Approximately a hundred persons gathered in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on Friday, 15 April for midday prayer, and to show their solidarity with three Palestinian politicians who have lived inside a makeshift tent at the International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters since last July.
Shortly after the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, three Jerusalem deputies and the former minister of Jerusalem affairs — Muhammad Abu Tir, Ahmad Attoun, Muhammad Totah and Khaled Abu Arafeh, respectively — were told by Israeli authorities that they must resign from the Hamas-led Palestinian government or have their East Jerusalem permanent resident status revoked.
Prosecuted before an Israeli military court, the four Hamas-affiliated lawmakers were sentenced to two to four years in Israeli prison when they refused to resign from their posts. Shortly after their release in the summer of 2010, the Israeli authorities again threatened to forcibly transfer the men and strip them of their East Jerusalem residency rights.
Muhammad Abu Tir was arrested on 30 June 2010 when he refused to leave the city. The next day, the three remaining deputies took refuge at the International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters in occupied East Jerusalem to avoid a similar fate. As of Friday, 15 April 2011, when the following interview was conducted, they had spent 289 days living there.
The Electronic Intifada contributor Jillian Kestler-D’Amours spoke with Muhammad Totah about why he and his colleagues decided to request help from the Red Cross, the impact the situation has had on his family, and what he hopes for in the future.
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours: What led you and your colleagues to seek refuge at the Red Cross headquarters?
Muhammad Totah: Our case started in 2006, when there were [Palestinian Legislative Council] elections in the [occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem]. … All the factions participated in the elections. [The international community] said that they wanted us as Palestinians to practice democracy. They said that they will respect the results. The election was fair and free and it was monitored and witnessed by the international community. But after the results were announced, the international community denied the results and refused to deal with the [Hamas] list Change and Reform, which won in these elections.
Four or five months after these elections, the Israeli occupation [authorities] arrested 64 [persons]. All of them were ministers in the government, deputies in the parliament and mayors. Me and my other three colleagues from East Jerusalem [Ahmad Attoun, Muhammad Abu Teir and Khaled Abu Arafeh] have endured what our colleagues have endured and I have spent time in the prison, three and a half years.
I was released on 2 June 2010. After one day only, they gave me and my other three colleagues an order to leave Israel within ten days. The main reason given was that we are disloyal to Israel because we participated in the election and we have been members in the Palestinian parliament. They have asked us to resign from the parliament.
After three or four days, they have arrested one of our colleagues, Muhammad Abu Tir, on 30 June. We thought that our case would be the same. For that reason, on 1 July 2010, we came to the Red Cross, to the headquarters here in East Jerusalem, to put our case on the [radar] of the international community.
JKD: What will happen if you and your colleagues are deported from Jerusalem?
MT: It means deporting thousands of people from East Jerusalem for disloyalty. This word does not have any dimensions or any measures, so they can claim that anybody living in East Jerusalem … is disloyal to the Israeli occupation and then deport him. We know that it is one of the main objectives of the Israeli plan to empty East Jerusalem of the Palestinian people.
East Jerusalem is an occupied territory and it is illegal to deport people who are under occupation. It is now the tenth month that we haven’t left these headquarters. If we leave it, then we will be immediately arrested.
We think the only way to cancel the decision of the deportation is with the intervention of the international community. We are constantly asking the international community to uphold its responsibility regarding us, since we are occupied and it is their responsibility to take care of the people who are under occupation.
JKD: What impact has the situation had on you personally and on your family?
MT: We and our families are suffering from this separation since we have been in the prison, and we are again now separated from our children, from our wives.
I have five children. Most of them couldn’t understand the situation here because it is the first time that people are coming and [seeking refuge] in the Red Cross. It is the first time in the history of Palestine. So they couldn’t understand. They have understood that when we were in the prison, that the Israelis have imprisoned us. They understand that we have been deported but they couldn’t understand, why here? Why are we living in the Red Cross?
My little child, each time he comes here, he takes my hand he says, ‘OK, I can understand that when you were in the prison, the door was closed so you couldn’t go out. I can understand that. But now I can’t understand that the gate is open, it’s a very big gate, and you cannot go out.’
‘You have very strong legs, you can go,’ he says. He takes my hand and goes to the gate and asks me, ‘Come on, I can take you if you cannot go out.’ Then, he starts to cry and says, ‘OK, it means that you do not like me and my brothers. You hate us.’ And then he goes running to his mother.
He’s now six years old; who can explain to him the situation? I tried. And I have asked many of my friends to try with him to explain. But he couldn’t understand.
JKD: What do you think will happen in the future?
MT: We don’t have very many choices. The only choice that we have is to leave this headquarters but that means opening the door to deporting thousands of people from East Jerusalem. It is very dangerous.
It is not easy to put yourself in one place and not move. It is very difficult. We feel that it is more difficult than prison. Because prison, the decision to go out is not [yours] because the door is closed. It is not your decision to go or not to go. Here, it is your decision, to leave or not to leave.
We know that we have to endure what we are enduring now for the benefit of our people, for the Palestinian people. For that reason, we will not leave even though it is very difficult for us. We are hoping that the international community will uphold its responsibility.
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com/.