Dense & narrow alleys of Issaweya. Daniel Tepper. All rights reserved.
Issawiya is nestled in a small valley in East Jerusalem; its modest houses extending up the slopes towards the posh Jewish settlement of French Hill and the ivory towers of Hebrew University. These hills, once a part of Issawiya, today stand worlds apart. The manicured laws, trendy food stalls, and spacious parks of the French Hill/Mount Scopus area are in stark contrast to dense Issawiya, encaged on all sides by a Jewish settlement, Hadassah hospital, Hebrew University, and the separation wall which together have excluded Issawiya from more than 50% of its land.
For months the entrance to Issawiya was marked with a “flying” checkpoint, erected by Israeli security forces as a collective punishment for the town’s solidarity campaign with hunger striker Samer Issawi and their continued demonstrations against the discriminatory policies of the Jerusalem municipality. Today the checkpoint is gone, yet the pressures of the occupation are still visible - reflected in the cramped, impoverished landscape of this east Jerusalem neighbourhood, its narrow windy roads compressed on both sides by rising cinderblock apartment complexes. Inside, families have been forced to expand vertically, generations stacked on top of each other oldest to youngest, mirroring the stratigraphy of the surrounding hills.
Murad and Rana, activists and residents of Issawiya whose families have lived in the town for over 250 years, spoke to Electronic Intifada about the conditions in the town. Murad points to the adjacent rooftop terrace, an arms length away from the married couples' window, and says “since we can’t expand, we are building on top of each other. I don’t have a view, look at the view from my window, I can’t drink coffee and look at a nice view with my wife in the morning. There is no privacy as a result of this.”
Rana & Murad. Daniel Tepper. All rights reserved.
The married couple consider themselves lucky to have a house, yet they worry about the future of their two young daughters. “Where are my children going to live? Murad asked. “We can’t build our houses up to the clouds, and Israel takes most of our land and doesn’t allow us to build on what little part we have left! We are suffocated here, when I look to the future I do not see a good thing.”
Life in East Jerusalem
This is the reality for many Palestinians in East Jerusalem who are forced to build up, often illegally. According to a report by the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 35% of Arab-owned land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated for Israeli settlements and another 54% designated to “open green spaces,” reserved for public purposes, and thereby forbidding Palestinian construction. This leaves only 11% of East Jerusalem available for Palestinian construction, far below the needs of the 58% majority Palestinian population. Permits for the remaining land are difficult and expensive to obtain, so many Palestinians build illegally and their homes are subject to demolition.
While Palestinian residents pay taxes and are afforded permanent residency status (not citizenship) they are largely denied the benefits and services provided to Jewish Israeli citizens. In Issawiya a severe lack of educational facilities forces about 70% of the children to venture outside the village to attend school. There are no parks in the neighbourhood, the one “green” space is an artificial soccer pitch donated by the state of Korea and it is only green in colour. There is an absolute lack of medical facilities, garbage collection is inadequate and the village sewage system does not function properly to the extent that when we left the streets of Issawiya were running with sewer water.
All of these conditions coupled with the aggressive bureaucratic policing from the Jerusalem municipality have created a powerful resistance culture in Issawiya. This received some exposure to the world earlier this year, in December, during the solidarity campaign for Samer Issawi who had been on hunger strike.
Murad’s wife Rana describes the time, “It was very violent, there were many demonstrations. People would go to the demonstration and protest in solidarity with Samir Issawi. Then the army would come and they would turn it into a violent event; shooting, throwing sound bombs and tear gas. It was very hard for the people, especially the children. My older daughter never wet her bed, but during that time she would wet her pants just from hearing they had entered the area."
Rana went on to say “many people were injured in the eyes and legs, and a big number of children were arrested. The children became very frightened and didn't want to go to school or even leave the house to go outside, because they were afraid of being arrested.”
While the solidarity campaign was particularly violent, Issawiya has resisted the systematic oppression of the Israeli Authorities for years; the continued confiscation of their land and the frequent incursions by Israeli Security Forces. And as neighbourhoods such as Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah have become household names for international activists and Palestinian sympathizers alike, Issawiya is left largely unnoticed; just another East Jerusalem town suffocated by the occupation.
Yet in Issawiya there is pride in this isolation. The absence of NGO’s, international organizations and USAID is lauded, and residents of Issawiya speak passionately about the town's homegrown resistance. There is something about the people of Issawiya, an intensity that can be both kind and dangerous. Murad reiterated with a smile that it would probably not be a good idea for us to visit Issawiya without him as our tour guide.
When asked about the character of the people of Issawiya, Murad spoke about the trajectory of the town and the culture of resistance: “In the beginning Issawiya was not different. During the first intifada Issawiya was just like any other neighbourhood around Jerusalem, everyone was resisting the occupation in the same manner. What’s different is that in the last three years Issawiya is on the top, leading a community of resistance against not only the occupation's policy of police violence, arrests, house demolitions but also the policies of the Jerusalem municipality: the unjust policies of taxation and government fine collections, whose revenues are then used to invade and arrest our people. All of this takes place, even when we are denied the most basic services.”
Far from being unique, both Rana and Murad expressed how this kind of resistance is common for the people of the town. As Rana said: “It's very natural to be part of this resistance culture, any person who suffers from injustices, like the occupation here, it is only natural for them to resist here, Latin America or anywhere. If we don’t resist we will become slaves to the situation.”
Murad added “Even if I decide to isolate myself from the movement or the situation and sit in my home, I think of my mother. In the 90’s during the first intifada she was shot with twelve rubber coated bullets just because she went out on the streets to look for her children. There is a famous photo of her in an Israeli newspaper showing her standing in front of the soldier raising her hands, but he still shot her 12 times, one of the bullets got her in the mouth and two in the chest.”
The cost of resistance
If the Issawiya resistance is natural, then its' costs have become naturalized. Murad, like many Palestinian men, spent his formative years in prison, on 5 separate occasions beginning when he was 14. Not unique in a country where over 750,000 people have been detained since 1967 of which nearly 40% are from the current male population. Murad explains his most recent arrest: “In July 2001 I was released during the 2nd Intifada. The intelligence summoned me for an investigation; of course they threatened me that if I were to return to what I was doing or involved myself with politics, they would kill me. Four months after I was released I got married in the November, spent 86 days with my new wife and then was arrested again for another 7 years.”
The people of Issawiya live in a constant state of anxiety from Israel’s night raids. Families are separated from their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and daughters. Murad’s aunt has had her house invaded more than a dozen times “They usually come in the middle of the night. They begin by knocking hard on the door, but I stopped being afraid of them (hallas). I can't rest in my own house because of them. They have made my life so miserable and bitter that I am not afraid anymore, I yell and scream at them." Speaking about her 28 year old son Mahmoud she went on to say, “he has been suffering all his life. Arrested first time when he was 12, this is the 8th time, he gets beaten up every time. They kick him and beat him with a bag on his head. Half his life he has been in prison."
Murad’s aunt expresses a life filled with both suffering and pride “I have been living a miserable life, I suffered a lot and I am still suffering. Everyone suffers here in this town, there is no one who doesn’t suffer. But we are proud of our children, we have to resist, never kneel.”
Driving to the bus station from Issawiya we make a quick stop on the hill where Hebrew University sits. From there Murad outlines with his fingers all that has been lost over the years. The physicality of rupture, coupled with the systematic oppression by Israeli Authorities leaves no other option but to resist, even if the costs are severe.
Resistance in Issawiya and the violence that often accompanies it is not fetishized, but understood as the only viable response to life under occupation. As Murad says in parting: “One important thing that I want to say and emphasize is that we don’t like violence and we don’t like to be separated from our families. But our love for freedom makes us fight for it, and it forces us to be separated. We love life and we would love to live in freedom and stay with our families and not be separated from them. That is what all of this is about, being able to be truly alive."
View of Issaweya from Hebrew University. Daniel Tepper. All rights reserved.