Arab families have been in that neighborhood for 50 to 70 years."
Ahmad, age 21, is a third-year undergraduate student studying accounting and journalism. Born in Nazareth, he has an Israeli passport and identity card, but says his Muslim Arab background hinders him from enjoying the full rights assumed by the Jewish citizens of his country.
"They call this a democracy, but I feel I don't have the same voice that the Jewish people have," Ahmad says.
There are approximately 1.2 million Arabs living in Israel, compared to the 5.5 million Jews in the country. This demographic discrepancy renders Arabs powerless at the ballot box, Ahmed says, so he has stopped voting.
"I don't affect government decisions because I'm not Jewish," he says matter-of-factly. "By participating in elections, I risk legitimizing the government in the eyes of the world."
Ahmad is bitter about what he sees as legalized discrimination in his country. When he goes to the local bus station, he is almost always stopped for a random security screening.
"They check my Israeli identity card. Sometimes that's enough, sometimes it's not," he says. "If not, they ask where I'm going and check the contents of my bag.
"Security at the bus station makes me so angry," he continues. "They're supposed to stop everybody they see as dangerous, but I only look dangerous because I'm Arab."
Ahmad notes that his Israeli citizenship is a Catch-22. In his homeland, he feels discriminated against because he's Arab, and beyond the borders, he's prohibited from visiting Arab countries (excluding Jordan and Egypt) because of his Israeli nationality.
And so, to exert some power in an otherwise compromising environment, Ahmad is a regular protester in Sheikh Jarrah. He, along with hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis, congregate in a small park located across the street from the neighborhood where they wave signs, written in Arabic, Hebrew and English, calling for an end to the conflict.
“Peace—Yes. Apartheid Wall—No,” reads one sign.
“Jerusalem: Two Capitals For Two States,” reads another.
Many signs make demands, urging the government to “Stop The Occupation!”
Following a protest earlier this year, Ahmad was detained in a local jail for 36 hours. He moved against the flow of traffic while trying to retrieve his scooter from across the street, he says. Before he knew it, three soldiers grabbed him, threw him in the back of a van and drove him to jail. There, they took mug shots and fingerprint samples.
"I never thought I'd get arrested," Ahmad said, adding he’d done nothing wrong. "As a citizen of a democratic country, I would think I have the right to nonviolent protest."
The soldiers arrested Ahmad and 16 Jews, Christians and foreign aid protesters because they didn't get advance permission to protest. Ahmad said the group repeatedly requested permission, but the police failed to respond.
A judge later ruled that the Sheikh Jarrah arrests were illegal because the protest did not require police authorization (as speeches were not given during the event) and the protestors did not pose any real threat to the public.
Ahmad’s brief time behind bars, along with his highly publicized release, only motivated him to continue participating in the protest rallies every week.
"A few hundred of us religiously show up to the same park at the same time every Friday," Ahmad says. "We chant, wave around signs and play live music for a couple hours."
He pauses to grin.
"Legally, we know we can get away with that," he adds.
(Photo Credit: Tara Graham)
HEBRON -- The buzz of metal detectors and squeal of swinging turnstiles are familiar sounds to Rima Abu Ayesha. She hears them every day while patiently waiting for the Israeli guards to finish their inspections.
"Even if we just buy veggies at the market, the guards search everything," explains Abu Ayesha. "Our children’s backpacks, our grocery bags, they look through anything we are taking in or out."
The wrangle of the checkpoint gate, which was officially set up to protect the Jewish settlers in the area, is a daily reminder to local Palestinians that they no longer belong in Hebron, the second holiest landmark of the Jewish faith. The city is believed to be the burial site of nearly all of Judaism’s patriarchs and matriarchs.
As Abu Ayesha prepares for the mile-long, uphill walk to Tel Rumeida, the neighborhood she has lived in her entire life, she understands the fact that this half-hour walk would take less than five minutes if she could simply hop in a vehicle and drive.
“Palestinians are not allowed to have cars here,” Abu Ayesha says dryly. “Even if there is an emergency, we are still not allowed to drive on the street.”
She passes through the abandoned marketplace, which once boomed with Palestinian businesses. Its storefronts now sit empty, walled up and covered in hateful graffiti. “Arabs to the gas chambers!” is the theme of one wall while another announces, “The Arabs stole our homes and killed our people.” Shopkeepers and residents have since been driven out of the area but Jewish settlers haven’t yet replaced them, so the entire scene has been reduced to a ghost town.
After taking a sharp left turn up a dusty hill, the windy street comes to life again as Jewish children run and play games in front of their homes. A number of flat-roofed, stone houses edge the street. They all look alike, except for a two-story home that’s completely covered with rusted, chain-link fencing. The cage house.
This is Abu Ayesha’s home.
She hastily unlocks the gate and walks up the steps, past the trash, rocks and broken bottles lodged in the fencing, toward her front door. As she enters the house, a formal but faded living room quickly replaces the disorder outside. Framed pictures of family members line the walls, shelves and tabletops as the plastic flowers try to bring life to the palely lit room.
“That is my husband and father-in-law shaking hands with President Arafat,” Abu Ayesha says with a smile.
“Arafat paid to put up the fencing around the house to help protect our family from the settlers,” Abu Ayesha’s mother-in-law, who’s sitting in the center of the room, chimes in.
“It wasn’t always like this,” the mother-in-law admits, remembering when the settlers first descended on the neighborhood 30 years ago. “To be a good neighbor, my husband took grapes from our yard to the settlers almost every day.”
“But all our friends were eventually forced out of their houses, and settlers just moved in,” adds Abu Ayesha, as her son climbs into her lap. She begins bouncing the boy on her knee. “The settlers tried to pressure us to leave. Now, we’re the last Palestinians living in our neighborhood.”
The Abu Ayesha family has logged more than 200 complaints against the Jewish settlers with the Israeli authorities, but have yet to see any action taken on those complaints. The violence against the family has grown so intense in the past few years that B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, gave the family a video camera to document offenses.
The family’s footage shows Israeli soldiers standing idle and doing nothing while settlers throw stones or scream obscenities at them. Abu Ayesha says the soldiers are sometimes even willing participants in the crimes.
“When I was first pregnant, the Israeli soldiers wouldn’t allow the ambulance to come to my house,” explains Abu Ayesha. “Because I couldn’t get to the hospital, my first child died.”
“Then I got pregnant with twins, and when it came time to give birth, they wouldn’t let the ambulance through the checkpoint,” she continues. “One of the twins survived, and the other did not.”
The grief still affects Abu Ayesha to this day.
“Our families are not allowed to come visit us,” she adds, with a look of frustration on her face. Palestinian friends and relatives are prohibited from visiting the family because the area is a closed military zone.
“My two daughters couldn’t even get married here,” laments the mother-in-law. “We had to go to an uncle’s house for the ceremony because no one could come and be with us.”
“I had to stay here at the house during the wedding,” she continues. “We must always have someone here to protect the house at all times. If we leave, the settlers will break in and take over.”
Her daughters, who now live outside Hebron with their husbands, are no longer able to visit the family nor their childhood home.
“Imagine when people gather during the holy month of Ramadan and we are not allowed to have anyone come in and share breakfast with us,” Abu Ayesha says.
Muslims arise early in the morning to feast on a traditional pre-dawn meal, known as Suhoor, during Ramadan.
“Usually it’s a time to spend with family, either they come to your house or you go to theirs,” Abu Ayesha explains. “Our children question why we’re alone and no one ever comes to visit us. They ask why we don’t go places. They become very sad and sometimes cry because they don’t understand why all this is happening.”
Abu Ayesha’s mother-in-law points in the direction of her son and grandson, who quietly sit near a window ledge, backlit by the afternoon sun.
“When the time comes, we won’t be able to find wives for our sons because no one can move in,” the mother-in-law says with a sigh.
For now, the two boys, ages 11 and 12, are less interested in finding mates and more concerned with getting to and from home safely on a daily basis.
The Israeli military took one of the boys into custody last week while he was journeying home from the market after selling a cage-full of pigeons. According to the boy, a 16-year-old settler approached him during his walk home and pushed him, so he used the empty cage in his hands to protect his face and ended up scratching his attacker’s arm in the process.
Within an hour, Israeli military showed up on Abu Ayesha’s doorstep. They took the boy into custody, questioned him for three hours and handed him over to the Israeli police. The police charged the boy, took his picture and fingerprints, and then sent him home.
“The settlers now send their kids to cause the trouble,” explains Abu Ayesha. “Because the soldiers don’t arrest the Israeli kids.”
Israeli law protects Jewish children from arrest until they reach the age of 18. This protection is not extended to Palestinian children. There are 343 Palestinian young people jailed in Israeli prisons right now, 41 of who fall between the ages of 12 and 15, according to the Defense for Children International.
“And so, none of us ever leave the house,” Abu Ayesha says definitively, as the afternoon call to prayer rings throughout the city. “We’re living in a prison, and we’re the only ones left.”