A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Suddenly Israel/Palestine has caught the attention of the western news again.
Familiar phrases float across the papers and the news feeds:
Palestinians throwing rocks, Israeli Jews marching through Palestinian neighborhoods—chanting provocative insults, rockets falling from Gaza —with minimal damage, retaliation from Israel—resulting in dead Palestinian children in Gaza, demonstrations at the Al Asqa Mosque. We’ve been here before and we know it doesn’t end well for the Palestinians. Next we stop paying attention. We don’t realize that central to this cycle is the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, where a decades long legal struggle pits Jewish Israeli settlers against Palestinian residents in a court system that grants Jews the right to return but not Palestinians.
I stumbled across Sheik Jarrah in 2010 on arriving in Jerusalem to begin a ten week stay at Berzeit University in the West Bank. My journal entry below set the stage for my time there. The contortion of reality to justify the displacement of the Palestinians continues as Israel bulldozes its way across the West Bank and continues to choke Gaza. This is not security, this is not madness, this is a concerted effort to rid the land of Palestinians.
You find a dark skinned man with a thick beard sitting under a large fig tree to which a few yellow leaves cling, defying the odds. A sweater is hanging in a low tree branch and several water bottles are discarded on the old stone wall. The man is sitting in front of the wall on a plastic chair. He is explaining the dispute over his house to a small group who have come to accompany him, or protect him from the people who have moved into his house.
His house is festooned with blue and white Israeli flags, the roof decorated with a large menorah. People come and go from his house, a woman with a baby in her arms, a young man.
In the street, teenaged boys dressed identically in long black trousers and black jackets with large rimmed black hats walk in groups of three or four. A group of four or five Palestinian women in long dresses and head scarves sit in plastic chairs on the street in front of the home of the oldest woman. Her house is similarly decked with Israeli flags, but no menorah. Large white stickers with black Hebrew letters instead stick to her front door. There is a security guard stationed just inside.
If you ask her, she will tell you her side of the dispute that finds her evicted and living in a make shift tent like structure in her front yard white the legality of her eviction winds slowly thorugh the Israeli courts. She’ll also ask you what you will do to solve this situation. She seems very old, weary but determined.
The teenage Israeli boys squeeze by the Palestinian women and enter the oldest woman’s front yard. One of the women makes a comment, and one of the boys makes an obscene gesture in return. The boys pass frequently in and out of the house as the afternoon wears on. There are no pleasantries exchanged.
Lewis Carroll would have been impressed. This seems like Wonderland turned on its head. And you might think you are there, in Wonderland, or Oz, or some other imaginary place that makes no sense. But you’re not, you’re in Israeli occupied East Jerusalem, near a fig tree with aged leaves that won’t let go, just down the street from a hotel called American Colony.
In 1992, Pamela Basu’s car was hijacked in Baltimore by two men. She clung to the car, and was dragged for a mile and a half before her body fell from the car. Witnesses couldn’t believe how she fought to save her car. Later, when the carjackers threw from the car her 22 month old daughter Sarina, alive and still strapped in the car seat, did it become viscerally clear why she fought till she died. I remembered how I felt when I read that story as I stood in the street in Sheikh Jarrah.
That journal entry is over 11 years old. The Palestinians are still holding on to Sheik Jarrah in hopes that Palestine will survive. That survival may depend upon our ability to stop looking away.
Copyright 2021 Emily De Ferrari
Emily De Ferrari is a registered midwife and a longtime peace and justice activist. She lives in Pittsburgh.
‘Israeli forces have launched a series of violent assaults on unarmed protesters at al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem. Israeli police outside the mosque on 7 May, 2021…. Over the past week, thousands of Palestinians have been gathering to pray at the al-Aqsa compound – one of the holy sites of Islam – in East Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. But they have also been standing alongside the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, the neighbourhood from which numerous Palestinian families are facing eviction, in a move by Israel the United Nations has described as a possible war crime, given that it involves the transfer of “an occupying [power’s] civilian population into the territory that it occupies”’. (source: The Guardian)