Twice a refugee – The story of Mr. Sabbagh

In recent years, Sheikh Jarrah has become the location of active demonstrations against Israeli policies in the neighborhood. After many families were forcibly evicted from their homes in order for Israeli settlers to take up residence, weekly Friday protests began.  Here is the story of one family forced from their home.

by Jerusalem Team 50

Mohammad SabbaghDuring the 1948 war, Mr. Sabbagh’s family became refugees from their village of Yavneh. They were forced to leave their homes and take only the items they could carry. They left behind not only their houses, but their entire properties that they worked they accumulated over the years. Mr. Sabbagh’s family lost 250 dunums of land.

They fled to Jerusalem and were brought as refugees to Sheikh Jarrah, an area now in East Jerusalem.  At that time, Sheikh Jarrah came under the rule of the Jordanian government.  Many refugees, including Mr. Sabbagh’s family were given houses in Sheikh Jarrah on the condition that they pay rent to the Jordanian government.

In 1967, when the state of Israel took over East Jerusalem and the West Bank and began its military occupation, Sheikh Jarrah once again fell under their rule. At this time, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the Jordanian Government transferred ownership of the houses in Sheikh Jarrah to the Palestinian families living in them.

For Mr. Sabbagh’s family, the dispute over their home began in 1972 when Israeli settlers claimed that their ancestors lived on the land on which Mr. Sabbagh’s house was built and the land and house belonged to them. Although these claims began in 1972, Mr. Sabbagh’s case came to the forefront in 2010 when the family received eviction orders from the Israeli authorities based on the claims of Israeli settlers.

Since then, the family’s lawyer is still contesting their eviction and seeking recognition of Mr. Sabbagh’s family’s ownership of the property.  Despite proof of Mr. Sabbagh’s ownership in documents obtained from records in Turkey that combat the settlers’ claims, the Sabbagh family was evicted from their home, forced to stay in tents they erected nearby.

The startling fact of families being forced from their homes, opened the eyes of many in Israel and throughout the world.  Public demonstrations began to oppose the forced evictions of Mr. Sabbagh’s family and others.  Every Friday, Israelis, internationals, and Palestinians gather at 3:00 pm in the afternoon voicing their support for the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah.

Many thoughts come to our minds as we ponder Mr. Sabbagh’s story. How can Palestinians persevere, despite the double loss of homes, property, and the dreams and memories these places carry? How much money has been wasted in support of countless human rights violations? How long can the Israeli government support the active violation of Palestinians human rights without facing repercussions?

These questions bare heavily on our minds, but we find hope in the solidarity Israelis and internationals show every Friday with the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah.  Much more needs to be done, but one day freedom will be delivered to those that are oppressed.

Read about Sheikh Jarrah on +972 Magazine.

Watch videos about Sheikh Jarrah from Just Vision.

A new battle in Nabi Samwil

The villagers of Nabi Samwil have already lost land and been displaced due to an Israeli National Park.  Now, the expansion of the National Park, means this could happen again.

by Aaron, Ar-Ram team

Children play in front of Nabi Samwil's one-room school. Photo EAPPI/K. Banks, 2012.

Children play in front of Nabi Samwil’s one-room school, which is threatened with demolition. Photo EAPPI/K. Banks, 2012.

Nabi Samwil: a holy place for Muslims, Christians and Jews

One of the main reasons people come from all over the world to visit Israel and Palestine is the large number of Holy Sites. Since we’ve been here, members of our group have been to visit the Western Wall, The Sea of Galilee and Manger Square in Bethlehem, among others. These sites are of spiritual significance to people of different faiths from around the world. They are also an opportunity for local people to earn a living and to provide services for tourists.

It sounds like a win-win situation. But like many seemingly straightforward things in this place, there is more than meets the eye…

Members of EAPPI Al Ram Team 50 have been regular visitors to a site which has been special to Jews, Muslims and Christians for hundreds of years, and is now at the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An Nabi Samwil is a small village in the north of Jerusalem. It’s reputed to be the site of the tomb of Samuel – a figure respected and revered by all three Abrahamic faiths. While the historical evidence for this is hard to substantiate, what’s clear is that a monastery and crusader church which were built there nearly 1000 years ago have since been replaced by a building which is now in use as both a Mosque and a Synagogue.

A history of land loss

An Arab village grew up around the tomb. For much of the last few hundred years, Jews and Muslims have been able to worship at the site alongside eachother. However, in 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In 1971, the village of An Nabi Samwil had about 1000 people in it. But then the Israeli Army came and announced the creation of a National Park surrounding the tomb. This meant the villagers would have to move – they had no choice. As in many other Palestinian villages, An Nabi Samwil was cleared of its population and no provision was made for those being moved. Many left the area, either to Jordan or elsewhere in the West Bank. But some were determined to stay and set up new homes nearby.

An EA walks with a woman from Nabi Samwil at the site where her home was demolished. Photo EAPPI/M. McGivern, 2011.

An EA walks with a woman from Nabi Samwil at the site where her home was demolished. Photo EAPPI/M. McGivern, 2011.

Around 250 people now live in the village, which is a few hundred metres from the old village and the tomb. Many of them still remember the old village being cleared. They could hardly forget – seeing as they walk past the place where their houses used to be every time they go to the Mosque. Israeli forces have demolished various structures in the village and the village school’s new classroom has recently been given a demolition order.

Villagers may face displacement for the expansion of a National Park

Now, there is a new threat to the community. The Israeli authorities have declared that the National Park will be extended, a new road will be built with parking spaces and provision of more services. This is ostensibly to attract more tourists and make the tomb a more popular destination. But the creation and expansion of National Parks is a tactic that has been used elsewhere to acquire more land for Israel and to take it from Palestinian communities.

Land surrounding the tomb will be declared part of the National Park, which means that villagers will lose plots which they own. It means it will be harder to find a place for their animals to go, and it will bring the possibility of large numbers of visitors – but little benefit for the Palestinian community. Because they are not allowed to build any new structures (Israel permits very little building by Palestinians in the parts of the West bank know as ‘Area C’) there will be no opportunity for local people to capitalize on the expected influx of visitors by building souvenir shops, for example.

Israelis, Palestinians, and Internationals stand with Nabi Samwil in solidarity

It is easy to see why the village is objecting. We have been supporting Aeed Barakat, a local man who is taking the lead in opposing the plans. Two weeks ago, we attended a planning court hearing at Beit El, which is the local office of the Israeli Military which runs so much of life for Palestinians.

Along with 10 others from the village, Aeed attended and stood alongside peace campaigners from around the world, including many from Israeli groups such as Peace Now, Bimkom and Rabbis for Human Rights. All of us were shocked when the architect in charge of the plans told those assembled:

“There is no village, only a few houses.”

At this point, the meeting broke up, with the villagers so upset that they couldn’t carry on. It was left to the Israeli peace activists to continue the hearing on their behalf. When the meeting finished, we asked them how confident they were of a good outcome. It didn’t sound likely.

We are now awaiting the decision of the hearing. It could come any time. But it’s thought that the plans will be approved. And at this point, the villagers will resort to court action in an attempt to preserve their land.

They’re not content just to wait and be told that their land is being taken away. So last Friday they organised a peaceful demonstration. Around 50 people gathered in the village to protest against the plans. There were local people as well as internationals, and again, many Israelis who are passionate about peace.

Four police cars soon arrived carrying 15 armed officers who told the group they had five minutes to move. Aeed simply said,

“This is our village. We won’t move.”

The police seemed taken aback by the number of Israelis who had gathered in solidarity with the Palestinian group. After several more attempts to order the demonstrators to move, the police eventually gave up and went away. Aeed was delighted. He told us, “This is good news. I hope this demonstration will now be able to happen every week.” It was a privilege to stand alongside such a diverse group, united in one aim. EAPPI will continue to stand alongside the villagers of An Nabi Samwil and many other villages like it, for as long as they want us to be there.

What can WE do?

At the end of his term in Yanoun, Rafael reflects on what EAs can do when they return home

by Rafael, Yanoun team, Group 49

EAPPI, Israeli, and other activists help build shelters for residents of Mak-hul after the demolition on September 20th. Photo EAPPI/R. Marques.

EAPPI, Israeli, and other activists help build shelters for residents of Mak-hul after the demolition on September 20th. Photo EAPPI/R. Marques.

In the middle of last century George Orwell foresaw that “Big Brother” would dominate our lives completely. In his book “1984”, the author tells the story of a fictional country controlled by a government matrix that decides from the clothes you will wear to what kind of information you can get from the media. The control is justified by the constant threat of an external enemy that you have never seen.

Those who are controlled seldom realize this. In the context of the Israeli occupation, the awareness of the Israeli people about what is happening is amazingly close to zero. But for every rule there is an exception.

The events of Mak-hul

The community of Mak-hul, in the Jordan Valley, Palestine, was demolished on September 16th, affecting at least 12 families. On September 20th, several organizations joined efforts to deliver shelter and tents to the village through the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED). EAPPI joined the delegation to provide protective presence to the community and help with the shelters.

Several diplomatic representatives were also present. The army took the truck with the humanitarian aid by force. Some clashes then occurred between the villagers and the army.

On October 11th, we returned to Mak-Hul to help build shelters for the animals and some tents. This time, several Israeli activists, especially from the organization Machsom Watch, came to the community to deliver materials and offer help.

 “Dangerous” areas

Most of them were elderly. In one conversation, one of the activists said that several members of her group have been arrested for being in Palestinian areas. She herself had been arrested. After that, she decided to seek the Israeli administration responsible for the occupation, and there she was forced to sign a document taking all responsibility for visiting areas considered “dangerous”. The entry of Israeli citizens in these areas is prohibited by Israeli law.

For its citizens, the Israeli government justifies its actions as measures necessary to guarantee security. For Palestinians, the Israeli activists are always welcome.

‘What did you do, so that others may live in peace and you can enjoy the paradise?’

Among Israelis in Mak-Hul, we found Mr. Yehoshua Rosin, now 70 years-old, who, early on, decided to oppose the occupation and the decisions of his government. Mr. Yehoshua asked us to email the photos we took that day. He, then, told us a beautiful story.

“In the past I used to take pictures myself. I am a free thinker, but I’ll use a religious metaphor. According to the Jewish religion, when a Jew dies he will be judged before God. If innocent, he will go to Paradise (Garden of Eden), but if you sin and do not repent, will be condemned to hell. So I thought I’d take photos with me to the grave and when asked ‘What did you do, so that others may live in peace and you can enjoy the paradise?’, I’ll show the pictures and say ‘That’s what I could do’. Many thanks and greetings to your group for your contribution.”

It was sad to realize that most Israelis present were of advanced age. It seems that the new generation is not listening to those who have enough experience. But, just like Mr. Yehoshua and the lady to whom we have talked, we cannot surrender to “Big Brother”. As EAs, we do our part: we record what we see and we tell others. After all, “this is what we can do.”

Photos: Images of olive harvest in Palestine

Every year, EAPPI joins Palestinian farmers in the olive harvest.  Our protective presence helps farmers access lands near settlements or in areas cut off by the wall and also helps deter acts of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians and their olive trees.

In this photo essay, we show various views of olive harvest in Palestine.

New perspectives: EAs react on twitter

Last week, all our EAs got a break from their difficult work as humanitarian observers and had the chance to hear new perspectives on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Here are a few tweet updates and reflections from the week:

Meeting with Nomika Zion of The Other Voice:

Touring Sderot:

Meeting with Ruth Hiller of New Profile:

A chance to relax in Haifa:

Experiencing Shabbat Worship and Dinner:

Follow these and other current EAs HERE.

EA Blog: “Do They Hate Us?”

by Johan, South Hebron Hills Team 

Last week, the Ecumenical Accompaniers were invited to participate in Shabbat celebrations in Jerusalem. We went to the Kehilat Yedidiya synagogue, where we sat in for the evening prayer. Kehilat Yedidiya is a congregation that is used to welcoming visitors from all faiths.

Deborah Weissmann, former Chair of the Council on Jewish-Christian Relations, is a member of the synagogue and welcomed us with a smile:

-It has been a hard week with lots of snow in Jerusalem, and people are tired on a Friday evening. If you fall asleep during the sermon, you won’t be alone!

The prayer consisted of Kabbalat Shabbat – welcoming the day of rest. The entire congregation joined in the singing, and the atmosphere was solemn, yet relaxed. Children were playing in the aisles, and people prayed in their own rhythm.

Inside the synagogue. Photo: Kehilat Yedidiya

Inside the synagogue. Photo: Kehilat Yedidiya

The service was a very nice experience. Still, the highlight of our evening was to be invited to Shabbat dinner after the service. I thus had the privilege of joining a Jewish family in their home in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem, along with two other EAs. Our hosts had also invited some other friends and their children to share the evening with us.

Before the dinner we washed our hands in silence, and our hosts blessed the wine and the challah, the bread. They also sang to welcome the Shabbat angels into the house: According to some Jewish rites, two angels accompany every person home from the synagogue on the eve of Shabbat. The dinner itself was a feast consisting of many tasty, home-cooked dishes.

We had already realized that our host and his friend were politically liberal. They were genuinely interested in our experiences as Ecumenical Accompaniers in the West Bank, and they also asked about what we do back home. Since I just graduated from university, the question of where I studied came up.

-The American University in Cairo? Wow! Bruce, one of our host’s friends, said.

-What was it like to study there?

-Well, I learned a lot about the Arab perspective on Israel and Palestine. So, it’s also good for me to come here and hear the other side of the story.

-I’m glad to hear that. Bruce nodded. All of a sudden, his daughter burst out:

-Do they hate us?

That question hit me right in the stomach. She hadn’t said anything until then. She basically wanted to know whether my Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian friends hate her. If they hate her for being Israeli. I wasn’t prepared for such a question, and what do you answer to that? I thought for a second about the word “hate”. A strong, harsh word which didn’t belong in that house, in such pleasant company. The word “hate” left a gloomy atmosphere around the table.

I though it was sad that she, a 21-year old girl with her entire life ahead of her, asked this question first and foremost. I hesitated.

-Tell us the truth, everyone said,

-We probably know it already. And don’t worry, we can handle to hear it from you.

Bruce continued: Do your Arab friends perceive Israel as a Western, colonial power, or as the Jews returning to their home?

-I know students in Cairo who don’t think that Israel fits into the region as things stand today, I finally replied, -To them, Israel ripped apart the common cultural and social fabric that was the Middle East before, and now they don’t know what to think about the country. There are so many painful stories. In Cairo, I met Lebanese who were teenagers during the war in 2006, I met Palestinians who grew up in refugee camps…

– And the hatred exists. Unfortunately, it does.

Our hosts and their friends nodded and understood. We sat in silence for moment.

The rest of the evening we often returned to the topic of the occupation, the settlers, and the clashes we have witnessed between soldiers and Palestinians. Our new Israeli friends appreciated that we told our stories, and they understood the problems the Palestinians face in the West Bank. Our host had even worked on human rights issues in the Occupied Territory before. We had a great night and enjoyed unforgettable hospitality, but I was reminded that politics are never far away when you talk to Palestinians and Israelis.

And on my first Shabbat, I faced some difficult questions. As I make more friends on both sides of the conflict, the tough questions become even more difficult.

The solution must be peace. Hatred is not perpetual; it can and must be changed. If 1948 tore up the Middle East, a just peace can sow it together again, with Israel as a natural part. My host in Jerusalem agreed. His friends agreed. I know that many in Israel and Palestine, and elsewhere in the Middle East, agree. As Israel gears up for elections next week, this message is more important than ever.

Shabbat shalom, and have a nice weekend.

From Acre, Israel (pictured) to Beirut is only about 110 kms. Photo: J. Roko

From Acre, Israel (pictured) to Beirut is only about 110 kms. Photo: J. Roko