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A typical day in Sheikh Jarrah

JERUSALEM / I'm hit by a bucket of water, an apple, a rock. A glass bottle. A man turns the stereo fully on in my ear. I'm moving. I'm trying to write. A boy comes running and steals my pen. "Do you want coffee?" asks a man kindly. He throws me a cup.


There is only one thing that is easy in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem: finding the street everyone is talking about. The police are on the street corner. And if the police are not there, there is a man who coughs on you and claims he is covid-infected. Apart from this, it is Friday and demonstration day. To lead the protesters, we find Salah Dieb, who speaks fluent Hebrew even though he is Palestinian.

There is arguing, spitting, there is mouth-slapping and bullshit, pushing and shoving and the occasional blow with the Bible against a skull.

It looks like a normal demonstration. Perhaps because it has taken place according to the same recipe for years, every single week: No one has weapons with them, not even stones. It doesn't look like a battlefield, but more like a professional fighting arena with rules and restrictions: There's arguing, spitting, there's biting and shit-throwing, pushing and shoving and the occasional hit with the Bible against a skull: "You don't come here for to make noise, really, but to vent the tension," says one activist as he pushes another into a puddle. It takes a while to realize that there is something that separates this spectacle from other demonstrations: All the demonstrators are Israelis. Except for Salah Diab. He is here because the next house to be razed is the house he lives in.


Sheikh Jarrah is located right behind the Old City of Jerusalem and is nothing special in the first place. But it was because of this featureless area, with bumpy asphalt and tufts of weeds, that the latest Gaza war broke out. Because these homes are disputed, everything here is disputed – even the use of words. To say "disputed" is to accept that there is a disagreement, and thus you take a side, because your opponent is simply wrong – "it's not disputed, everything is clear", says a guy before he ends up on the ground, hit by an umbrella.

Here is a tangle of grids, gates, locks, fences and fences, since Israelis and Palestinians live locked with each other, and not next to each other, one lives on one floor and another on another, and you don't understand who lives where , or who is who. They barricade themselves in their homes. If they go outside, the enemy sneaks into the living room.

In 1948, the eastern half went off Jerusalem to Jordan. IN Sheikh Jarrah. the UN built housing for Palestinians who had lost their homes in what had become Israel – mainly on Arab land, but partly also on Jewish land. In 1967, Israel conquered everything. And in 1972, Israel sent an eviction notice for non-rent to 27 families here.

Now Hamas and Fatah despise each other more than they despise Israel.

Palestinians claim they were given property rights by the UN in exchange for giving up their refugee status, and the lawsuit has been ongoing since 1982. And while the rest of us were preoccupied with the covid-19 pandemic, things got worse. A new wave of house demolitions was answered by Hamas with rockets towards Israel.

Salah Diab: "Tired of the peace movement"

"For the first time I didn't feel alone," says Salah Diab. “In Tunis, in Baghdad, in Cairo, in Istanbul, in Damascus – everyone took to the streets. Sooner or later I have no doubt that Hezbollah will attack. And we will win. When the Arabs gather, it is over for Israel.”

Although, now Hamas and Fatah despise each other more than they do Israel. The last election was held in 2006, after this you can be jailed for demonstrating, unless you get fired or shot – without leadership, no one cares. Salah Diab has an Arab solidarity, and an Israeli one too: He only lacks Palestinian solidarity. He doesn't even talk to his neighbor. But to tell the truth, the neighbor Nabil el-Kurd doesn't talk to anyone. His home is divided in two, because in East Jerusalem 93 percent of building applications are rejected – like so many others, he has built and extended his home without permission.

In 1999, settlers moved into the confiscated rooms. But he is tired of journalists, and of the world as well. Most consulates and NGOs are located in Sheikh Jarrah – "they get tear gas through the windows, but say nothing", he says. He is also tired of the Israelis participating in the Friday demonstrations, and tired of the peace movement:

“They are not defending the Palestinians, but themselves. In 1948 we came from Haifa, and if we stay here, we will not go back to Haifa. To Jaffa. We are not going home again, to their homes," he says. "Jews can come to Lod from anywhere and get citizenship, while I, who have all my ancestors here, am the one to go?" By Lod he means Tel Aviv airport, because he is 77 years old, and his map looks like it did in 1948. "But why are you here?" exclaims Diab. "What else do you need to understand?" he says dismissively and sends me straight out into the courtyard, where there is a goat's head. Leftovers, I guess.

Here there is a bit of everything. Paint cans, car batteries, a drum, a wash basin, a skateboard without wheels, a small table and an air conditioner. A worn shopping cart. This area that everyone wants, no one takes care of – it's a mess everywhere.

The families

On my right side lives the el-Kurd family. To my left Big-Yaacov and Little-Yaacov. They are called that because no one has ever asked them their name. They come in, they go out, they look past each other. And that's how it is in the whole street. Even if the doors and gates are actually ajar: "So as not to be crushed." At least I save money on carpenters and blacksmiths," says Lille-Yaacov. With the money he has saved, he has just bought himself a German Shepherd.

Anyway, they ignore each other, but they don't ignore others. Especially if you're brunette and Arab-looking – and at the same time go without a hijab and look Jewish, like me. I get hit by a bucket of water, an apple, a rock. A glass bottle. A man cranks the stereo right into my ear. I'm moving. I try to write. A little boy comes running and steals my pen. I'm moving again. The boy returns and removes my chair as I sit down. And this is my first day here. "Do you want coffee?" asks a man kindly. He throws me a cup.

The man is in the synagogue on the other side of the courtyard. Ultra-Orthodox, engrossed in the Torah with black hats and curly locks, constantly go to and from the synagogue. They just arrived with a cart – they live like in the last century. In Jerusalem they make up 25 percent of the population.

There is no point in asking how people in Sheikh Jarrah are doing, because there is no Sheikh Jarrah: They live in Shimon Hatzedek. A community established around the tomb of Simeon the righteous. This is also not a matter for the courts. "The only law is God's law," says a rabbi. “We have been here for two thousand years. You can dig anywhere and what do you find? Our remains are everywhere," he says.

“But why are you here? Arabs and Jews live together here," he says. Technically, we can't deny that. Then he suddenly laughs and points towards an older, slightly shabby man sweeping the entrance. "Look," he says, "we have the Arab!"

The occupation

Settlers are rude and rude, and often despised even more by other Israelis than by Palestinians. They are a kind of state within the state. They feel invincible. But Joel Lunger has never dared to enter the parallel street here. As he speaks, he looks back as if he were at the front line, where at any moment an Arab could jump out from behind a bush – he is the grandson of Auschwitz survivors. “I understand the Palestinians. I would like to pay them compensation, because it is true – everything they had was taken from them. But you can't ignore the holocaust. Our fear. We have nowhere else we feel safe. We never want to leave here," he says.

"If you have a trauma, you don't overcome it by creating a trauma for others."

“Get out of here? But he's American!” exclaims Aref Hammoud, another neighbor. Because Joel Lunger is not from here, he is from New York. "The truth is that 1948 never ended," he says. "It's not about this house or any other house. I can even win in court and prove that at one point this was my land, but that is a political issue. I'm not challenging the synagogue, I'm challenging the very notion of Israel as a Jewish state, and I've already lost. Israel has no place for us," he says.

"If you have a trauma, you don't overcome it by creating a trauma for others," comments his grandson, who is 17 years old and is engrossed in the computer game Wordle [Wordle is a 5-letter word guessing game, online at New York Times, editor's note]. She looks like schoolgirl Lisa Simpson and has decided to study psychology. In Arafat's time, she would have joined the resistance movement. At the time of the Oslo Accords, she would rather have studied law and fought as a lawyer.

The courts

But on closer inspection, the courts are part of the occupation. They constitute a powerful weapon. Under Israeli law, the expropriation of Sheikh Jarrah is legal. Under international law, of course, it is not, but here, here and now, two laws apply: a law from 1950 which classifies as "present absent" everyone who was not in Israel during the 1947-1948 war, i.e. Palestinian internally displaced persons and refugees – who must transfer all their property to the state. Also, a law from 1970 that allows Jews, and only Jews, to reclaim the property they owned in East Jerusalem before 1948. Defending yourself in court is hopeless. One day all documents will end up in The Hague. But for now it is abstract.

Store-Yaakov is proof of the state of affairs: "In Hebrew we say: respect, but suspicion." He cites a mainstay of Zionism, the Iron Wall theory of Ze›ev Jabotinsky: negotiating with others, but from a position of superior strength. “We have always been a target. Not because of our actions, but because of our identity. So let's be clear: We take lightly those who behave properly, but we will respond to violence with much more violence," he says.

Right to return

"I'm not here to have fewer Arabs here, but more Jews," he says – which means maintaining the 70:30 ratio that the founders of Israel believe is necessary to safeguard the state's Jewish character. Although nothing here is as it seems, and you can never tell who is who, what is what, nothing is worse than a defeat. Barring a victory, because if the court were to recognize the right of Jews to return to Sheikh Jarrah, how can one deny the right of Arabs to return to the other areas of Israel? If the documents from 1948 were reopened, around 30 percent of the land would be disputed. But Store-Yaacov is not really worried: "If we are not attacked with one explanation, we will only be attacked with another."

Therefore, he tries to adapt in a way. "He smiles, hoping to get a smile back sooner or later," says Nabil el-Kurd. "After all, he's quite normal," he says. But then he suddenly takes care of it: "But what are you making me say? They set my house on fire! With Muna inside.” Muna is his daughter. She was three years old.

Paint cans, car batteries, a drum, a wash basin, skateboard without wheels.

His other neighbor is now a kind of lawn. The house of the Salahiya family has recently been razed to the ground. The house was not among those built by the United Nations. Over the years, the 27 families increased to 75. Here, right here, the municipality wants a kindergarten. There is nothing left. Sometimes a door sticks out from the grass. A swing, or other objects. But no one comes by. The bulldozers look like bulldozers on any other construction site. A worker carries away a flower pot as if it were a regular house move.

Crowd control

A diplomat jogs past, wearing a Vuitton mask over his nose. A truck comes to wash the street, but it's not clean water – it's the police who have skunk water; a foul-smelling weapon of crowd control. The truck drives towards Salem's house. The Israeli military police set up a camping table in the garden and find the thermos. Suddenly there are fights and demonstrations again. All evening, all over Sheikh Jarrah. At eight in the morning the girl who looks like Lisa Simpson comes by, she's going to school. "How are you?" she asks me. "Uh," I reply. As I usually do. "You see, you're getting used to this," she says, adding, "We definitely need Freud."

Translated by Iril Kolle

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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