Living and dying in East Jerusalem


ISSAWIYA, Jerusalem — Huda Adnan Darweesh, 62, was pounding olives in the cool of the Jerusalem evening when she heard the hiss and crack of tear gas canisters and sound bombs.

Like every other time before, she ran into the house, coughing and wheezing.

But this time would end differently. At 3:30 a.m. Darweesh was still awake, struggling to breathe. Her sons Karim and Yousef drove her to the hospital as fast as they could, but when they arrived at a checkpoint, it took the security forces half an hour to let them through. Their mother died upon reaching the hospital.

Until the day she died Darweesh lived in Issawiya, an East Jerusalem neighborhood that’s home to 15,000 people. It’s one of 10 Palestinian neighborhoods that has been almost entirely closed off since mid-October, after a wave of attacks — mostly by Palestinians against Jewish Israelis — in Jerusalem. Sixty-seven Palestinians and 11 Israelis have been killed so far.

East Jerusalem has long been a tough place to live, and frustration has been brewing here for years. Most of the suspected attackers in the recent stabbings and other assaults have been from these neighborhoods.

Of the four entrances into Issawiya, now only one is still open. Residents are subject to extensive searches by military and police as they come and go, and spend hours in their cars stopped at checkpoints waiting to get to jobs, schools and doctors’ appointments.

Yuval Steinitz, a minister and a member of the security cabinet, said following the closures that “dramatic times necessitate drastic measures.”

He added that such collective punishment was meant to deter would-be attackers, sending the message that, “if you destroy the life of another family, it will not bring rewards — not for the terrorist, nor for the people who support or celebrate it.”

At the wake for Huda Darweesh the day after she died, the lower floor and courtyard of the family house were filled with people, most of them women. The closer relatives seemed numb, while cousins and some of the children told stories about the deceased.

Adela Darweesh, Huda’s 27-year-old niece, grew up in the United States but now lives in Issawiya.

“I’m pregnant and I’m thinking how am I going to go out and give birth?” she said in a pronounced American accent. “I want to leave but I can’t right now. I’m due any day."

Her daughters’ school had closed early every day that week because of the tear gas and sound bombs. Her nephew has stopped going to class altogether because his school is located outside Issawiya beyond the checkpoint.

“My daughters understand everything,” she said. “They are terrified. My oldest, age six, says, ‘Mom, you have to buy me a mask for my face so I don’t smell gas on the way home from school.’”

A photograph of Huda Darweesh and her husband. Darweesh died after being held up for half an hour at a checkpoint on the way to the hospital in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya.

Hostile environment

Though Palestinians make up over a third of Jerusalem residents and pay taxes along with everyone else, only around ten percent of the city’s budget is allotted to them. Services from healthcare to waste management to mail delivery are far worse than in the west of the city. More than 75 percent of Palestinians in Jerusalem live below the poverty line.

There is essentially no police presence in East Jerusalem to perform normal community policing. Israeli security services are only deployed to quell dissent.

East Jerusalem was conquered by Israel in 1967 and remains occupied by Israel to this day. Other countries, including the US, base their embassies in Israel’s second city, Tel Aviv.

Though they have the right to apply for Israeli nationality, 95 percent of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem don't because they say it legitimizes the Israeli occupation, and because they would have to give up other citizenships they hold.

Because of this, they aren’t politically represented by the Israeli Jewish leadership in the Knesset or the Palestinian Authority. Instead they hold identity cards that designate them as Jerusalem residents. In order to keep these IDs, though, they must reside continuously within the borders of Jerusalem. This presents a problem for Palestinians who go abroad to study or work.

Like everything else in this conflict, a big part of the problem comes down to land. A stringent building code all but prevents Palestinians from building legally: Israel has allotted around a third of the land in East Jerusalem for Jewish settlements and determined that over half of it is unavailable for development. Ninety-three-thousand Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem live in unlicensed buildings that are under constant threat of demolition.

Jerusalem, however, is the cultural and historic capital of the Palestinian people. That is one reason why the perceived encroachment by Jewish Israelis into the Al-Aqsa compound, the third-holiest site in Islam and also a holy site to Jews, resonates even with secular Palestinians.

“It’s in the heart of Jerusalem and anything that changes in the heart of Jerusalem affects the aspirations of Palestinians…. It’s not just because of al-Aqsa,” said Aida Touma Sliman, a Knesset member and a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

An Israeli fire-fighter looks at a Palestinian car which was torched and racist slogans were scrawled on it in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Umm Tuba, on October 25, 2015.

The root causes

Jerusalem is often referred to by the Israeli government as its “undivided capital,” a statement of the country’s intent to hold onto the land.

The reality is that even in Jerusalem, Palestinians feel under siege. This, according to Palestinian rights groups, is at the heart of the current wave of violence.

A coalition of rights group recently spelled out what it thought were the “root causes” of the violence. It said that among them were “continued confiscation of [Palestinians’] land and the displacement of its inhabitants; the demolition of their homes; the aggressive expansion of Israeli [settlements]; settler violence against Palestinians and their property facilitated by the state; torture and ill-treatment; and increasing numbers of arbitrary arrests and administrative detentions.”

Many East Jerusalemites believe that the lack of accountability for security forces in the current climate of fear may give them license to act with impunity. Shooting alleged attackers behind recent violence instead of subduing them, according to some in East Jerusalem as well as rights group Amnesty International, is tantamount to "extrajudicial executions."

In several cases information about the circumstances of alleged attackers' deaths remains incomplete. Attackers’ families who ask for more information are met with silence.

The wake for 18-year-old Mustafa al-Khatib was supposed to last for three days. On the fourth, people were still coming.

On Oct. 12, the day Mustafa was shot dead by security forces, a photograph surfaced of him, a senior in high school, lying mostly naked with his face covered on the sidewalk outside the Old City. Police said he was shot while allegedly attacking a police officer. Eyewitnesses dispute this claim. And unlike in the majority of other incidents, video footage was never released, despite the fact that he was shot just outside the gates to the Old City where there is a security camera mounted at all times.

"He's a terrorist who comes down with a knife, he's approached by two police officers. He attempted to stab one of them," said Micky Rosenfeld, spokesman for the Israeli police. "When there are knives, and terrorists walking through the streets, decisions have to be made…They made a split second decision."

“All the others have videos,” says Mustafa’s aunt, who has dyed blonde hair and a small diamond nose stud. She grips his mother’s hand: “We just want to know what happened.”

Security forces have not responded to the family’s requests to see the footage. Neither has the Israeli state given Mustafa's body to the family for burial.

Still, this is nothing new for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Rights group B'Tselem in 2012 wrote that there had been a “decade of impunity for harm to civilians.” Over a ten-year period the group called for investigations into 304 incidents in which Israeli security forces killed Palestinians “who were not involved in the hostilities,” according to the group. 

Since the stabbings began, the situation in East Jerusalem has deteriorated significantly.

“We say the young men walking around are ‘martyrs with a suspended sentence,'" says Atta Awisat, 46, who teaches photography in Jerusalem. "I go to work, I don’t know what will happen to me."

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