Saturday, 6 December 2008

East Sawahreh and the Apartheid Wall

Last week I got my new “Palestinian Passport”. Palestinians need to renew their passports every three years, and it was time for me to renew mine. Living in Germany the next step for me would be to get my “residency permit” transferred from my old to my new passport. As I prepared the documents I need, I checked my registry confirmation document and my eyes immediately went to the “Staatenlos” - stateless stated in the field designated for nationality. This is how we Palestinians are defined here. Actually, as far as I know it comes in various forms; stateless to undefined to unknown. It seems to me every human being is defined in Europe, except the Palestinians; they are undefined. Most probably Martians would have been more welcome here than us Palestinians.

It is somewhat funny and sad how a piece of paper can define who you are or to what you are entitled or not. As a holder of a German “residency permit” I am able to enter Jerusalem, the city I was born in and where I attended school and spent most of my growing years, but as a Palestinian I am not allowed there any more. The last time I was in Palestine, I was allowed into Jerusalem only because of this “residency permit”. So, a Palestinian who was born and grew up in Jerusalem is only able to enter the city through the residency stamp of a country that lies on another continent. Foreigners from the four corners of the world are allowed into Jerusalem, provided they are not Palestinian nationals and residents of Palestine.

This reminds me of the destiny of my community: the Sawahreh community. The town of East Sawahreh lies about 4 km to the south east of Jerusalem. Before 1967 the Sawahreh community lived in areas that extended from the Mukabber Mountain in Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, an area of 72,000 dunums, of which less than 10% have remained today due to continuous land confiscation for settlements, for the so-called security purposes and finally for the apartheid wall. For centuries, the residents of Sawahreh have centered their life around the holy city and have identified themselves with it. After 1967 the Israeli occupation divided this one community into three: East Sawahreh, Sheikh Sa'd and West Sawahreh (Al Mukabber). While West Sawahreh remained under the administration of the Israeli Jerusalem municipality and its population of 8,000 was granted Jerusalem ID cards, East Sawahreh with its 8,500 residents and Sheikh Sa’d with its 3,000 residents were made part of the West Bank and the majority of the population there holds West Bank ID cards. In addition to that there are a number of natural basins east of the Container barrier.

The residents of Sawahreh have a special connection to the land on which they live and from which they live. They didn’t leave their lands and defended them during the Nakba of 1948. For two years they lived in caves and endured a life of hardship and remained steadfast on their lands. But ironically, the lands they protected generation after generation were taken away from them after the signing of the peace agreement between the PLO and Israel. The residents of Sawahreh lost their lands to the “promises of peace” of the Israeli state. With this “peace” came further land confiscation, various temporary and permanent check points, more settlements and illegal settlers and the apartheid wall.

The three small towns East Sawahreh, Abu Dees and Ezariyyeh lie on the outskirts of Jerusalem and have together a population of around 70,000 people. Pupils attended school in Jerusalem, men and women worked in the city, women did their shopping there while others sold their vegetables and herbs in the old city. These three towns lost most of their lands for the nearby illegal settlements and in 2004 nearly 1,000 dunums were confiscated so as to start with the construction of a 60 m wide and 6 to 8 metre high wall around Jerusalem. This wall aims at confining the Palestinians to small islands, isolated and cut off from the rest of the Palestinian landscape and preventing the natural growth of Palestinian communities and causing their slow suffocation. It is an excuse to confiscate more Palestinian land and to include the main Israeli settlement blocks and other scattered settlements within the wall surrounding Jerusalem. Running all the way from Ezariyyeh through Abu Dees, East Sawahreh to reach Shkeikh Sa’d, the apartheid wall is destroying the livelihood of the people there and distorting their daily life. Today the holy city is under strict closure since the construction of the apartheid wall and is separated from its Palestinian surrounding. The only way in and out is a number of gates, the so-called “Ma’aber” or terminals, which are huge, border-crossing-like check points, where only Jerusalem ID-holders or West Bankers with permits are allowed to cross, aiming at humiliating the Palestinian population and robbing it of its land and freedom. In addition, Palestinians holders of Jerusalem ID who live outside the wall have either had their Jerusalem ID revoked or are threatened by it and losing their right to the city.

Further division of the Sawahreh community came with the wall, leaving East Sawhreh and Sheikh Sa’d outside and West Sawahreh inside the wall. This caused the separation of a one and single community and the consequent fragmentation and division of whole families. Father cut off from son, brother from brother, and sister from brother. Whole families are being disconnected and scattered on either side of the wall causing the collapse of the natural social net by this unnatural physical barrier. Many examples exist of families divided into two, where part of the children are staying with the mother on one side of the wall while the other part is staying with the father on the other side of the wall. Isolated they live and are held prisoners in their own homes and towns, for the road to Jerusalem has been blocked by the 8 meter high wall and the meadows that used to spread to the dead sea and were always the pride of the Sawahreh community are now being eaten by settlements at a rapid pace. To reach Ramallah and the northern West Bank one would have to take long bypasses and to reach Bethlehem and southern West Bank one has to take the dangerous and curvy bypass of Wadi Il-Nar, a home to many traffic accidents.

The wall has violated the basic human rights of this community and affects their everyday life. Pupils and students face hardships in reaching their educational institutions and have to pass several check points before reaching their destination. They have to witness the daily humiliation of their parents, relatives or neighbors by armed soldiers who decide whether one is allowed in or not. They often try avoiding this humiliation by choosing the dangerous way of searching for unguarded passages or openings in the fences or between houses. Many were forced to change schools because they weren’t allowed in Jerusalem anymore, with some being forced to enroll in school in cities as far away as Bethlehem. Mothers and elderly face hardships reaching health centers, since the closest hospitals Al Maqasid and Al Mutala’ “Augusta Victoria” are out of reach now. These two hospitals served the Palestinian population of Jerusalem and the whole region around it for decades, and now the majority of these people have lost their access to a nearby hospital and are forced to either go all the way to Bethlehem, Ramallah or Jericho to get medical treatment. In certain cases, such as heart attacks, an immediate treatment can be life saving.

Historically, the Sawahreh community has always been a rural community whose lifestyle has revolved around agriculture and farming. “45% of them make their living from agriculture, especially in lands full of wells (they are called “earth flowers”), and caves in which livestock live. 35% of Sawahreh community is self-sufficient with meat and milk of their cattle, vegetables, and wheat.”[1]

Throughout the years, the Israeli occupation confiscated most of the lands that belonged to this community. This has led to a sharp decrease in work in the agriculture field and the consequent shift into cheap labour. The isolation caused by the wall, the continuous closure of the Palestinian Territories combined with the restrictions on free movement of people and goods have contributed to the deteriorating economical situation with an estimated unemployment rate of 65% within the East Sawahreh community.

But under this apartheid occupation not only the living suffer but the dead do as well. The only cemetery serving the community in East Sawahreh and Skeikh Sa’d lies on the other side of the wall. For decades now, the residents have had their cemetery in West Sawahreh, which is out of reach now. To be able to reach the cemetery behind the wall, the mourners need to organize their entry with the Israeli military and sometimes only the relatives and sometimes only people above 40 or 45 are allowed in as well. Often those accompanying the funeral head to Jerusalem and the old city after that and spend the day there. The apartheid wall not only separated the living from each other but the living from their dead as well. Once a deceased is buried, it would be difficult for family members to visit the grave whenever they wish. Most probably they would have to wait for the next funeral to be able to visit the graves of their forefathers and beloved ones.

2007 an Israeli military order was issued allowing the confiscation of further 1,128 dunums of Sawahreh and Abu Dees land for the construction of the road No. 80, a 13 km long and 7 metres wide road, as part of the E1 plan (eastern belt plan). This plan aims in the first place at destroying any possibility of realizing a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, through the isolation of Jerusalem from its Palestinian surrounding and cutting its ties with the West Bank thus dividing it into two parts. Land confiscated for the realization of this plan will hinder the natural growth of Palestinian communities and enclose the various illegal settlements in that area within the Jerusalem Metropolitan plan. With an estimated seized land of 25,000 dunums, this road is to run all the way from the Khan Alahmar hills to end in East Sawahreh and will link Jerusalem's eastern settlements of Ma’ale Adumim and Kedar with Kfar Atzion.

Its either they confiscate your land or they confiscate your birthright in Jerusalem. The residents of Sawahreh face both problems. Holders of Jerusalem IDs are confronted with the “Absentee law” if they live outside the wall, and are thus forced to leave the lands inherited from their fathers and settle in over-crowded rooms in Jerusalem so as not to lose their right to live in the holy city. Holders of West Bank IDs face another type of problem. They aren’t allowed in Jerusalem anymore, leading to the loss of their jobs and their livelihood. Many had shops and businesses in what lies on the other side of the wall now and were forced to give up these shops and businesses. The various Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination against Palestinians in Jerusalem and the surrounding area violate the basic rights of Palestinians including the right of free movement, the right to work, to study, to have access to health facilities, and aim at emptying the region of its original population. Closure, siege, check points, crossing gates, land confiscation and the apartheid wall constitute a violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, Article 12 of the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights and Article 52 of the Hague Regulations of 1907.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

“The International Court of Justice asked Israel to stop work on the Separation Wall in the Palestinian occupied territories including East Jerusalem and the area around it, to destroy all the bits that are already built and to delete all the laws and decisions which the Israeli government had made increating it” (Hague decisions paragraph 133, 152 and 153 - Advisory Opinion of the ICJ, 9th July 2004)[2].


[1] /monthlyreport/2007/october.html
[2] Monthly report on Israeli violations in Abu Dis, October 2007.


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