“They want us to be loyal to the occupation”: Muhammad Totah interviewed

Muhammad Totah (Max Blumenthal)

On 9 July, as Israeli Border Police officers brutalized demonstrators at the weekly protest in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem, forcing them away from a street where several homes had been seized by radical right-wing Jewish settlers, I visited the Jerusalem International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters just a few hundred meters away.

Though the din of protest chants and police megaphones could not be heard from the ICRC center, the three Palestinian legislators who had staged a sit-in there for more than a week to protest their forced expulsion from Jerusalem insisted that their plight was the same as the families forced from their homes down the street.

“All the Israeli steps in East Jerusalem are designed to evacuate Jerusalem of its Palestinian heritage,” remarked Muhammad Totah, an elected Palestinian Legislative Council member who has been ordered to permanently leave Jerusalem by the Israeli government. “Whether it’s through home demolition, taking homes or deporting us, the goal is the same.”

According to the Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, the three legislators are guilty of a vaguely defined “breach of trust,” ostensibly for their membership in a foreign government. The charge leveled against them recalls nothing more than the campaign platform of the far-right Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which demanded the mass expulsion of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel.

For this reason, the Israel-based legal advocacy group Adalah described the Israeli government’s actions as “characteristic of dark and totalitarian regimes” (“Motion for Injunction filed to Israeli Supreme Court to Stop Imminent Deportation Process of Palestinian Legislative Council Members from Jerusalem,” 15 June 2010).

The lawmakers’ problems began in 2006 when they ran for the Palestinian Legislative Council in the West Bank as members of the Change and Reform list, an offshoot of Hamas. Though the Israeli government allowed the men to campaign for office and vote for the Chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council, as soon as they were elected, Israel warned them to resign from office or face the cancellation of their status as residents of Jerusalem.

When they failed to heed the Israeli government’s demand, in June 2006, the men were arrested and sentenced to two to four years in prison. Two days after they were released, the Israeli police confiscated their identification cards and ordered them to leave Jerusalem for another part of the West Bank.

As a result of the expulsion orders, the first of their kind since 1967, the three lawmakers are virtual hostages in the city their families have lived in for generations — if they leave the Red Cross center they will be immediately arrested. Their colleague, Muhammad Abu Tir, is already in an Israeli jail cell. Despite having been separated from their families for years, they remain steadfast in their rejection of the government’s orders, fearing that their expulsion will open the door for mass deportations of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, along with the rest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula, which was returned to Egypt in a peace deal a decade later. No country recognizes Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and the UN Security Council has declared repeatedly that Israel’s occupation of all the territories it seized in 1967 is governed by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, a treaty Israel was compelled to sign which specifically forbids an occupying power from expelling civilians from the territory it occupies. Thus the legislators’ expulsion has been issued in explicit violation of binding international law.

Totah told me that the Israeli interior ministry has a list of 315 members of Palestinian civil society in East Jerusalem — academics, lawmakers, activists — whom it plans to expel in the near future on charges of disloyalty to the Jewish state. “They are trying to legalize the Nakba,” Totah remarked, using the Arabic word Palestinians use to describe their mass expulsion from their homeland in 1948.

I talked with the 42-year-old Totah for a half hour in the leafy courtyard of the ICRC headquarters. He was visibly tired, having spent the past two days in meetings with British parliamentarians, the head of Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church and left-wing Israeli groups ranging from Anarchists Against The Wall to Gush Shalom. While a wiry young boy rushed around the yard, serving us a seemingly endless stream of Turkish coffee shots, Totah described to me his experience as a prisoner in his hometown.

Max Blumenthal: The Israeli government says you are guilty of a “breach of trust.” Does this mean they are accusing you of disloyalty to the state?

Muhammad Totah: The main reason they are expelling us is that we are accused of disloyalty. And every one on the list [of 315 Palestinian civil society members Israel seeks to expel] is accused of disloyalty. They want us to be loyal to the occupation. This is insane! So they are seeking any excuse to get rid of us. They want us to leave at any price. Basically, they want to finish the project that they began in 1948 because it has taken too long.

MB: Why did you decide to conduct a sit-in inside the Red Cross headquarters?

MT: We are determined to prevent the occupation from coming and taking us away. Beyond that, we are using our time here to make sure the international community hears our case. The occupation is against all international laws and we believe if the door of deportation is open in Jerusalem, it means that hundreds or even thousands will be deported. Right now, we are in danger of being arrested at any time. In fact, our colleague Abu Tir was arrested last month. So they could come at any time for us.

MB: Do you believe the Israelis would go as far as raiding a Red Cross center in Jerusalem to carry out your expulsion?

MT: The occupation will do anything. They are killing people constantly, demolishing buildings and doing what they have done for years. Ten thousand Palestinians are in currently in prison. So yes, we would not be surprised by such an action.

MB: Has the international community responded to your protest?

MT: We sent a letter to [US] President [Barack] Obama and asked him to interfere and to put pressure on the Israeli side to cancel this illegal decision. So far, we have not heard a response. We have sat with [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas two times and he said that he had sent my letters to all the human rights organization and USAID [the US Agency for International Development] and sent letters to the occupation authorities and he said they’re making communications all the time time. But until now nothing on the ground. We have put out a call for international human rights organizations as well. And we have sent letters to all the leaders of Islamic and Arab states.

Our letters stress that our protest is not about our case in particular, but that it is about all the Palestinians living in Jerusalem. We believe that this decision is designed to begin a process that will empty Jerusalem of Palestinian people. The UN and international community admits that East Jerusalem is occupied by Israel, so clearly this is an illegal decision under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

MB: How much of Israel’s decision is motivated by your affiliation with Hamas and how does the tension between Hamas and Fatah effect the Palestinian Authority’s involvement in the case?

MT: This is an international case. It has nothing to do with Fatah and Hamas. There is a list of over 300 people who will be deported after us — the heart of Palestinian civil society in East Jerusalem — and for this reason all the parties in Jerusalem are united against this decision. They feel that we are the first and they will be the second. We know that the occupation doesn’t discriminate between political parties.

MB: How has your predicament affected your family?

MT: My son who is six years old does not want to leave the house anymore. He said, “I will not leave the house until my father comes back!” As soon as I was released from prison I was sent to so many meetings right away and couldn’t see my family, who I had hardly seen for four years. Now he’s having his own protest at home. “I will not leave home!” he says. This is a very big problem for me because I don’t want to break his heart. One of my children who is even younger wakes up every night screaming and crying with terrible nightmares. “Why are you crying?” my wife says. He says, “The soldiers are coming to throw me in jail!” My wife is suffering because of course we have been split for a very long time. The occupation wants to scare my family and if any information gets to my wife or children about what is happening to me they become extremely upset. This is not just my problem, though. All my colleagues are suffering this same way.

MB: How much of a burden has been placed on you by the Palestinian community in Jerusalem to resist your expulsion?

MT: The fact is that if we accept the deportation it means we accept deportation for thousand of Palestinians in Jerusalem. Even as hard as it is to be here without our families for so long we think that is the only means we have to declare that [our expulsion] is illegal and is against all international laws. We have nowhere else to go. This is our original country and our original city. My father was born here; my grandfather was born here so we have been here hundreds of years. All we are demanding is to stay in our homes and we are sure that we will get it because it’s our right and the deportation is against all international laws.

MB: If deporting you is the first step in a plan for mass deportations, what do you think Israel’s end game is?

MT: We think that there is a plan from the Israeli side to make East Jerusalem Jewish and they have many practices to do so. One of them that is the most dangerous is our deportation. If they demolish your house, you can always build another building. But deporting people — how can you talk about a city without people? What they want is to legalize the Nakba.

Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author working in Israel-Palestine. His articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Huffington Post, Salon.com, Al-Jazeera English and many other publications. He is a writing fellow for the Nation Institute. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.