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A view of the Holy City few get to see

Grassroots Jerusalem tour shows contemporary context and realities

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

The buildings in the foreground are in the Palestinian village of Al Zaim, which even though geographically is closer to Jerusalem lies outside the Holy City’s municipal boundary. In the distance is the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adummim (Hebrew for “The Red Heights”), which is inside Jerusalem’s boundary. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

JERUSALEM — The Presbyterian delegation visiting Israel-Palestine in March took a unique tour of Jerusalem — one that most who visit one of the most holy cities in the world seldom see.

Fayrouz Sharqawi, global mobilization coordinator at Grassroots Jerusalem, spent three hours with the delegation explaining both the context and contemporary realities that she, as a Palestinian woman, lives daily. Her narrative was fact-based, dark and filled with emotion.

She set the stage for the tour by saying, “It feels like everyone has a say about the destiny and the future of Jerusalem except for the Palestinians living in it. Today’s tour will expose the political reality that Palestinians face here — a reality of displacement and ethnic cleansing.”

Encyclopedia Britannica defines ethnic cleansing as “the attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacement of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups.”

Some History

She began with a historical perspective on the birth of Zionism in the late 1800s and moved to the defining events of 1948. She said that in 1948 the western side of Jerusalem was emptied of Palestinian residents and declared part of the newly created State of Israel. Immediately Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital, a status the international community has never accepted legally.  Jerusalem, according to international law, is not the capital of Israel. Until U.S. President Donald Trump moved the American Embassy in May 2018, 86 of 88 embassies were based in Tel Aviv. Guatemala moved its embassy shortly after the U.S. made its move. Paraguay and Romania are considering relocating their embassies to Jerusalem.

Palestinians refer to the events of 1948 as “Al Nakba,” which literally translates to “the catastrophe.” As a result of Al Nakba, there was documented destruction of over 500 Palestinian villages, 30,000 Palestinians deaths and the creation of 750,000 Palestinian refugees. To escape the fighting in Jerusalem, many Palestinian residents in the city packed a few essentials, locked their homes and left, hoping to return a short time later. In Jerusalem, many elegant Palestinian homes are still standing and are easily recognizable because of their unique architecture. The keys from those homes have been passed down from one generation to the next as a symbol of the right of refugees to return home.

Israeli enacted the Absentee Property Law that, since the 1950s, has allowed for the takeover of Palestinian property deemed vacant. Sharqawi has a friend who works in Jerusalem in an Israeli business. Twice a day, as he walks to and from work, he passes his grandparents’ home, knowing he may never again step inside.

In 1967, Israel won the Six-Day War and occupied the rest of Palestine, including the West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordan, which had been part of Jordan. The Golan Heights was captured from Syria, and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, as well as the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt in the late 1970s following the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

“Afterwards Israelis started making plans for the city with the clear aim of displacing Palestinians slowly but steadily. This has led not only to military occupation but to a bureaucratic occupation that is helping displace Palestinians under Israeli law,” said Sharqawi.

After the Six-Day War, Israel took legal steps to expand the city’s municipal boundaries by 74.1 square kilometers to include most of the eastern side of Jerusalem but to exclude many of the villages and some of the suburbs that had been considered historic parts of the city for hundreds of years. Israel also initiated a census that counted only the Palestinian residents who were living within the new municipal boundaries. Today about 90,000 Palestinians hold Jerusalem IDs, granting them the right to residency in Jerusalem, though many live on the other side of the annexation wall. Those who do must cross through Israeli checkpoints to reach Jerusalem for education, medical treatment, work and access to other needed services.

United Nations report

In October 1971, in a summary of a report by the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population of the Occupied Territories, it was reported:

“The evidence presented to the Special Committee during its investigation in 1971 has confirmed its impression that policies and practices violating the human rights of the population of the occupied territories, which it discovered in 1970, have continued and have become even more manifest. This applies especially to the policies of settlement and of annexation of certain territories at present under the Israeli occupation; examples of the policy of settlement are the Golan Heights and certain parts of the West Bank, while Eastern Jerusalem provides a clear instance of the policy of annexation. The very fact of the existence of such policies, openly admitted and proclaimed by members of the Government of Israel and by Israeli leaders, is, in the Special Committee’s opinion, a grave violation of the human rights of the population of the occupied territories.”

The phenomenon of Israeli settlements being built in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods started with the peace process. “When they started discussing the division of Jerusalem into two cities to become two capitals for two states under the two-state solution, that’s when the Israeli settlements started popping up like mushrooms, making it hard — and today nearly impossible — to divide the city into two capitals. This reflects the ongoing Israel process of colonizing and annexing the whole city,” said Sharqawi.

She said land has been systematically confiscated from Palestinians since 1967 for the construction of Israeli-only settlements. In many cases, she said the land was taken to create green space. “This is green washing Palestinian style,” she said. “The claim is that this is for the welfare of the people, but they are carefully located on the last bits of land that Palestinians have to grow naturally. Its’s a clear plan to stop the growth of Palestinian communities, so the creation of national parks is a big pool of disposition.” She quoted statistics that Palestinians make up 40% of the population in Jerusalem but own only 11% of the land that they need for homes, schools and medical centers. “The suffocation of Palestinian communities is also a very effective tool of displacement,” she said.

Grassroots Jerusalem

Recently Grassroots Jerusalem was giving a tour to a group of Palestinians. When Sharqawi pointed out one area of land, a woman on the tour said this was her land, but it had been taken from her. Although she cannot occupy the land, she must still pay taxes on it or forfeit her pursuit of legal ownership in the courts. She believes she will return one day.

Fayrouz Sharqawi is the global mobilization coordinator for Grassroots Jerusalem. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

Grassroots Jerusalem takes tour participants on the road that connects Jerusalem to Jericho. In modern times it was an important economic vein for Palestinians to move goods and services in and out of Jerusalem. That road is now entirely blocked by Israel’s wall/separation barrier, completed in this area in 2003. Palestinians are forced to go long distances around the wall and the flow of goods and services has effectively been cut off, she said, making the unemployment rate for Palestinians in Jerusalem about 80%. “Impoverishment is another tool of displacement for any occupying authority,” she said.

Grassroots Jerusalem estimates that more than 5,000 homes, commercial structures and agricultural sites have been demolished in Jerusalem since 1967, and a total of about 30,000 in the West Bank. The Israeli government says the structures are illegal, which is true. It takes thousands of dollars to apply for a building permit and most are denied. When they are denied, officials state that a master plan for the area has not yet been developed. The permit fees are in the thousands of dollars and are not refundable. If a home or business is demolished, the owner is responsible for the costs. “So, if you try to build a structure and it is demolished, you are almost certainly homeless and bankrupt,” said Sharqawi. “You have no choice but to leave.”

Today, estimates are that there are almost seven million Palestinian refugees worldwide.

Grassroots Jerusalem was formed with the stated mission to:

  • Support local Palestinian self-empowerment
  • Revive the largest Palestinian metropolis and capital
  • Impact international policy so that it answers to the needs and aspirations of Jerusalem’s Palestinian communities.

The organization also provides a platform for Palestinian grassroots local and global mobilization and networking to create a Palestinian-led long-term strategy for Jerusalem. It also researches the history and current realities of the communities in Jerusalem, documents their stories, and with its mapping project, “aims at the preservation of the Palestinian identity of Jerusalem, as well as supports grassroots mobilization.” Community stories, organizational profiles and maps can be found on the organization’s website:

GA 223 Co-Moderator and Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri was with the delegation. “It is safe to say we returned with opened eyes and stories to share. It is my hope that sharing what we saw and heard moves hearts and minds, encouraging others to go and see as well,” she said. “It is my hope that sharing our stories will inspire the church at large to be informed of the realities of the region, listening to different voices, asking questions, researching international, credible sources, such as the reports of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and paying close attention to the accounts of our own mission co-workers on the ground. As stated in The Brief Statement of Faith, may the Spirit give us all courage ‘to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.’”

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