Today we had an alternative tour of Jerusalem which included stops in every quarter of the city, including the African Quarter (we hadn’t heard about this one). It all started for us in the bustling Damascus gate on the North side of the Old City. The shops were busy with mostly Arab shoppers and everything from fruit stands to religious memorabilia catering to most of the Abrahamic faiths. It was Shabbat, after all. The Arab ladies that sold from the middle of the street were pointed out to us, as many of them walked into Jerusalem (most without a permit to be in Jerusalem) and would most likely carry their leftovers back home in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, or Bethlehem. We saw Polish, Russian, and Indian pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa and at the churches or shrines at the given stations.
We walked under Ariel Sharon’s Settlement in the heart of the Muslim Quarter, a visible sign of his policies when conscious of expansion into traditionally Palestinian neighborhoods. We went to the Small Wailing Wall, an ancient exterior wall to the Temple Mount where some more radical Settlers go to pray even though most archeologists point out that it is of the Suladeen era or later. This hasn’t kept the Settlers from asking for the Israeli military to clear out the local residents to create a Jewish only neighborhood around this new place of prayer.
Jerusalem is becoming like Hebron in that Jewish Settlers are taking over apartments above Palestinian shops and homes and throwing garbage and stones down on the shopping areas here as well. There are neighborhoods in the Armenian, Christian, and Muslim Quarters where tension between neighbors has increased of late. Many Muslims fear that their access to the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque may be in jeopardy with rumors that Israeli archeologists with Settler leanings are excavating under the Al Aqsa Mosque looking for Jewish evidence of the Temple. It is expensive to live here, and the religious tensions are high between faith groups. Twice we saw groups of Jewish men parading through the Muslim Quarter singing songs celebrating that God has given them the City again.
We found an overlook of the wailing wall, with terrific views of the Dome of the rock, Al Aqsa, and the Mount of Olives in the background. We took a tour of the Jewish Quarter, and saw the new Synagogue on the square there. Since it is Sabbat, it was a quiet place of meditation and quiet familial joy. We then found our way up on top of some of the roofs to a public area where we could see the bell tower and domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Minarets of the Mosques, and the steeples of the local Christian churches and monasteries. While there, the mid-day call to prayer began, and we could hear the chants coming from every direction. Jerusalem is truly an Inter-religious city, and it needs to learn how to live with this diversity sooner rather than later – for the sake of the world.
After a brief Falafel lunch in the Old City, we had a little time to shop, and made our way to the bus for a driving tour of East Jerusalem. Angela, our guide, took us to the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood (North of the Old City) where some Settlers have forcibly taken over some Palestinian homes. One family had been given the house and land by Jordan for giving up their rights as refugees in 1948. These Settlers have attempted to argue that Jewish families were in the houses before 1948 and so it should be inhabited by Jewish families again, but the grandson of that Jewish family who lived there wrote in the newspaper that his family was not asking for this, having been moved to West Jerusalem at that time. This line of argumentation sounds similar to the radical Settlers in Hebron. The same thing is happening in Silwan, a Palestinian village South of the Old City.
We toured the Settlement Ma’ale Adumim in far east Jerusalem, and found a whole different world with green lawns and swimming pools in the desert. This is the largest Settlement in the West Bank, and continues to grow. There are 500 to 1000 year old olive trees that have been transplanted into the roundabouts within this Settlement to give neighborhood a sense of historical permanence. We stopped to see the western overlook from Ma’ale Adumim, and saw the new $10 million police station (half empty) alone in the E1 district between Ma’ale Adumim and Palestinian East Jerusalem. Apparently, E1 will be larger still than Ma’ale Adumim. If this new Settlement goes through, it will effectively end any chance for a 2-State Solution and a viable Palestinian state, cutting the north and south of the West Bank off from the Mount of Olives and Abu Dis in East Jerusalem. Given the current policies of Israel, perhaps this is their intention.
The forgotten people of this conflict have to be the Bedouin. We had the pleasure to receive the hospitality of a Bedouin family who live right off of the highway between Ma’ale Adumim and Kfar Adumim. This Bedouin family was from the Negev desert to the South of the West Bank. In 1951, after they decided not to be drafted into the Israeli Army, the family petitioned to move to the West Bank in Jordan. This went well for the family, as they were able to live their nomadic lifestyle well. In 1967, with the Israeli take over of the West Bank, things remained that same until 1978 when the Settlements started and they found themselves with less and less space. Today, the family resides in a small area and can’t move their goat herds in between the settlements for feeding and aren’t allowed to water the herds to the wadi on the other side of Kfar Adumim. Because they are in area C, the military has control of where they live and the Palestinian Authority couldn’t help them with a bus for their children to go to school. The military tried bussing the students to Jericho for school, since the Settlements wouldn’t accept the kids, but it was hard to get the families to send the girls to school and some of the kids pretended to go to the bus and hid in the hills during the day. Eventually, the five local villages built their own school out of used tires and mud and pressured the system to get the five teachers needed. Today, the school continues despite a demolition order of the building. Israel hasn’t given Palestinians building permits since 1967 in any of the West Bank and uses the threat of demolition to keep the Bedouin from making more permanent structures.