by Nisreen AbuZayyad
Sitting on the edges of Mount Scopus or the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, you can get a clear view of the Old City, away from its chaos and its people. From those spots one can only wonder how a city that is full of love and hatred can look so peaceful, if only from a distance. The closer one gets to the city’s complicated reality, the farther one would like to escape. Yet, Jerusalem is not a city one can escape from, especially not the Palestinians. Jerusalem is where their heart and soul is, and not only because of its religious sites - it is where their national identity rose.
Most of the time, the urge to escape this city is caused by feelings of frustration and by not being able to deal emotionally with what this city has become. The current reality is a daily nightmare to those who were born in Jerusalem and consider it their home. Every day Palestinians are witnessing a part of their soul being shattered and stolen by the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, as what they identify with as their home and identity is being stolen and claimed by the Israelis. This daily uprooting is being covered over and washed away with the burdens of survival, in areas such as housing, employment and residency IDs. Some Palestinians in the city are so consumed with their daily burdens that they are incapable of noticing this daily uprooting. They adapt and adjust themselves to new circumstances imposed by the occupation.
In East Jerusalem, which has been under continuous attack since its occupation in 1967, Israeli governments have used every legislation and policy to deprive the Palestinians of their natural growth, development or livelihood, making their lives so difficult, miserable and inhuman, to force them to leave. Thus, it is not a coincidence that Palestinians in East Jerusalem are burdened with social and economic problems, which many of us view as an instrument used to destroy Palestinian society and identity there.
A good portion of educated Palestinians have already left Jerusalem, because they could no longer deal with its problems. Furthermore, a remarkable percentage of youth are dropping out of school and joining the Israeli black labor market. And a large share of its population has become religious. For the Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem suffering under the weight of financial burdens, their daily struggle has become about how to survive and maintain their existence in the city despite continuous Israeli attacks and occupation policies.
In a situation where anger had been building up for years, the recent Israeli attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque and the worshipers who come to it has triggered and fueled anger among the Palestinian population. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest mosque for Muslims. It was the first Qibla (where Muslims turn their faces during prayers) and the place where Prophet Mohammed ascended to the sky. So when it is intruded upon and violated, many people are willing to sacrifice themselves to protect it. Therefore, it is viewed that the Israeli government made a serious mistake in allowing their religious fanatics to enter one of the most sacred places to the Muslims, while preventing Palestinian Muslims from praying at Al- Aqsa Mosque. Recently, the Israeli occupation forces exceeded previous levels of violations of Muslim religious practices when they drafted a law to prevent Al Aqsa Mosque and all other mosques from issuing the Muslim call for prayer, “Athan,” via loud-speakers. Any attack or violation on Al- Aqsa Mosque is considered a red line that Israel should not cross, not only in the eyes of Palestinian Muslims and Muslims worldwide, but secular and Christian Palestinians also view this as a serious violation. Violations against Muslim holy places are unacceptable to Palestinians and can only fuel violence and religious hatred.
Yet oppression of Palestinians in Jerusalem is escalating. In the last few years it has taken the form of an assassination policy of any “suspect” with the objective of “Shoot to Kill.” In addition, activists and average people alike have been arrested for expressing their opinions, ideas and thoughts on social media and elsewhere. At the same time, none of the Israelis expressing hatred, racism and incitement against Palestinians on Israeli social media — sometimes even going as far as justifying genocide, massacres and rape — has been arrested or prosecuted. Only the Palestinians are being arrested for pressing the “Like” button on Facebook page, posting a picture or expressing an opinion.
Empowering East and West Jerusalem Youth Project Activity
Given these circumstances, Middle East Publications – PIJ and Ir Amim decided to carry out a project, supported by IFA Zivik, that focuses specifically on the younger generation in Jerusalem who are the key to the future. Each organization is focusing on its concerns and priorities from their own institutional perspective. Middle East Publications – PIJ is working on the priorities of younger Palestinian Jerusalemites in East Jerusalem, while Ir Amim is working on issues which concern the young Israeli Jerusalemites, within the overall objective of finding a just and peaceful solution for the future of the city.
The program includes training programs and political seminars to empower young Palestinian Jerusalemites to advocate their rights and to understand the Israeli occupation system that they work and live within.
Recruiting participants to the program was not an easy task, especially due to the current failure of the political process and the critical situation in Jerusalem. As project director, I refrained from imposing my views and opinions when I approached possible candidates. If Palestinian youths informed me that they do not want to talk with Israelis or meet with Israelis, I did not try to convince them otherwise because I could understand their position. During the past 20 years, even those Palestinians who participated in peace building activities with Israelis have been harassed and attacked by Israelis. It is difficult to meet with Israelis while we are under constant daily attacks. Even those who highly value nonviolence and peace felt challenged by the question of what kind of peace, values or relations we ought to promote to possible participants.
From a Palestinian perspective, we would never promote what the Israeli occupation would like us to promote, which is being good Palestinian slaves and making peace with the occupation! This is something that we totally reject. The objective of the peace process was not to make peace with the occupation but rather to end it. So, as activists and peace organizations, we completely understand and respect the other nonviolent methods being promoted, such as the boycott and anti-normalization campaigns, because their main objective is to end the Israeli occupation — and they may succeed where we have failed. Still, in this project Middle East Publications – PIJ tried to maintain our values and priorities from a Palestinian perspective and to empower the Jerusalemite youth who are often neglected by Israelis and Palestinians alike. When approaching possible participants, we tried to explain to them the context of the project from our own Palestinian perspective and national rights in Jerusalem, and left it for them to decide whether they would like to participate or not.
This year the project focused on two main activities: 1) training programs to empower the youth, mainly university students, new graduates, volunteers and activists.; and 2) political seminars aimed at training new young leaders who would advocate for Palestinian national rights in Jerusalem and would work towards seeking a just and peaceful solution to the city. Project activities also included an international conference and the publication of this special issue on “Future Visions for Jerusalem.”
Seville Conference 2016
In the context of this project, Middle East Publications – PIJ refrained from any direct joint meetings, and the conference was conducted under the auspices of an international third party. In November 2016, we held a conference in Seville in cooperation with Asamblea de Cooperación por la Paz Andalucía (ACPP), with the participation of Andalusian youth, along with Palestinian and Israeli young people from East and West Jerusalem. The majority of these young people, who live in the same city, know little about what is happening on the other side and had never met anyone from there. Therefore, the program was prepared and guided by two external facilitators, one Palestinian and one Israeli in order to overcome any awkwardness.
ACPP arranged for representatives of Middle East Publications – PIJ and Ir Amim to meet with the president of the Andalusian Parliament Mr. Juan Pablo Durán, and Ms. Inmaculada Nieto, member of the Andalusian Parliament for Izquierda Unida (United Left), and Mr. José Latorre, member of the Andalusian Parliament for PSOE (Social Democrats). During these meetings we tried to convey how critical the situation in Jerusalem is and how urgently we need to work towards ending the Israeli occupation. Among the issues discussed were:
* The critical situation in Palestine/Israel and in the Middle East region: the Israeli provocations and attacks on the Al-Aqsa mosque and the dangerous consequences of such attacks and provocations.
* The regional instability that is caused by this conflict and the danger in managing the conflict instead of resolving it.
* The danger and violence that would rise from depriving those who believe in nonviolent methods from the tools that would enable them to express themselves and work. We warned against the consequences of recent Israeli attempts to delegitimize Israeli and Palestinian NGOs that express criticism of the occupation and Israeli government policies, and to silence nonviolent activists.
* The importance of international/European involvement in providing support and cooperation to the work of Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations who work for a nonviolent end to the occupation on a political land organizational level.
* The risks involved in maintaining the status quo, the relevance and failure to achieve the two-state solution, and the alternative solution of apartheid or a one-state solution.
* That the main problem is the Israeli occupation and that there would be no resolution to the conflict/peace without ending the Israeli occupation.
* Stressed that our European partners ought to help us find a resolution to the conflict instead of managing it, and informed them that our organizations object to Europe or any other country financing the Israeli occupation.
* The status quo means that the occupation is being empowered by the day and that the Palestinians and the international community are paying the bills of the Israeli occupation, while Israel refuses to end it.
* The gap between the younger generation (born after the 1993 Oslo Accords) and the older generation, and how the younger generation who were born into this political failure are rejecting the status quo and are not taking part in peace building activities.
* How the resolution of the conflict was sidelined in recent years, due to the inability of the international community to exercise pressure on Israel, the failure of the political process as well as regional developments.
Sessions of the Conference: Discussions, Feedback and Conclusions
On the first day, after the official opening, the facilitators tried to build a common space for all of the participants. Two main sessions were held. The first was a session on “My Jerusalem — My Seville” — personal stories. The Palestinian, Israeli and Spanish participants were asked to bring 3-5 pictures with them that reflected what their home city means to them — from their personal perception. The second session was about “Narratives on Three Levels: Personal, Jerusalem/National, Global.” In which the participants were asked to list the main events that happened from the years 1990-2016, on three strips of paper: on a personal level, on their hometown/national level and on the global level. The participants were then asked to summarize and discuss the similarities, contradictions, differences among their national groups. Both sessions enabled the participants to get to know each other.
The overwhelming majority of the participants said that it was a very good and constructive day.
On the second day, the participants touched on sensitive issues related to the conflict, mainly political issues. The differences came to the fore and it was apparent that the participants have different levels of perceptions of the conflict and priorities in Jerusalem. The Israeli participants perceived the Palestinian Jerusalemites as an Israeli Arab minority in Jerusalem that is being discriminated against in services, and therefore addressed issues related to services. The Palestinians, for their part, stressed their political and national rights in Jerusalem as Palestinian Jerusalemites and raised the political conflict and the Israeli occupation as the main problem in Jerusalem. The discussions were difficult, but the facilitators did a good job of ensuring that they did not become aggressive. Feedback from the participants varied. The Palestinians thought it was a long and exhausting yet very productive day, that there were good discussions and should be more space for comments and discussions. Israeli participants also thought it was a tough day, and that change has to start from the bottom up, but were disappointed that their opinions were not accepted by the Palestinian participants. Some expressed understanding that if they were Palestinians, they would feel similarly, while other Israeli participants described feeling hurt, angry and stuck.
The facilitators had to adapt the program on the third day in order to adjust to the previous level of discussion, as there had not been sufficient time on the second day to deepen and widen the discussion and there was a need to give the participants a break.
By the end of the session some participants said they felt confused, misunderstood, challenged and/or touched, stressed, depressed, with feelings of conflict, discomfort, fatigue and hope.
On the fourth day, the facilitators opened the first session by asking the participants to write about their personal dream/vision of Jerusalem. Some of the participants expressed their personal vision of Jerusalem as follows:
* Jerusalem: an open, shared, tolerant peaceful and happy metropolitan city with equal opportunities for all its residents, regardless of their ethnicity and religion. A city where the East side is as developed and prosperous as the West side and where foreign investments creating jobs are plentiful in both sides of the city, where taxes collected through municipality levies are distributed equitably, and where the sovereign government spends and invests money equally in both sides of the city. I dream of and yearn for a city where our children play together in common playgrounds and where families of mixed religion coexist peacefully and live in harmony with one another. I dream of a Swiss-type model of power-sharing and harmony. I dream of a very clean East Jerusalem with no litter on the streets.
* To live in Jerusalem without fear.
* To respect that Jerusalem is a sacred city — and to respect freedom of religion.
* Freedom and equality.
* To see religious people practice what they pray and preach.
* Freedom of thought, freedom of religion.
* A Jerusalem that is separate from and independent of the bigger forces that are playing us as with a chess piece, that its people would work for its local interests — if we want to change, we have to start from Jerusalem.
* A Jerusalem where the social and economic rights of minorities are protected.
Closure of the Conference
The participants were asked what they had learned, what they would do differently, as well as about their wishes and hopes for the future. To the first question, participants responded that they had learned not to let fear control their lives, to listen and to recognize other perspectives, and to make more personal connections with people in the other half of the city. The participants also concluded that Jerusalem lacks centers of tolerance and peace such as the Fundación Tres Culturas (Three Cultures Foundation) in Seville. What the participants hoped for in the future was to learn more about the other side and to find ways to cooperate and to form partnerships.
How to Move Forward
There is no doubt that the conference was an extraordinary experience, not only for the participants but also for the organizations. It is the only joint project with the main focus being Jerusalem. The organizations are planning to follow up with the final phase of this project next year. As the situation is getting more and more critical by the day, the organizations involved in this project might find themselves having to adapt to what the coming year might bring. While one could hope that the next year will bring us closer to an end to the Israeli occupation, circumstances on the ground only seem to warn that the situation will get worse and that we will have to find ways to respond to a possible escalation.