Defiant Jerusalem Palestinians say “we will remain here”

Hundreds of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals demonstrate against the Israeli occupation in Issawiya, occupied East Jerusalem, 3 December 2010. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)

A huge Palestinian flag was carried up a steep hill in Issawiya on 3 December, passed hand-to-hand between the at least 200 Palestinians, Israelis and international activists taking part in the first-ever solidarity march and demonstration in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood.

People cheered and shouted as the flag passed over their heads, and many carried signs reading “Stop the imprisonment of Issawiya” and “Stop the occupation of Issawiya.”

Indeed, in recent weeks, the contrast between the Israeli settlement of French Hill — home to the main campus of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and Hadassah hospital — and neighboring Issawiya has been magnified by the near-constant presence of Israeli soldiers and police forces in the Palestinian village.

“It’s as if civilization ends at the borders of French Hill and Issawiya,” said Hani Isawi, member of the Issawiya Follow-Up Committee, during a resident-led meeting on 24 November in the neighborhood.

“On the one hand, we are suffering because as the rest of the Palestinian people, we are living under the Israeli occupation, and at the same time, we are suffering from a very clear policy of discrimination from the Jerusalem municipality,” Isawi said.

Recently, the Israeli media reported that a group of Palestinian youth stoned a car of Israeli Jews that had gotten lost in Issawiya and were asking for directions back to West Jerusalem.

In what residents say is collective punishment for the attack, the Israeli authorities have closed the entrances and exits to Issawiya. Today, only two entrances remain, including one that has been turned into an Israeli army-monitored checkpoint that causes routine delays for the neighborhood’s 15,000 Palestinian residents.

“We very clearly discourage and criticize these kind of actions, such as attacking civilians,” Isawi said. “But the Israelis are using this as a pretext for implementing very harsh policies against us.”

Israeli soldiers and police forces have arrested at least ten children under the age of 16, and more than two dozen others above that age since October, according to the Issawiya Follow-Up Committee. They have also routinely blanketed Issawiya in clouds of tear gas during clashes with groups of Palestinian youth, including shortly after Friday’s demonstration.

On 24 September, an 18-month-old Palestinian child died in Issawiya from tear gas inhalation, after Israeli forces threw cannisters at a demonstration protesting the killing of Samer Sarhan in the nearby Silwan neighborhood.

No room to grow

Three kilometers away from Jerusalem’s Old City walls, Issawiya sits between the Israeli settlements of French Hill to the west, and Maale Adumim — one the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank with more than 34,000 settlers — to the east.

In 1968, the Israeli state confiscated 400 of the 3,000 total dunams (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) of land in Issawiya to build the French Hill settlement, which connects Hebrew University and the Hadassah Hospital to West Jerusalem.

In addition to confiscating land, Israel has also designated 2,000 dunams in Issawiya as “green areas,” thereby making it illegal for village residents to build anything in the area. Today, Issawiya residents only have 600 dunams on which to build homes and other structures.

“We are facing a very serious problem of providing a sufficient amount of houses to coincide with the natural growth [of the population in Issawiya],” Hani Isawi said. “While we hear on the news all the time about thousands and thousands of new residential units to be built in Jewish neighborhoods, since 1990 there hasn’t been one single zoning plan for Issawiya that would actually allow us to build more houses to satisfy our need for natural growth.”

In the past few weeks, Israeli forces have destroyed animal pens, agricultural land and other structures in the village.

“The Israeli border police and other administrative people destroyed twelve farms in the area. This also included the uprooting of trees,” explained Sheikh Riad Isawi of the Issawiya Follow-Up Committee.

“Israel is probably the only place in the world that actually allows the uprooting of trees. So not only human beings are suffering from the Israeli occupation but also the trees and nature,” he said.

The full extent of Israel’s destructive policies in Issawiya was clear as early as July of this year, when Israeli forces destroyed homes and devastated agricultural land in a two-week span.

“We constructed a well, they destroyed it. We planted trees, they uprooted them. We put barbed wire around the area so that wild animals won’t enter, they took that off also,” said Issawiya resident Abid Darwish in July, as he watched his land being destroyed.

“In all this, we can’t find a place for us to just sit and breathe. This land is for the families here in Issawiya: Darwish, Mustafa, Alayyan, Abu Hommos and many others,” Darwish added.

Since July, 440 trees have been uprooted and at least 16 structures have been demolished in Issawiya.

Annexation continues

E1, Israel’s stalled settlement project that was initially proposed in 1994, would annex another estimated 12,400 dunams of land from Issawiya and the neighboring villages of al-Izzariya and al-Tur. The E1 settlement bloc would contain 3,500 housing units — for nearly 14,500 new settlers — and would solidify Maale Adumim by connecting it to West Jerusalem, according to the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem.

To date, the Israeli authorities have built a police station and army base in the area, and have paved some roads, checkpoints and other basic infrastructure in preparation for the project to go ahead.

“Any link between Maale Adumim and West Jerusalem is going to be at the expense of Issawiya,” said Hani Isawi. “The aim of these measurements is to pressure more and more of the people of Issawiya, and also to facilitate for future land confiscation in our area.”

Still, according to Isawi, whether or not the E1 settlement project goes ahead, the need to stay in Issawiya despite relentless Israeli pressure remains.

“Our struggle against the Israeli authorities is expressed by our staying here in our village and facing all the confiscation plans,” he said. “We will remain here. We will always be part of the Palestinian people.”

Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in occupied East Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at