“Jerusalem is a shared gift for humanity”.

Arab American in the Heart of the Holy Land

By Lana Shehadeh

*Published in Saliba Sarsar and Carole Monica Burnett, What Jerusalem Means to Us: Muslim Perspectives and Reflections (North Bethesda, Md: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Inc., 2021).

**Lana Shehadeh is Assistant Professor at the Arab American University in Palestine. Her doctorate in Politics and International Relations is from Florida International University. Her research concentrates on the resurgence of religion within world politics. She concentrates on the Political Economy of Religion and its use as a form of legitimacy for authority in the Middle East.

Growing up in a predominantly white middle-class city, for a Palestinian Muslim female, was always an extremely confusing ordeal. I spent hours explaining to students in my class why, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims chose to fast from sunrise to sunset or why my mother chose to cover her hair with a hijab. No amount of in-depth explanation around the rationale behind religiosity or modesty would suffice. My parents consistently explained that, although we felt very different from the environment around us, living in the United States gave our family the opportunity my parents had not been allotted while at home in Palestine. My dad came to the U.S. as a teenager to help support his family as one of the older brothers in the household. He ultimately married my mother and settled in Parkland, Florida after spending the first few years in New York. As immigrants, they understood that living the American dream meant giving their children the best of both worlds.

In summer 1994, all that would change. After the signing of the Oslo peace accords, my parents’ discourse changed drastically. My father talked about the hope for a Palestinian homeland and the development of a state in what is known as the occupied Palestinian territories. Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, then head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, along with their teams met with their American counterparts and signed what was called the Oslo Accords in September 1993. The Oslo Accords marked the start of the Oslo peace process and aimed at achieving a peace treaty based on United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. The talks began as secret negotiations between the Israelis and the PLO. The Accords quickly acknowledged the PLO as the partner in negotiations with Israel and the creation of a Palestinian Authority that would govern semi-autonomously. Most importantly, however, the Accords aimed at dictating the borders of Israel and Palestine; yet it failed to recognize a completely independent Palestinian state. [Nathan J. Brown, Palestinian Politics After the Oslo Accords: Resuming Arab Palestine (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).]

For many Palestinians, the Oslo Accords were a promise for a new beginning. My parents were no different. My parents, along with many other Palestinian ex-pats, moved back to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the hope of introducing their children to their culture, language, and roots. The West Bank witnessed an influx of Palestinians coming from North America and Western Europe. In fact, an influx of around two hundred thousand Palestinians returned with the hope of building a nation. Many came in for professional purposes and were recruited quickly by companies as well as the Palestinian Authority. They had a strong influence on the building of the Palestinian territories in the late nineties and the first decade of the current century. [Xavier Guignard, “The Emergence of Palestinian Mughtaribûn: Diaspora Politics and State-Building in Oslo Palestine.” Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East Migration Studies 3, 2 (2016): 130-156.]

My family also decided to move back. In June 1995, we arrived at Al-Lidd or Lod Airport, which Israelis call “Ben Gurion” Airport, located on the northern outskirts of the city of Lod, which is 12 miles from Tel-Aviv and 28 miles from Jerusalem. [Elliott Weiss, “Establishing Roots at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport Garden: Landscapes of National Identity.” National Identities 12, 2 (2010): 199-210.] A cousin of my father’s was waiting for us. Excited to see us all, he greeted us with “Falasteen Eshtakatilkum (Palestine has missed you).” I did not understand what he said at the time as I could barely speak Arabic, but the excitement in his eyes and his love for his land were edifying. We drove through the roads of Tel Aviv, and he explained the difference between Israel proper and the lands of the West Bank, the areas Palestinians were allowed in, and the areas restricted to residents of Israel alone. The car finally stopped in Silwad, a town just northeast of Ramallah where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters. [Salem Thawaba, The Integration of GIS into School Mapping: A Case of Ramallah City, Palestine, 2016.] Unfortunately, Silwad is currently split, based on the Oslo II framework, with 1.7 percent of its land in Area A, 37.7 percent in Area B, and 60.6 percent in Area C. (Area A enjoys full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority; Area B has Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control; and Area C is under full Israeli civil and security control. [Petter Næss, Per Gunnar Røe, Synnøve Larsen, “Travelling distances, modal split and transportation energy in thirty residential areas in Oslo.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 38, 3 (1995): 349-370.]  Most of my grandfather’s land is located in Area C; this situation prohibits my family from cultivating that land or developing infrastructure or changes that did not exist prior to the signing of the accords. Although this may seem like a normal legislation, it prohibits a large number of people living in Silwad and the neighboring West Bank villages from developing, cultivating, and establishing any infrastructure on their land. This is the case since a significant amount of land in the West Bank has been zoned to Area C.

My grandmother stood outside crying hysterically. She could not believe how big we had all gotten. Many of us, regrettably, could not communicate with her in Arabic. I could not communicate with her at all. All I managed to offer was a measly smirk. She took us inside and showed us the meal she had prepared. She had made Mansaf, a famous traditional Palestinian dairy-based dish with lamb meat, which is usually served with bulgur or rice. She explained the next morning that she had secured a taxi that would take us to Jerusalem to visit the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhrah in Arabic) and Al-Aqsa Mosque (the Farthest Mosque). As an eight-year-old, this was all foreign to me, but I went along with it. We woke up before dawn to make sure we made it in time for the noon prayer.

Although Jerusalem is less than twenty-two miles from Silwad, we, Palestinians, needed to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint called Kalandia or Qalandiya, which takes its name from the Palestinian village where it is situated. There we stood in a lengthy line of tired and angry men and women waiting to enter the outskirts of Jerusalem. These were people who needed to enter Israel for work or medical reasons, or to visit the Holy City, like us, and pray there. The wait felt like forever. I was hot and hungry. It was finally our turn. We approached the glass window, and an annoyed, incredibly young Israeli soldier looked at me, then at my passport, and said: “Yallah, roohy (come on, just go through).” That was it. This very young, probably eighteen-year-old, teenager decided whether I could enter or not. I tried to brush it off and explore this new city.

We took another taxi to enter Jerusalem. We passed old homes and then a huge Israeli settlement that was built with stunning white stones and with an exceptionally clean modern look to it. Before we knew it, we were there. The taxi stopped and everyone got out in front of the great Damascus Gate. There were merchants selling “ka’ak,” a sesame-covered bread shaped like a long oval. They hand you a small piece of newspaper with za’atar (mainly made of thyme, dried sumac, salt, and toasted sesame seeds) in it to drizzle on the dry bread. My dad purchased one for me with a cold Sprite and sat me down on the large steps facing the gate.

As we sat eating our modest meal, my dad began to reminisce about his own experiences in the Old City. He explained that when he was a teenager, he had open access to Jerusalem. In fact, his parents had left their own hometown of Silwad to work in Haifa, a city within the Green Line (that is, the 1949 Armistice border or the pre-June 5, 1967, border). His parents owned a fish shop in Haifa, yet after the Six-Day War, they returned to their hometown of Silwad and their lives changed forever. I looked at my dad trying to understand where all his emotions came from, why they all loved this city so much. What was it all about?

My father guided us to enter the Damascus Gate and see the market inside the Old City. People shouted and invited us to their shops. I heard lots of laughter, and generous cups of Turkish coffee were offered. We finally arrived at the Zalatimo sweets shop. It was a very small and old shop that still used a brick oven to bake cheese stuffed pastries with drizzled hot syrup. We sat and listened to the man who prepared these delights. He explained his own experience in Jerusalem, where he had grown up, and the shop that he has worked at since as early as he can remember as his grandfather owned it, then his father, and now he did. My father was the de facto translator. I asked him to ask the man what Jerusalem meant to him and why he decided to stay for so long. He looked at us all with a warm smile and said, “To some, Jerusalem means nothing, but to me it is everything. I cannot bear to leave it.” I still remember that feeling. That was fifteen years ago….

Jerusalem’s value does not come from its rich resources or intrinsic worth; rather, its historic significance. Jerusalem is regarded as a classic divided city, contested by two peoples with historic value in multiple religions and ethnicities. Division of the city is rooted in the 1948-1967 era, when an international border between Israel and Jordan ran through the midst of the city. The Western part was given to Israel and considered the Israeli side of the city, while the Eastern area of the city was considered Palestinian and, thus, administered by the Jordanian government at the time with UN supervision of the border. This changed with the June 1967 War as Israel began altering the character of East Jerusalem soon after capturing it. Today, over fifty years later, the large Palestinian majority in the Eastern side of the city remains opposed to any form of unification under Israeli rule deeming it a stateless land with people carrying stateless IDs. [Wendy Pullan, “The Space of Contested Jerusalem.” Jerusalem Quarterly 39 (2009): 39-50.]

As I look back at my time in the Palestinian territories and my frequent visits to Jerusalem’s Old City, I reminisce about the beautiful stone walls, the fresh scent of sesame bread, the organic fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the walk to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. For many, Jerusalem is a touristy site where people visit for religious and historical reasons. For me, as a Palestinian American, Jerusalem is a city that has completely transformed my view of the world, which, after seeing Jerusalem, seems odd to me. Jerusalem is a place where lots of injustice exists, where people can be trapped in a small, crowded city and still feel isolated and unable to find agency in their surroundings. It is a place that in certain secular perspectives may be worth nothing, while to others, with deep spiritual conviction and historical consciousness, it is worth everything.

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