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Al-Quds: A Quest for Peace and Justice in A Divided City

Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer** and Dr. Ilham Nasser***

*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).

**Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer is a professor at the School of International Service at American University. At the International Peace and Conflict Resolution program he served as Director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute (1999-2013). He has conducted interreligious conflict resolution training and interfaith dialogue workshops in conflict areas around the world, including Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Chad, Niger, Iraq (Kurdistan), Philippines (Mindanao), and Sri Lanka. He also founded Salam Institute for Peace and Justice, an organization that focuses on capacity building, civic education, and intra-faith and interfaith dialogue. In addition to his numerous articles and books, Dr. Abu-Nimer is the co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development.

***Dr. Ilham Nasser is an educator who spent over twenty-five years in the research of child development and teacher education in different formal and non-formal settings in the U.S., Central Africa, and the Middle East. Her Ph.D. is in Human Development and Child Study from the University of Maryland-College Park. She worked for several years as a classroom teacher and a school counselor and was a Faculty of Teacher Education for 12 years at George Mason University. Her research agenda includes studies and publications on the topic of global teachers’ professional development and more specifically, teacher preparation and professional development in social and political contexts and ways these influence children’s outcomes. Currently, she is the director of the empirical research in education, part of Advancing Education in Muslim Societies, at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Washington, DC.

“When you live in Jerusalem you will never be able to forget it.” This popular statement is often exchanged among Palestinians who reside in the city and interact with its charm and history, especially those who came from other areas in Palestine, leaving their hometowns to become Jerusalemites.

Of course, as any old and holy city, the meaning of Jerusalem varies because it is shaped by our own lives, experiences, and identities. In fact, who you are makes a huge difference in the way you experience the city: for example, if you are a Palestinian or Israeli; a Muslim or non-Muslim; a religious or a non-religious person; and, importantly, if you are an original Jerusalemite or a newcomer. Thus, the meaning of Jerusalem to us is shaped by the perspective of a young couple who moved from the Galilee to study in the big holy city in the early eighties. After a decade that included experiencing the First Intifada (uprising), we moved to the United States to pursue higher education and occasionally returned to Jerusalem for short visits, but never considered living there.

On the national level, we experienced the two sides of the city and then the annexation of the Old City and East Jerusalem to Israel. Jerusalem has been in a crucible of war and violent conflicts between Arabs and Jews, as early as the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. The political dynamics and attempts to legitimize it as the ultimate, one, unified capital of Israel have contaminated every interaction of the city’s residents, their daily lives, homes, food and water resources, and prayers. This reality has cast its shadow on the city in a massive way since June 1967, when the Israeli military forces declared victory and began the policy of annexation that was legally formalized on July 30, 1980, by the passing of the Jerusalem Law in the Israeli Parliament. The harsh policies and the punishments that were imposed on those who rejected the reunification shaped the meaning of Jerusalem and put people like us on the fence and in between, as we could freely move in both parts of the city and not worry about the ways we were perceived by either part. Nevertheless, as rejecting these policies became an identifier that separated Arabs from Jews in the city, we took part in activities on the Hebrew University campus to reject the annexation and the aftermath of that on the city.

This reality also created an internal Palestinian dynamic in which the labels of “traitor” (Khayin) and “nationalist” (Watani) were used and abused by certain forces and individuals to promote personal interests and agendas. Despite the claims of the Israeli government and the municipal authority that Jerusalem is a unified city and the massive effort to build new Jewish settlements surrounding the Palestinian neighbourhoods, the city remained nationally divided. For us as Palestinians, even those who held Israeli passports, we rejected the narrative of domination and control that manifested itself in a huge gap in resource allocation, development plans, and services provided by the municipality.  Living in Beit Hanina, in the suburbs of Jerusalem, we witnessed the neighbourhood of Neve Yaakov (Nabi Yaaqoob) being built, developed, and nurtured for its Jewish residents. The same story applied to every Palestinian neighborhood witnessing discriminatory development policies by the city and the government. However, more tragically, we also witnessed the painful reality of many Palestinian families in the Old City who were under daily attacks and harassment by the security forces and the right-wing Jewish settlers, who continuously pushed to confiscate and take control of Arab houses in the Old City. Every month, when we went down to the Old City to pay our rent, we would listen to our landlords, two elders from the Khalidi family, who lived near Via Dolorosa, complaining to us about the waves of Jewish religious groups harassing them and threatening to take over their house.

We lived in Jerusalem between 1980 and 1989. During these years, as young students and peace activists, we discovered the charm and magic of the city. The amazingly diverse mixture of Palestinians, Israeli Jews and Palestinians from Israel, foreign expats, tourists, and others was evident every time we went through Bab El Amud (the gate of the pillar), also called the Nablus Gate and the Damascus Gate – because it faces the north, toward Nablus and Damascus – as we could feel the energy that surrounds the interactions between these individuals and groups. Obviously, on the surface and most visible is the tension resulting from the presence of the Israeli military and security services with the restrictions they impose on the mobility of most people in the Old City and outside, especially in the Palestinian neighborhoods. Living near the Qalandia checkpoint north of Jerusalem and crossing into the occupied territories to get our groceries and supplies, we experienced the division between Jerusalemites and West Bankers imposed by Israel. This horrible reality affected all those who lived in the city, especially the Palestinian neighborhoods, regardless of whether we were from the Galilee or not. In the span of twenty-four hours in Jerusalem, it was inevitable that you heard stories about the torture of gaining entry into the city from the occupied territories. Many of these stories are also about the dislocation of many of our family friends who ended up living beyond the northern, eastern, or southern checkpoints (Ramallah area, Jericho side, and Bethlehem area) or later the Separation Wall. In addition, many other stories are about Muslims having no access to the Holy Mosque, and those young people proudly narrating their manoeuvers to reach the mosque and participate in the Friday prayer.

Each family had its own journey and narrative. One of the large families that lived near the Hebrew University campus on the Mount of Olives was forced to vacate their old house that they had lived in for at least a hundred years, because of the disproportionate taxation and sanctions on illegal expansion.[1] They relocated to one of the neighborhoods outside of Ramallah and every day commuted to Jerusalem. Later, they were forced to return so that they would not lose their Jerusalem identification card and residency. This situation impacted hundreds of Jerusalemites. We recall listening to feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness, hopelessness, and even hate-filled desires for revenge. In such conversations, it took us a while to shift the discourse of the conversation to feelings of resistance, hope, resilience, survival, empathy, and sympathy, and even to understanding the nuances of the Israeli and Palestinian conflicts and politics that shaped the lives of these families and their stories.

We also lived in the city when it was calmer and before the First Intifada in 1987. We enjoyed its multicultural and multi-religious offerings from both communities: the Jewish Israeli in the west and the Palestinian in the east side. The depth of the Abrahamic spiritual link that can be felt in the two square kilometres of the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Jewish Wailing Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is incredible for those who seek a spiritual path. There is no other place on earth that encompasses all these three major religions in the same intensity. Despite the messages of Abrahamic unity embedded in each of these faith traditions, their internal divisions are very visible in the heart of Jerusalem. The different groups compete among themselves on ownership, control, and regulations within each of these institutions. The place of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in our lives was very significant as we were able to experience it as part of belonging to the city. As we made friends and people hosted us, having a picnic in the surrounding gardens of the “Haram” was a Friday event that we enjoyed tremendously. The area was a community gathering place, and people would bring their lunches and eat together after Friday prayers. Today, the mosque is off-limits to many people, and generations of young Palestinians became adults without seeing the Al-Aqsa or even being able to enter Jerusalem.

Beyond the Arab-Jewish divide that since 1948 has characterized East and West Jerusalem, the city is also divided by religious and secular grouping, especially in the Jewish Israeli areas. Several times, as we walked from the Mount of Olives to the Old City, we were subjected to stone-throwing by young Ultra-Orthodox Jews who were demarking the boundaries of their neighborhood for keeping Sabbath. The conflict between Israeli Jewish religious groups and non-religious groups often resulted in protest and new regulations for movement in the city. Many of the secular Jewish families migrated to the urban areas of Tel Aviv, while the Jewish orthodox and ultra-orthodox groups grew. The taking over of the city by Jewish religious groups gradually affected our movement and ways of living. The religious divide created city enclaves for various communities, such as the night clubs’ areas, the coffee shops, and the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to stay away from.

Such a divide existed on the Palestinian side as well, however with less visible boundaries due to the nature of the Muslim and Christian religious identities. Nevertheless, Palestinian Muslims and Christians who are not religious or secular have also carved out certain streets and corners that marked their presence in the city.

For over a decade, we both worked for peace and understanding between Arabs and Jews within the Green Line (marking the territories that were under Israeli control between 1948 and 1967). We often brought our trainees and students to Jerusalem to experience the proximity of diverse religious communities and to observe the impact of the national conflicts on the daily lives of the city resident. Jerusalem was a torn city, but with a hope for peace.

Our efforts were mainly focused on the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. It was clear for us that such programs should not and cannot be implemented between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem. We rejected and declined any offers to engage in programs of coexistence that were sponsored by the Jerusalem municipality and various governmental ministries, and even Israeli Jewish interfaith and peace organizations, to propagate the myth of reunification of Jerusalem. Despite the efforts to oppose normalizing the occupation through encounters, this agenda seeped into Jerusalem and even the West Bank after Oslo in 1993. Jerusalem became a safe place for bringing Israelis and Palestinians together between 1994 and 2000. However, such attempts ceased after the Second Intifada in 2000, which marked the collapse of the peace process and the illusion that Jerusalem was unified.

Before the First Intifada, we experienced the absurdity of the situation by living in East Jerusalem and working in West Jerusalem. Our afternoons and weekend activities were shaped by the solidarity campaigns to resist the Israeli Occupation in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.  During the Palestinian Intifada, we organized and participated in campaigns to visit the refugee camps in the area of Bethlehem and Ramallah and took along Israelis to see for themselves the consequences of the occupation on the lives of Palestinians. Hoping that such visits would raise higher awareness among Israeli Jews, we witnessed the tears of some who visited and interacted for the first time with Palestinian refugees and members of the resistance movement. Transformed by these powerful encounters, some of these individuals became active in the Israeli peace movement and participated in the growing solidarity movement in late 1980s.

Jerusalem has always been a city of resilience and perseverance for us and many others. It was the centre for resistance against the Israeli occupation in the 1980s and 1990s through the nonviolent campaigns that characterized the Palestinian Intifada in 1987-1993. Activists like Mubarak Awad and Faisal Husseini in the Orient House contributed to the civic resistance movement before 1987. With others, they articulated ways for Jerusalemites to reject unification and engage in a peaceful liberation movement. Our experience with these circles provided us with an inner perspective on the challenges and difficulties facing every Palestinian who dares to raise his or her voice against the Israeli municipality or security forces. However, in addition to formal and informal resistance in Jerusalem, other forces were at play. For the sake of gaining economic benefits or influence, these individuals collaborated with the Israeli security forces and municipal authority. Such figures served the interest and agenda of reunification by placing themselves as agents for spreading the Israeli government’s propaganda. Although this was a small force, it symbolized an internal Palestinian divide that affected our lives and made it more challenging to project a completely united public front in rejecting reunification and shaping many of the social gatherings.

Today, thirty years since we left Jerusalem, it remains for us a symbol of the possibilities for Arab-Jewish conflict and peace. Israeli, Jewish, Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim leaders around the globe have manipulated the status of Jerusalem to justify certain religious, national, and political ideologies. One of the most deadly events was the visit of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli right-wing leader, to the Old City, with over 400 security forces, in October 2000. He came to the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhrah) in Jerusalem to protest the possible political settlement that was being negotiated in Camp David between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak. The provocation resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of Palestinians and sparked the Second Intifada. Unfortunately, Jerusalem continues to be exploited by such leaders today to mobilize political support. The most recent example is Donald J. Trump with his administration moving the American Embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem and recognizing the Israeli government’s claim for a unified Jerusalem, without any consideration of the Palestinian plight and rights to the city.

We visit Jerusalem almost once a year and connect with our old spots, such as making a stop at Houmos Leena for lunch and topping it off with delicious Kanafeh (thin noodle-like pastry or fine semolina dough, layered with white cheese and soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup) from Jaffar for dessert. Every time we go through this ritual, we notice change in the old market and more and more shops closing and more and more Israeli flags on house roofs. The city is overtaken by one faith and one national group’s discourse. There is less and less room for others. For us, the walk from Mount of Olives to the Old City to buy Kaek (sesame bread, Simit) and watch old movies, set up on screens in tents where cold watermelon was served late at night in the 1980s, is not possible nowadays. The neighborhoods along this path were taken; narrow streets and alleys were replaced with wide streets; and our tents were replaced with train stations in a project that was intended to split off the Old City and make it more accessible to the western part of the city. We slowly saw how the city was transformed from a centre of culture and music (we were living in Jerusalem when the El-Hakawati Theatre [the Palestinian National Theatre] and the Sabreen music band were established) to a sad centre of defeat for the idea that Jerusalem belongs to all. We also witnessed, as we went back and forth, the transformation of Ramallah as the new centre of happenings and cultural and intellectual life, replacing Jerusalem and isolating people even more.

Eventually, the Jerusalem question will have to bring justice to all groups and faiths, but the cost of getting there has been expensive in terms of pain and human lives. Unfortunately, fewer leaders utilize the unique features of Jerusalem to call for genuine and just peace for both Israeli and Palestinian alike. However, there are some peace activists who remain faithful to the cause of peacemaking and peacebuilding, and they continue to struggle to promote social and political justice for Jerusalemites. For us, these peace activists represent the current and the past meaning of Jerusalem and the last chance for hope for the city.

[1] There are strict regulations on permits for new building or expansion of existing homes. Thus, in the Palestinian neighbourhoods, there is little room for new construction to accommodate the population growth. See statistics on demolition of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem reported by B’tselem https://www.btselem.org/planning_and_building/east_jerusalem_statistics.

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