The National's special report on the hardships of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and Israeli attempts to remove Arab identity
From Ala Al Qassem, forcibly separated from her husband and unable to visit him in Ramallah for fear of losing her home to settlers, to teenager Yehiya Derbas, maimed by Israeli bullets, they are Israel’s quiet victims. They might not face the constant threat of air strikes – like those trapped in Gaza – but violence takes many forms. What they face is a systematic Israeli campaign to eradicate the Arab identity of East Jerusalem, the capital of any future Palestinian state.
Israel seized the eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967 from Jordan, and illegally annexed it in 1981. Although Palestinians account for a third of Jerusalem’s population, they are treated as second-class citizens, with residency that is easily – and often – revoked. A towering wall constructed three years ago that cut some 140,000 Palestinians off from the rest of the city is part of a strategy to rid East Jerusalem of Palestinians and replace them with Israeli settlers.
Today, 350,000 Palestinians live there – three-quarters of them below the poverty line. Most lack adequate access to water and education, and face demolitions, evictions, family separation, police and settler violence. With the demographics against them, Israel is pushing Palestinians to leave – with discriminatory policies and force.
Discrimination on this scale violates both international law and the region’s history. And yet, these tactics received a boost last May, when President Donald Trump relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem, pronouncing it the capital of Israel. Since then, the balance of power has tipped overwhelmingly in favour of Israel, increasing the pace of settlement-building and discriminatory law-making. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently claimed that US policy in the region is based upon “facts on the ground”. But it is the Israelis, with US support, who have changed those realities. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are now helpless and alone. Even Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church has secretly been selling land to Israel.
There are some encouraging signs. Jordan, the custodian of several holy sites, might take a more active role. Meanwhile, Pope Francis joined Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in calling for Jerusalem to be a “symbol of peaceful coexistence”. Leaders at the recent Arab League summit in Tunis rebuked Mr Trump, declaring East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described it as the “capital of both states”. These words carry weight, but they will be of little assistance to Palestinians dealing with the harsh realities of daily occupation. It is time for the world to take action, before the Arab soul of Jerusalem is erased for good.
How Israel is working to remove
Palestinians from Jerusalem
The 350,000 Palestinian inhabitants of occupied East Jerusalem are caught between a rock and a hard place, as Israel works ever harder to remove them from the holy city in which they were born, analysts and residents warn.
That process, they say, has only accelerated in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s decision a year ago to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem, effectively endorsing the city as Israel’s exclusive capital.
“Israel wants Palestinians in Jerusalem to understand that they are trapped, that they are being strangled, in the hope they will conclude that life is better outside the city,” said Amneh Badran, a politics professor at Jerusalem’s Al Quds university.
Since Israel seized the eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967 and then illegally annexed it in 1981, it has intentionally left the status of its Palestinian population unresolved.
Israeli officials have made Palestinians there “permanent residents,” though, in practice, their residency is easily revoked. According to Israel’s own figures, more than 14,500 Palestinians have been expelled from the city of their birth since 1967, often compelling their families to join them in exile.
Further, Israel finished its concrete wall slicing through East Jerusalem three years ago, cutting some 140,000 Palestinian residents off from the rest of the city.
A raft of well-documented policies – including house demolitions, a chronic shortage of classrooms, lack of public services, municipal underfunding, land seizures, home evictions by Jewish settlers, denial of family unification, and police and settler violence – have intensified over the years.
At the same time, Israel has denied the Palestinian Authority, a supposed government-in-waiting in the West Bank, any role in East Jerusalem, leaving the city’s Palestinians even more isolated and weak.
All of these factors are designed to pressure Palestinians to leave, usually to areas outside the wall or to nearby West Bank cities like Ramallah or Bethlehem.
“In Jerusalem, Israel’s overriding aim is at its most transparent: to take control of the land but without its Palestinian inhabitants,” said Daoud Alg’ol, a researcher on Jerusalem.
Like others, Mr Alg’ol noted that Israel had stepped up its ‘Judaisation’ policies in Jerusalem since the US relocated its embassy. “Israel is working more quickly, more confidently and more intensively because it believes Trump has given his blessing,” he said.
Demographic concerns dominated Israel’s thinking from the moment it occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, and subordinated it to the control of Jewish officials in West Jerusalem – in what Israel termed its newly “united capital”.
City boundaries were expanded eastwards to attach additional Palestinian lands to Jerusalem and then fill in the empty spaces with a ring of large Jewish settlements, said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher with Ir Amim, an organisation that campaigns for equal rights in Jerusalem.
The goal, he added, was to shore up a permanent three-quarters Jewish majority – to ensure Palestinians could not stake a claim to the city and to allay Israeli fears that one day the Palestinians might gain control of the municipality through elections.
Israel has nonetheless faced a shrinking Jewish majority because of higher Palestinian birth rates. Today, Palestinians comprise about 40 per cent of the total population of this artificially enlarged Jerusalem.
Israel has therefore been aggressively pursuing a twin-pronged approach, according to analysts.
On one side, wide-ranging discriminatory policies – that harm Palestinians and favour Jewish settlers – have been designed to erode Palestinians’ connection to Jerusalem, encouraging them to leave. And, on the other, revocation of residency rights and the gradual redrawing of municipal boundaries have forcibly placed Palestinians outside the city – in what some experts term a “silent transfer” or administrative ethnic cleansing.
Israel’s efforts to disconnect Palestinians from Jerusalem are most visibly expressed in the change of Arabic script on road signs. The city’s Arabic name, Al Quds (the Holy), has been gradually replaced by the Israeli name, Urshalim, transliterated into Arabic.
The lack of services and municipal funding and high unemployment mean that three-quarters of Palestinians in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line. That compares to only 15 per cent for Israeli Jews nationally.
Despite these abysmal figures, the municipality has provided four social services offices in the city for Palestinians, compared to 19 for Israeli Jews.
Only half of Palestinian residents are provided with access to the water grid. There are similar deficiencies in postal services, road infrastructure, pavements and cultural centres.
Meanwhile, human rights groups have noted that East Jerusalem lacks at least 2,000 classrooms for Palestinian children, and that the condition of 43 per cent of existing rooms is inadequate. A third of pupils fail to complete basic schooling.
But the biggest pressure on Palestinian residents has been inflicted through grossly discriminatory planning rules, said Mr Tatarsky.
In the areas outside the wall, Palestinians have been abandoned by the municipality – and receive no services or policing at all.
Israel’s long-term aim, said Mr Tatarsky, had been exposed in a leak of private comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015. He had proposed revoking the residency of the 140,000 Palestinians outside the wall.
“At the moment, the government is discussing putting these residents under the responsibility of the army,” Mr Tatarsky said.
That would make them equivalent to Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank and sever their last connections to Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, on the inner side of the wall, Palestinian neighbourhoods have been tightly constrained, with much of the land declared either “scenic areas” or national parks, in which construction is illegal, or reserved for Jewish settlements. The inevitable result has been extreme overcrowding.
In addition, Israel has denied most Palestinian neighbourhoods’ masterplans, making it all but impossible to get building permits.
“The advantage for Israel is that planning regulations don’t look brutal – in fact, they can be presented as simple law enforcement,” said Mr Tatarsky. “But if you have no place to live in Jerusalem, in the end you’ll have to move out of the city.”
An estimated 20,000 houses – about 40 per cent of the city’s Palestinian housing stock – are illegal and under threat of demolition. More than 800 homes, some housing several families, have been razed since 2004.
“The settlers arrive, and then so do the police, the army, private security guards and municipal inspectors. The message is: ‘You either accept your subjugation or leave'."
As well as the large purpose-built Jewish settlements located on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem, several thousand extremist settlers have taken over properties inside Palestinian neighbourhoods, often with the backing of the Israeli courts.
Mr Tatarsky noted that Israel has been accelerating legal efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes over the past year, with close to 200 families in and around the Old City currently facing court battles.
When settlers move in following such evictions, Ms Badran said, the character of the Palestinian neighbourhoods rapidly changes.
“The settlers arrive, and then so do the police, the army, private security guards and municipal inspectors. The settlers have a machine behind them whose role is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Palestinians. The message is: ‘You either accept your subjugation or leave’.”
In Silwan, where settler groups have established a touristic archaeological park in the midst of a densely populated Palestinian community just outside the Old City walls, life has been especially tough.
Mr Alg’ol, who lives in Silwan, noted that fortified settler compounds had been established throughout the area, many dozens more Palestinian families were facing evictions, excavations were taking place under Palestinian homes, closed-circuit TV watched residents 24 hours a day, and the security services were a constant presence. Many hundreds of children had been arrested in recent years, usually accused of stone throwing.
Israel’s newest move is the announcement of a cable car to bring tourists from West Jerusalem through Palestinian neighbourhoods like Silwan to the holy sites of the Old City.
Mr Tatarsky said touristic initiatives had become another planning weapon against Palestinians. “These projects, from the cable car to a series of promenades, are ways to connect one settlement to the next, bisecting Palestinian space. They strengthen the settlements and break apart Palestinian neighbourhoods.”
Mr Alg’ol’s family was one of many in Silwan that had been told their lands were being confiscated for the cable car and a new police station.
“They want to turn our community into an archaeological Disneyland,” he said. “And we are in the way. They plan to keep going until we are all removed.”
The Palestinian families affected
by daily life under occupation
There is no one family who can capture all of the complexities, problems, pleasures and dramas of life for Palestinians living in Jerusalem. So The National spoke with three Palestinian families living only kilometres apart for a window into the daily ways politics shape everyday life here.
Ala Al Qassem is exhausted. The 58-year-old mother of four is battling cancer and tires easily from her chemotherapy treatment. But it’s more than that.
The day we met in February in her home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem she had just returned from visiting her husband in Ramallah with one of her daughters. Their separation is not by choice: Qassem is a Jerusalem resident, while her husband is originally from the Gaza Strip and is a Palestinian ID holder.
When they married in 1995 this wasn't a problem and they lived happily in her childhood home where she herself was born. But then in 2001, during the second Intifada, or uprising, Israel changed its policies and since has denied nearly all requests for what’s called family unification, namely permission for a Palestinian ID holder to legally live with their spouse inside Israel.
That meant for years Qassem would travel alone with her kids, even while pregnant, across the ever expanding and crowded checkpoint to Ramallah, where the family would spend the weekend and then hurry back for another week apart.
“How many years I’ve lived alone?” asked Qassem, her eyes narrowing. “And now to die alone? It’s very difficult. So I need my husband to be with me, to help me, to look after his children.”
Yet it’s even more complicated than that.
For decades, the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah have been battling in court, and sometimes in the streets, the efforts of Jewish Israeli settler groups to take over their homes. Qassem’s family moved from the Old City to Sheikh Jarrah in 1956, when the area was under Jordanian control. Then, in 1967, Israel occupied this part of East Jerusalem, granting Palestinians like Qassem permanent residency – contingent on them living in Jerusalem. Now Israeli settler groups, often backed by the Israeli government and courts, have been using a series of laws governing Jewish ownership to claim Sheikh Jarrah homes as theirs, all as part of a stated goal of increasing the Jewish presence in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem.
So Qassem can’t leave her house in Jerusalem – lest she lose her residency and claim to her family home – while Israeli authorities have denied her husband a permit to live with her because of his previous arrest.
“I can’t leave this house,” she said. “If I go live with my husband [in the West Bank], this is what they [Israeli government] want… I was born in this house. Nobody can tell me that this house is for him.”
Salah El Din Street, East Jerusalem’s main thoroughfare these days, is quiet after the fajr dawn prayer when 83-year-old Ahmed Muna makes his way on his electric scooter from Al Aqsa Mosque to the original Educational Bookshop.
The family patriarch opened this shop in 1984 while also working as a teacher. He still insists on taking the morning shift, ritually selling newspapers and exchanging pleasantries with customers he has known for years. A few hours later one son comes to take his place, while another minds the English-language bookstore and coffee shop across the street and another son, or sometimes grandson these days, works at the third branch a few minutes away adjacent to the historic American Colony hotel.
The Munas were a middle class Jerusalem family who’ve now risen to local prominence for their famed Educational Bookstore, which serves as an intellectual and socio-cultural hub in East Jerusalem.
“The message of the bookstore is trying to contribute to social, economic and political change in Palestine and Jerusalem,” explained Mahmoud Muna, the youngest of the seven Muna children. “You know, a very big goal. But maybe we do small things through the literature and books… There’s a need for cultural institutions in the city that’s not just NGOs.”
Ahmed met his wife, Majida, while teaching in Jordan, where her family lived as Palestinian refugees. Together, they filled their home with books and a focus on education.
“There are always in our house discussions, disagreements, [and] arguments,” said Mahmoud, calling it an “intellectual exercise every night”. It’s the same spirit, he added, that they’ve tried to imbibe in the bookstore.
The family – six sons, one daughter, and now 24 grandchildren – live together in a compound of nine homes they’ve built in Ras Alamoud by the Mount of Olives. But before the wars in 1948 and 1967, the family home life looked different. The Muna family owned property in the Old City, as well as the neighbourhood of Musrara, which after the 1948 war was split between the west Israeli side and Palestinian east side (then Jordanian controlled). The Munas lost their west Musrara properties, which Jewish Israelis then moved into, and ultimately left the Old City and settled into a remaining home on the Musrara east side.
All of the Muna children have studied and lived abroad, in places from England, to Norway to Iraq. But they’ve ultimately returned home.
“We all studied and then returned to give something to the community,” said Mahmoud, adding, “In the end we all returned to Palestine. That’s something that distinguishes the family.”
It’s late one weeknight in February and the extended Derbas family is gathered around a heater in the ground floor parking area of their family’s apartment building in Isawiya, an infamously rough and tough East Jerusalem neighbourhood. It’s a modest gathering of small coffee cups and a plate of baklava to informally celebrate that three days ago seventeen-year-old Yehiya Derbas was released from Israeli prison. Most of the men gathering that night have spent time in jail, too.
“In every house in Isawiya there is a prisoner,” said Yehiya. “It’s normal. We’re all locked up.”
Yehiya’s father, Arafat, 39, was imprisoned himself for six months in 1998 for throwing stones and therefore couldn’t visit his son for the first seven months of the imprisonment, he said. So it was up to Muna, 35, to make the trip every permitted fifteen days to speak to her son through a glass window and show him pictures of his family.
Yehiya is slight and the family’s oldest of three children. For the Derbas family, his arrest marks the before and after. It all began to change during protests in December 2017 in Isawiya against US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem. Arafat and Muna were both also arrested that day and shortly after released. Only Yehiya was shot three times in his leg and, after trying to evade arrest, ultimately imprisoned for ten months in Megiddo prison in northern Israel.
“In every house in Isawiya there is a prisoner. It’s normal. We’re all locked up.”
Now Yehiya’s back in the family’s apartment at the top of over one hundred stairs (he’s counted). Arafat proudly built and designed the apartment himself. But sometimes the electricity cuts and he’s incurred a 2,000 shekel ($555) fine for it: Israeli authorities denied him a building permit, as they routinely do, and he built it anyway. Isawiya’s roads are hilly and narrow, and sometimes filled with smoke when the border police, who often station themselves as an informal checkpoint at entrance, clash with residents.
Arafat works as a school bus driver and Muna works in the home. They complement each other: he’s reserved while she’s more immediately warm. Yehiya, meanwhile, has left school and doesn’t plan to return. His arrest and the limp he incurred from the insufficient care of his bullet wounds now mark his future.
How, then, did they see their future as Palestinians in Jerusalem?
“Our God has written from above that we’ll live with the Jews,” said Arafat. “But with their racism, that’s a big problem [for us].”
As for the prospects of a Palestinian state, Arafat wasn’t optimistic. “In the situation that we’re in with the current Palestinian Authority, it’s hard,” he said. “Change the PA and then we’ll think about a state.”
Their daughter in high school wants to go to college. And as for the youngest son, who’s just ten years old, will he one day be in prison?
“No,” Muna said, at the same time that Arafat answered, “Maybe.”
“I don’t like these things,” Muna explained.
“But it’s not in her hands,” Arafat added.
How life in Jerusalem has changed since
Donald Trump’s embassy move
The day the Trump administration announced in December 2017 that it would be moving the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, Yehiya Derbas’ life changed forever.
Like many in the Isawiyah neighborhood, Derbas joined in Palestinian protests against the move. And like many young men before and after him, Mr Derbas told The National that Israeli forces shot him and later imprisoned him for one year on charges related to the day’s violence.
Upon his release in early February, now marked as an ex-con, Mr Derbas returned to a city that in most ways has remained the same day-to-day – but that intangibly has significantly changed.
“On the ground, Jerusalem was divided before the move of the embassy and it was unsustainable,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli expert on Jerusalem. “None of that has changed.”
What has changed, Palestinian and Israeli analysts told The National, is that the balance of power has now tipped widely in Israel’s favour, providing a clear path forward for Israel to accelerate its dominance over the disputed city at the expense of Palestinian residents.
“What Israel has long wanted to do is to turn Palestinians into being a minority group and not their own people with their own representation and political leadership,” said Diana Buttu, a former spokesperson for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. “This [American] administration has just said we don't really care what's happening.”
The new US Embassy is the most physical embodiment of these changes – and what hasn’t changed. For now, the US has put off building an entirely new complex, which is costly and time consuming. Instead, it has repurposed one of the city’s two US Consulate buildings into a temporary embassy, which has become a popular tourist site, particularly among Evangelical Christians. Tel Aviv staff members, meanwhile, have not yet relocated to Jerusalem, though US Ambassador David Friedman often stays over in a hotel in Jerusalem. (Mr Friedman also personally owns property in Jerusalem.)
Signs around town, however, advertise new properties for embassy staffers – raising the pressure on other embassies to make the move now, or risk losing out in an already competitive and expensive housing market.
The move has “emboldened other states to break with international consensus and international law,” said Yara Hawari, a fellow at Al Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. “It’s so precarious for Jerusalemites. It’s so anxiety inducing.”
The State Department has also notably downgraded its diplomatic mission to the Palestinians, moving it from a separate function of the US Consulate in Jerusalem to now being directly under the jurisdiction of the US Embassy.
So far no politically powerful countries have followed America’s lead to Jerusalem. But Ms Buttu said that even diplomatic acceptance of the new embassy is a big break from before.
“While counties around the world have said that they are not switching their own policies, in effect they are recognising the embassy move,” said Ms Buttu. “So for example the US embassy in Jerusalem hosts events and consulates are showing up to these events. And that’s a change from the past.”
Although many Palestinians were already disillusioned with American foreign policy, Mr Trump’s approach “was a blow to those committed to a two-state paradigm,” said Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group. “It decreased the perspective that the conflict can be resolved because basically Palestinians are in the view that there is no point in having a Palestinian state without East Jerusalem as the capital and Trump is seen as rejecting that.”
The day after the embassy’s inauguration, the Israeli government approved a plan to build a cable car in the Old City, which runs through contested areas and will end at a tourist site being developed by a Jewish settler organisation.
“It’s not that the Israeli officials didn’t have this in mind earlier, but they advanced it while enjoying strong American support,” said Mr Zalzberg.
At the same time, in the immediate aftermath of the move last May, analysts and pundits speculated that the Palestinian street would erupt in violence in Jerusalem. Mr Seidemann criticised this kind of thinking as only perpetuating a skewed perspective on Palestinians, their interest, and the political situation.
“People come to us and said where is all of the convulsive violence that you promised us if the embassy moved, almost disappointed that it didn’t take place,” he recalled.
Instead, “Jerusalem was rather calm. That is not surprising as there is a sense after the embassy move that the Arab world did not stand sufficiently by the Palestinians and the Palestinian claims to Jerusalem.”
Still, like many, Mr Seidemann said it’s too soon to really know exactly how this will play out.
“That has generated an unprecedented sense of hopelessness on the Palestinian side,” he said. “Hopelessness is the great destabiliser. It’s measured in months and years and not days and weeks.”
If Mr Derbas is grappling with hopelessness, he didn’t want to talk about it. He spends much of his day now in his family home, a sixth-floor walk-up where the electricity periodically goes out because of shoddy construction. He’s not returning to school and hasn’t yet found a job. Prison hardened him, he said, and made him more aware.
The way he saw it, both his personal prospects and the situation in Jerusalem were now worse off since the embassy move. But it still wasn’t clear exactly where this all would lead.
Why Palestinians believe Israel
is shifting the status quo in Jerusalem
Nisreen Awada can feel the status quo in Jerusalem literally shifting underneath her feet. The Palestinian mother, 35, of six stays in a crumbling concrete home in Silwan, a contested East Jerusalem neighbourhood just beyond the Old City’s walls.
Ms Awada’s home, which she moved in to when she married at 17, has long been in need of renovations she could not afford. But now the ceiling is falling and there are cracks in the exterior walls.
Below Ms Awada’s home, Israeli archaeologists, backed by a right-wing nationalist organisation, are digging a tunnel that they say traces a road Jewish worshippers used 2,000 years ago. This is now set to be part of a larger tourist and religious attraction.
Local activist Jawad Siyam says that the digging damaged more than 70 Palestinian homes in Silwan’s Wadi Hilweh district, displacing some residents.
The government denies the tunnels are causing the damage and there is no official study linking the two.
It’s just one of the many physical reminders for Palestinians of how East Jerusalem’s access and infrastructure is fundamentally shifting – and with it the fragile status quo and sovereignty that was once built upon it.
Although many of these changes were already happening before Donald Trump became US president in 2016, analysts tell The National that American support for Israel’s extreme-right government has effectively given these projects a green light, despite the long-term consequences.
“It’s just trying to make East Jerusalem dead and immobile,” says Yara Hawari, a policy fellow with Al Shabaka, the Palestinian research network. “It’s about exerting [Israeli] power over the city and their dominance.”
Jordan ruled the east side of Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967. Israel captured the city in the 1967 War and soon after annexed it, a move most of the international community still does not recognise.
Peace plans have long proposed that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state, though it is unclear if the Trump administration’s long-awaited plan will continue with this precedent.
A third of Jerusalem’s population is Palestinian, but most are not Israeli citizens. Instead, they are permanent residents and must remain living in the city or risk losing their official status. Israel also bans the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank from operating in Jerusalem.
Today, about 70 per cent of East Jerusalem’s 350,000 residents live below the poverty line and unemployment is high. Even the number of playgrounds in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem is just one per cent of the national average, according to a 2015 lawsuit.
Each East Jerusalem neighbourhood has its own infrastructure and access issues. Life in the Old City, where paramilitary Israeli police patrol as tourists walk past, has a different feel from the Shuafat refugee camp on the West Bank side of the separation barrier or Isawiya, a tough neighbourhood where the Jerusalem light rail ends.
With almost no representation in the Jerusalem Municipality – most East Jerusalemites boycott Israeli local elections, the only elections they can vote in – each street, family or apartment block is left to fight their own battles.
But all residents can see the new Israeli roads, checkpoints and national parks infringe on their communities.
Tensions over access in the Old City – especially the Haram Al Sharif – are issues that can unite the city’s Palestinians.
In the summer of 2017, Palestinians protested when Israel installed metal detectors at the entrance to the Haram Al Sharif following a deadly attack there. The protests, while ostensibly about the gates, were really about sovereignty and resisting Israeli control of national and religious sites. It also epitomised one important realm through which the future of Jerusalem is contested – access and infrastructure.
In recent weeks, new protests and protest prayers broke out after Palestinians tried to enter the Bab Al Rahmeh to a prayer hall that Israel closed to Muslims in 2003 during the Second Intifada.
In another part of the Old City, tensions ran high when Israeli soldiers evicted a Palestinian family from their property, which Israeli settlers wanted to occupy.
Just a few minutes’ walk from these events, the main East Jerusalem entrance into the Old City is Damascus Gate, a centre of Palestinian life. This area – which teems with shoppers, worshippers and workers – has been a gathering place for political protests.
It has also been the site of many stabbing attacks by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers, especially during a wave of incidents in 2015.
So it did not surprise residents when Israel quickly completed new watchtowers at the gate’s entrance, providing a more entrenched position for Israeli forces to monitor the Palestinian population. “It’s sending a very clear message that it’s no longer your space and that we’ll constantly be watching you,” Ms Hawari said.
Back beyond the Old City’s walls in Silwan, Elad, an acronym for the City of David Foundation, is a right-wing organisation whose stated goal is in part to settle Jews in Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem.
The group is centred in Silwan which it believes to be where King David settled. Palestinians and human rights groups have accused Elad of using archaeology and Absentee Property Laws as a front for seizing Palestinian land, a claim that Elad denies.
“We can see that the settlers are working much faster and much more comfortably,” Mr Siyam said. “The only service we get [from the municipality] is demolishing houses.”
Already just up the street from Mr Siyam’s community centre is Elad’s main tourist attraction, the City of David National Park. Last summer, a delegation of senior US officials, including US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and National Security Advisor John Bolton, dined with Israeli counterparts there. Now the Israeli government is pushing forward with a controversial plan to build cable cars that would carry people across the Old City up Silwan – and to a new tourism centre being built by Elad.
“There are all sorts of settlement schemes pending,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli expert on Jerusalem.
Up the street from Mr Siyam’s community centre is Elad’s main tourist attraction, the City of David National Park. Last summer, a delegation of senior US officials, including American ambassador David Friedman and National Security Adviser John Bolton, dined with Israeli counterparts there.
Now the Israeli government is pushing forward a plan to build cable cars that will carry people across the Old City to Silwan – and to a new tourism centre being built by Elad.
Like Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah is another Palestinian neighbourhood where Jewish settler groups have focused their activities. Two hundred families in Sheikh Jarrah, the Old City, and Wadi Hilweh face eviction threats from settler organisations, according to Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO.
The roads in Sheikh Jarrah and in neighbouring Wadi El Joz, residents cynically note, only start to improve once Jewish residents move in. Settler groups used Israel’s Absentee Property Laws to seize Palestinian homes, or bought the buildings from Palestinian middlemen.
Many UN and international aid workers live in this area, further driving up prices.
Ala Al Qassem, 58, was born here and raised four children in her family’s home in Sheikh Jarrah. She now has cancer, and her husband lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Since 2001 he has been denied family reunification by Israel. Nonetheless, she will not leave her home – even as the pressures around her grow.
“Now we are facing the elections in Israel and we pay the price,” Ms Al Qassem said. “Because they want to have more voices for the settlers in the government.”
On the edges of Jerusalem, for more than a decade residents heard rumours of Israel cutting off the East Jerusalem communities now on the West Bank side of the separation barrier, such as Kafr Aqab, Shuafat and Ram.
Supporters of the move say this would end these communities’ “no-man’s land” status.
But opponents say it is a way to reduce Jerusalem’s Palestinian population. All of these pressures keep Mr Siyam busy. He’s constantly on the phone with lawyers, families and activists in Silwan worried about arrests and parking, building and other fines.
“Israel wants us to be busy with how you pay your lawyers, how you pay your tickets,” he says.
“They make your life full from the morning to the evening, full with the lawyers, the courts, the authorities.”
For now, “Israel is strong and the Palestinians are quiet,” Mr Siyam says. “You cannot count on this in five years that the Palestinians will be quiet.”
The Greek Orthodox Church is secretly selling Jerusalem property to Israel
A Greek flag flies above the spire of Jalal Barham’s church in Beit Sahour, a small Christian village next to Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Mr Barham, 65, is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Church in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
The Church is his everything – his job as a local leader and his source of spiritual, religious and social fulfilment.
But he and many other Palestinian parishioners are frustrated with the Greek Orthodox Church’s leadership, which has been secretly selling land to Israel and stifling the church’s Palestinian character.
“The biggest issue we are facing with this Patriarch is the selling of land in Israel’s interest,” Mr Barham said. “Because we know as Palestinians that the conflict between us and Israel is about the land.
“We are struggling for reform of the church and of the Patriarch – to free the church from Greek dominance over the Church and its money and administration.”
That a God-fearing Palestinian would be in open revolt against his revered church and its leadership shows the many interrelated conflicts shaping life for Palestinians today.
The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem dates to the lifetime of Jesus and his disciples.
It is the second largest landowner in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. It owns about a third of Jerusalem’s Old City and holds the deed to the land on which the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament, is built.
The Orthodox Church in Jerusalem was an important part of early Christianity.
But over time, while Orthodox Churches in various countries gained their independence – such as the Russian Orthodox Church having a Russian patriarch, a Russian flag, and Russian as the church’s main language – the Palestinian church remained dominated by Greek leadership because of Jerusalem’s centrality.
Over recent decades, Palestinian church members have organised conferences calling for changes in their church leadership.
They have made demands: more Arabic-speaking priests, more Palestinian priests, fewer restrictions on those priests advancing, and more Church money going back to the local communities.
But Mr Barham lamented that the Greek leadership has not listened.
Instead, as Palestinian parishioners were demanding their own national church, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem was selling or issuing long-term leases of land to Israel.
That was despite the fact that the Palestinians are locked in a struggle with the Israelis for statehood and the division of Jerusalem as a shared capital city.
The controversial land deals have come to light in waves over recent years. One document attributed to an internal sector of the Church recorded at least 20 plots of land or property sold or leased over the last 10 years, earning the church more than $100 million, The Washington Post reported.
For Palestinian parishioners, the land sales felt like a double betrayal. Their own church was selling land to their rival and they were not benefiting, said Ghassan Munayer, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church in Ramla, an Israeli city south of Tel Aviv.
“This land and property is to support the local Christian community to stay and keep living in Jesus’s land,” said Mr Munayer, who is originally from Lod in Israel, home to a historic Orthodox Church dedicated to St George.
“This is exactly not what's happened through the years. They did not use the money to prevent, for example, the migration of the Christian community.”
Mr Munayer said the church should be supporting young couples to buy their first homes or continue their education.
Instead, he said, community members watched as people left the Greek Orthodox Church for other churches where they feel more comfortable.
They even left Israel and the Palestinian Territories because they could not live the life they wanted, burdened by the region’s economic, security and political problems.
The number of Christians across the Middle East has dropped dramatically over the past 50 years.
Mr Barham estimates there are now about 130-150,000 Christians in Israel, about 55-60,000 of whom are Orthodox, while there are another 47,000 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, 27,000 of whom are part of the Orthodox Church.
According to a study by Bethlehem University, 11 per cent of the population of Ottoman Palestine, which included present-day Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, were Christian in 1900.
That has now dropped to about 1.7 per cent.
Mr Barham said there were no figures for how many people had left the Greek Orthodox Church for another church in the region, although he and Mr Munayer said the more recent growth of other, smaller churches in Christian communities was an important indicator.
The Greek Orthodox Church leadership, and some of its Palestinian parishioners, have adamantly denied the accusations.
"Everything we have done is with approval of the synod but there are individuals who have their own agenda to attack us and slander us," the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, told The Washington Post in 2017.
“We are a religious institution with a spiritual mission here for more than 2,000 years.”
The Patriarch defended the sales, arguing it was necessary to sell the land to pay off the Church’s debts and ensure its future after bad previous investments.
He ousted his predecessor in 2005 over the latter’s support for many deals, although more land sales have since come to light.
He has also denied knowing that some of the ultimate owners were Jewish Israeli settler groups with the stated goal of Judaising Palestinian communities in Jerusalem.
Church officials have said that in some cases the Israeli government, which issues the visas for priests, has seized or pressured the patriarch to sell the land or lease it long term.
Under Ottoman rule, some families gave up ownership of their land to the church to avoid paying high taxes, said Mr Munayer, whose family was among them.
Some community members who fled or were ejected from their homes with Israel’s founding in 1948 also handed over their land to the church for safekeeping.
Along with donations from pilgrims and the local communities, the Greek Orthodox Church had been able to acquire significant and coveted properties.
All of this, now, is starting to change. The Israeli Knesset is set to reconsider legislation that would allow the government to seize land sold by the church to private developers.
Legislators say it is necessary to stabilise the market for these properties, but others within the church see this as another way for the state to control historically Palestinian land.
In response to the sales, Greek Orthodox Church members have organised protests. They have thrown eggs and rubbish at the Patriarch of Jerusalem during Christmas processions, called for his resignation and filed a lawsuit contesting some of the sales. Others have called for unity.
“We have to face together what might come,” said Abu El Walid Dajani, owner of the Imperial Hotel inside Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem where there is a large portrait of the current Patriarch, who Mr Dajani calls a friend.
The Patriarch is appealing against an Israeli ruling upholding the sale of several properties, including the Imperial Hotel, by his predecessor.
Why Jordan is vital to the protection
of the delicate balance in Jerusalem
Jordan is both everywhere and nowhere in Jerusalem. The Hashemite Kingdom is crucial to keeping a hesitant balance between Jerusalem’s volatile nationalities and religions. Jordan is the custodian of Jerusalem’s waqf, or religious endowments, including one of the city’s most revered and contested sites, the Haram Al Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. It’s also a source of refuge, education and travel documents for many of the city’s still stateless Palestinians.
“Jordan is deeply involved in Jerusalem in many ways,” explained Palestinian-Jordanian journalist Daoud Kuttab, because Palestinians in Jerusalem are “political orphans, as they have no one taking care of them.”
But you won’t see Jordanian flags waving about Jerusalem’s famed cobbled streets. In fact, there isn’t much physical presence of Jordan at all. Many Jerusalemites, moreover, are openly frustrated that Jordan, who ruled the east side of the city from 1948 to 1967, isn’t doing more to make room for Palestinian representation and end the now over 50-year-old Israeli occupation.
Recent political events – like the Trump administration’s moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and the Israeli government’s continuous squeezing of the city’s Palestinian residents – have renewed the spotlight on Jordan’s role, and where it’s going.
“On the one hand there is an appreciation [among Jerusalem Palestinians] for Jordan’s role in restraining Israeli policies,” said Ofer Zalzberg, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine. “And on the other hand there is a dissatisfaction that Jordan is not doing more.”
Jordanians and Palestinians are historically and geographically linked. More than half of Jordanians are of Palestinian descent, their families having fled or been forced out of present day Israel in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Jordan also ruled the West Bank along with Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, and some laws in the former are still based on Jordanian codes.
Today, the 350,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, who make up more than a third of the city’s residents, are technically stateless. Israel offered them citizenship in 1967, but most rejected, expecting the occupation would soon after end. They can still apply for Israeli citizenship, and the numbers of people doing so are rising. However, it's socially stigmatised and those that do often have to wait years and can be denied for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Today most Palestinians live on the city's marginalised east. As permanent residents they have access to Israeli education and healthcare, among other services, but they can’t vote in national Israeli elections and risk losing their residency if they live outside of Jerusalem for too long.
As a holdover from the Jordanian era, most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have Jordanian travel documents, and about 130,000 are citizens of Jordan, according to Mr Kuttab. (Many of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank also have Jordanian travel documents or citizenship. Their situation is different, however, as they are ruled by the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority and cannot move around Israel freely.) Last year, Jordan made it easier for Palestinians to renew their passports and travel documents, lowering the fees and cutting the costly requirement that they travel to Amman to do so.
The most well known place to find Jordan is at the Haram Al Sharif Compound in the Old City, which Israeli Jews refer to as the Temple Mount. Jordan employs around 1,000 guards, staff, and other workers there. It also negotiates with the Israelis when this tentative status quo shakes, like in the summer of 2017 when Israel put metal detectors at the entrance to the compound and the Palestinian street erupted in protest. (Israel ultimately removed the gates.)
In February, Jordan created a new Jordanian Islamic Waqf Endowment Council, intentionally including some leaders from the 2017 protests and more Palestinian members. Its first move has already made headlines: the council tried to enter the Bab Al Rahmeh prayer Hall, which Israel made off-limits to Muslims in 2003 during the second Intifada, or uprising, setting off days of Palestinian protests and protest prayers after the Israelis refused.
As the custodian of Jerusalem’s waqf, Jordan also administers religious funded schools and oversees other tasks, like mosque renovations. In addition, the royal family legally and symbolically has to approve the heads of churches in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
While much of this work is intangible, inside a beautifully renovated Ottoman-era building perched above Al Aqsa in the heart of the windy Old City, is the office of Madrasati Palestine, a Jordanian initiative to rejuvenate schools and education in Jerusalem. Rami Moshasha, 38, is the managing director of the initiative, which Queen Rania spearheaded and opened in Jerusalem in 2010. Since then, the organisation has renovated more than 28 schools, conducted trainings for the waqf-school teachers, and organised activities for the more than 7,000 students in these schools, according to Mr Moshasha.
The Palestinian economy is extremely aid-dependent. But Mr Moshasha, who is from Jerusalem, described the initiative as an extension of Jordan and the royal family’s duty to Jerusalem.
“It’s not like Jordan is giving [it] to Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s part of their duty to give as much as we can to Jerusalem.”
He continued, “I think Jerusalemites understand that King Abdullah and Queen Rania and all of the Hashemites are doing their best for the people of Jerusalem. There will always be a need to do more…But they are doing their best, especially at Al Aqsa and at schools.”
“It’s not just a bilateral relationship between Israel and Palestinians. You have to triangulate and always include the Jordanians.”
Historically, Jordan has been in competition with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) over control and representation of Palestinians, Jerusalem included. In 1988, Jordan renounced its claim to represent Palestinians, making room for the PLO to take on that role and establish the PA through the Oslo Peace Accords with Israel.
Under Israel and Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty, the latter formally holds the role of custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. In 2013, Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed an agreement affirming this relationship of Jordan as custodian and Palestine, technically, retaining sovereignty.
Some Jerusalemite Palestinians see protecting Al Aqsa as an integral part of their identity. This also at times breeds tension with Jordan and the feeling “that their most holy site is managed above their heads by Jordanians and Israelis,” said Mr Zalzberg.
Jordan’s role in Jerusalem is consequently tied up with its relationship with Israel. Jordan, on the one hand, depends on Israel economically and politically in domains like water and energy, security cooperation and international aid. On the other hand, Jordan is a crucial intermediary for Israel with the Palestinians during times of tension in the city, particularly at the Haram Al Sharif.
“It’s not just a bilateral relationship between Israel and Palestinians,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli expert on Jerusalem. “You have to triangulate and always include the Jordanians.”
Still, during the metal detector protests in 2017, it was the Palestinian street and religious leaders who led the charge and kept up the momentum, with Jordan and the official Palestinian leadership taking a noticeably back seat.
"It's [Jordan] never been unhelpful but never particularly overly helpful”
Now, in the wake of the Trump administration undoing decades of a hesitant diplomatic status quo, Mr Kuttab said he expected Jordan’s role in Jerusalem to deepen amid the political uncertainty.
But Diana Buttu, a former spokesperson for the PLO, argued that with regional relations between Israel, America and Arab countries growing friendlier amid unpopular Palestinian leadership, she didn’t see Jordan being able to take on a more robust role.
“It’s [Jordan] never been unhelpful but never particularly overly helpful,” said Ms Buttu.
“It isn’t playing the heavyweight political role that it was once playing,” she said. “This is very much a problem… because no one else is doing it.”
Reporting: Miriam Berger and Jonathan Cook
Introduction by Charlie Mitchell
Editing: Jack Moore and Campbell MacDiarmid
Photography: Heidi Levine for The National, AFP, EPA, Associated Press, Getty Images, Salah Malkawi for The National
Photo Editor: Jake Badger
Producer: Stephen Nelmes
Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi 2019