What is happening in my hometown of Sheikh Jarrah and the country as a whole?

I am Muna AlSheikh from Sheikh Jarrah, my father was born and raised in Sheikh Jarrah, I grew up in Jordan, digesting in my body and heart the impact of my parents’ stories about Jerusalem, and the ancestral stories about Palestine, pain accompanied me for long time and still does, as it accompanies many Palestinians. I witnessed my father dying slowly with physical illness while suffocating into depression because he thought he could go back to Jerusalem or at least be buried there. We buried my father in 2010, on a hill in Amman Jordan, facing the direction of Jerusalem. That was his one and only request.

Here is my cousin’s sharing, entitled ” What is happening in my hometown of Sheikh Jarrah and the country as a whole”. It is an invitation to you all to be aware, thus take action. Martin Luther King Jr. said: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Feel free to forward this letter to your circles, sharing our stories helps us to recognize the common humanity in us all, it unites us.

I remain, with hope and resilience, and most of all I remain standing strong with my heart, fully open to sorrow and joy.

Wishing everyone and Mother Earth peace

Muna provides Peace-building from Inside Out/Workshop and Classes Facilitation/Holistic Counceling, and is one of the RCNV Antiracism Book Circle Organizers

Read the Letter from Muna’s Cousin Below

I’ve been asked by friends to help explain what’s happening in Jerusalem and the rest of the country. Especially the town that I coincidentally share part of my name with. 

Trying to explain what’s happening without giving any context and highlighting the major events that took place in the past 100 years would be like showing one piece of a million piece puzzle. You may get an idea of what’s in this one piece but it doesn’t paint enough of a picture to mean anything. 

Sheikh Jarrah is where I spent the first half of my life. Seeing what’s unfolding these past couple of weeks is more than posts gone viral on Facebook and Instagram, hashtags and the latest news story that people around the world will most likely forget in a week or two. It’s where I spent the first 18 years of my life and it’s where all my friends gathered in the local park to play.  It’s where I rode my BMX up and down the narrow streets knowing every corner and bump in the road like the back of my hand and it’s where my family’s history was written. Growing up in Sheikh Jarrah we didn’t see Israeli flags flying over part of the neighborhood or Israeli settlers roaming the streets with police and army protection. The neighborhood was located in east Jerusalem which meant its residents at the time were Palestinian. 

The families that lived in our neighborhood were known to all of us. The homes that we grew up in were built by our grandparents and great grandparents. Actually most of these older homes were the first to ever be built outside the old city walls dating back to the 1850s. Their heritage and history is well known to their occupants and the people that lived around them. Sheikh Jarrah was not a populated town. We rarely had people move in and out of town. When one of my friends from the U.S. visited our home 6 years ago i remember my late grandma telling him in her broken English “This home is older than America” (She mostly meant Florida since that’s where her two sons live) but to her that statement meant generations of Palestinian history in this one home.  

Now let’s take a step back and highlight some history from the position of a Palestinian for some context. I use data in my professional life to drive my day to day decisions and explain the problems we take on and try to solve. Data paints a picture of what’s actually happening and takes out the speculations. Data integrity is important but when we are talking about a hundred years of documented history even if you screw up a little the patterns will directionally be accurate. 

I am summarizing here otherwise this will turn into a book:

  • Belfour declaration in 1922
    • At the time of this declaration the jewish population in historic Palestine was less than 10%.

The biggest issue with the Belfour declaration is it promised a land that already had people living in it. One of the most quoted phrases of the Zionist movement that pushed for this deceleration is “A land without a people for a people without a land”.

That so-called land without a people is what ~9 million people call home today (Christians and Muslims). Factoring in people living outside of Palestine, people living in the West Bank and Gaza and people living inside Israel.

The migration of Jews to Palestine started shortly after in the 1930s. Israel wasn’t a country. Jews were a minority. 

Between the 1930s and today the following transpired with the help of super powers like the U.S., Britain and France:

  • Palestinians went from a majority to a minority through the disposition of millions to refugee camps in neighboring countries. This was done by leveling villages and expelling them out of their homes. Israeli cities were built where these villages existed and homes in major cities were given to the newly immigrated jewish population. 
  • The jewish population sky rocketed through migration from Europe and the rest of the world 
  • Palestinians lost 85% of their land
  • Palestinians living in the 15% in the West Bank and Gaza are put under excruciating living conditions. Settlements surround their towns. They have no control over any of their resources like water, electricity or food. Their movement is limited. Their economy is non existent so their livelihood depends on donations coming from international communities. They live in open air prisons with limited human rights. 
  • Millions of Palestinians that remained in what is Israel today now live under the occupation in East Jerusalem and northern towns like Nazareth, Haifa, Yafa etc. 

I recently saw an article in which an Israeli is arguing that the Israeli Arabs of 1948 should be grateful for living in Israel and given free healthcare and benefits. I wondered if this person sat on the other side of the table would feel the same way. No one should be grateful for being uprooted and live in a country that displaced their grandparents and families and treat them like second class citizens. To have these thoughts you need to think of these people as different from yourself. As less of human beings. 

During the past 90 years we had a limited chance for peace. 

  • 1993 Oslo Accords (Peace agreement) is signed 
    • Yitzhak Rabin is the prime minister of Israel at the time 
    • Yaseer Arafat is the leader of the PLO 
  • 1995 Yitzhak Rabin gets assassinated by right wing Jewish extremist 
  • 2000 second Palestinian uprising kicks off 

This was in response to the failed agreements of the Oslo accord with more land grab, human right violations and the visit of Ariel Sharon the prime minister at the time to Al-Aqsa mosque. The second most sacred mosque to Muslims and Palestinians around the world. 

The Palestinian resistance to losing 85% of their homeland and any hope of a descent life was done through many means. Some that are impossible to justify like suicide bombings. The killing of innocent people going about their lives is not something anyone should justify. These bombing and other actions like demonstrations that turned deadly for most Palestinian youth were highlighted as terrorism and anti-semitism to justify more land grab, more control of Palestinian lives, and less consideration to Palestinian human rights. 

This brings me to the present day and what the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem is trying to accomplish. The homes at the heart of the story have the following history:  In 1956 UNRWA and Jordan (The governing body of east Jerusalem at the time) resettled refugees that lost their homes elsewhere in Palestine in homes built in the Sheikh Jarrah in exchange for their refugee card (Status). They would pay rent to Jordan for 3 years and they would officially give them ownership at the end of the third year.   

They didn’t give them ownership after 3 years and the families stayed in these homes. In 1967 Israel annexed east Jerusalem. Shortly after in 1972 Jewish settler organizations started presenting papers that the land is theirs and these people are trespassing.

In the 100+ years of the neighborhoods history and the history of all Palestinians towns settlers have never lived in these towns. They didn’t live there because they didn’t exist prior to the mass migration and the creation of the state on historic Palestine. The Israeli courts took on the case and ruled against Palestinians living under Israeli occupation (Who saw that coming!!). There is a famous saying that is too familiar to Palestinians that I grew up hearing that goes something like: if your opponent is the judge then who will you complain to to get your rights back? 

This is similar to illegal settlements in the West Bank but different in the way that these are not empty hilltops that belonged to Palestinians but homes that Palestinian families have spent the entirety of their life in after their ancestors got displaced from homes that they spent the entirety of their life in. These Palestinian families were displaced from Palestinian villages that are now occupied by Israelis. Getting their original homes back that their ancestors built is not something Israel will put up for discussion. Most Palestinians see this as an apartheid state trying to expel the indigenous and change the shape of the city and country they call home. This is happening as the world watches from mostly biased news stations to social media streams and feeds.

Now to answer the question: is this a private real estate dispute? It’s far from it. 

Going home to visit my family today yields a completely different experience to the one I grew up knowing. Endless questioning at borders. Israeli flags flying over homes of people I called friends growing up. Settlers roaming the streets with armed police and army soldiers. Checkpoints that stop cars on the basis of looks. If you know me you’ll know I don’t look Arab so I never get stopped but when my dad or father in law is in the car with me we automatically get stopped and checked. Unfamiliar faces everywhere. Desperation in the eyes of my friends tells me I have no right to tell them to be optimistic. I am living outside of this country and not going through the daily humiliations they have to endure.     

In Fortune 500 companies today there is a widely used tool called Design of Experiment. Teams use this tool to figure out the absolute best solution to the problems they are trying to solve. This consists of pulling and pushing on certain factors/levers and adding/removing elements until they fully optimize the solution. They experiment, record the results and move to the next step. In business you will run into the laws of physics, rules and regulations, and other limits like financial feasibility. Israel’s design of experiment has been getting outstanding results for the past 70 years without running into much of a limit. The absurd disregard of human rights gets some empty words from world leaders and as soon as people move on they turn it back on and optimize towards the ultimate goal of 100% control of the land and Palestinians no longer being an issue. This is widely accepted in Israel today. A couple of days ago I watched an interview on CNN with Don Lemon where the Israeli representative insisted that freedom for Palestinians means borders with full Israeli military control. I am not entirely sure he really understood what freedom or a free country means in modern terms. Or whether his response will be the same if he was on the receiving end of this suggestion. 

Today Israel controls 85% of the land. The low hanging fruit has been harvested and now it’s going down to home by home basis through biased courts. Israel has no motivation for Peace because it goes against its self interest. Why agree to anything if you are able to keep displacing more people and occupying more land?

I recently saw a video that’s very simple and short but explains a lot of the thinking on both sides: a Palestinian lady is yelling at a settler from the outside of a house saying: “You are stealing my house”. And him responding: “It’s not my fault”. And then: “If I don’t steal it someone else will”. That last part is what grabbed my attention. He’s not really bothered because it’s not the fact that he’s the one stealing the house that’s the issue. It’s the fact that it’s going to happen either way so its better him than someone else.  The new normal basically. 

About a year ago a good friend of mine went on a what’s called in the U.S. a birth rights trip. He is an American that’s born to a Taiwanese mom and a Jewish dad from the Czech Republic. His dad escaped Nazi Germany where he lost most of his family and ended up in Switzerland for a while then migrated to the U.S.

This trip is offered to all people with any Jewish lineage. It’s mostly a state sponsored expedition where people of ages 18 to 32 are told that this is their country and they should be protecting it by all means. They should migrate and live there and are offered citizenship while 6 million Palestinians live in refugee camps with no right to return to their own country. As we were talking through his experience he was telling me how he thought some of the statements that were made throughout this trip were absurd. He shared the following conclusion: “This is not my country and I won’t be moving here”. He also shared how as part of the trip they were lectured to by professors who explained how awful Palestinians are. He asked whether the professor had anything good to say about Palestinians to play devils advocate to which the professor had no response. Thats when he thought there is no legitimacy to any of his words. My friend is well educated and was brought up by intellectuals and around intellectuals. He grew up in California with no need to look for a better life elsewhere. He didn’t grow up around this thinking and is not easily swayed by it. Thats not the case for the rest of the youth that go on these trips. I think it’s important to reinforce that not every jewish person is Israeli. And not every Israeli is a zionist. There are many people living in the liberal parts of the country that just want to live in peace. They were born into it and do not support the racist policies of Israel. What’s true though is Israel was built on this oppressive logic from day one and it’s the law of the land today. 

I tried to explain once to another American friend that American Palestinians born and raised in the U.S. with no other citizenship are not allowed to enter Israel if at any point their parents or grandparents lived in the west bank or Gaza. His immediate response was that it’s not possible and Israel has to respect these people since they carry a U.S. citizenship and U.S. passports. When he looked into it he was perplexed that this is actually the case. 

These past couple of weeks have kicked off more than just demonstrations for basic human rights or the expelling of people from their homes. It kicked off another all out war. Palestinians militants firing rockets from Gaza into Israel and hellfire missiles raining down in response. As I watched this war unfold I ran into the following post:

When I put my head down to sleep I couldn’t stop thinking about this parent in Gaza. We see these posts and we read about them but it’s completely different when you try put yourself in their shoes and imagine this as a choice you had to make. This is a choice Palestinian families have to make today. Do I let my children live as orphans or do I want to live without my children around? And the fears of many became true. 126 so far in this past couple of weeks. 36 of them are children. (When i started writing this yesterday it was 23 children). By the time you read this more children will be massacred. In 2014, 2100 were murdered. Of which 495 were children and 253 were women. They don’t have shelters to hide in. They don’t have sirens that go off and anti-missile systems to counter these attacks. It’s not a movie or a hypothetical. They had to think of their choices and then pick from this limited list of choices. Orphans, or dead children.

This response is always met with the headline “Israel has the right to defend itself”. They have the right to live in peace. That is what the news stations are constantly putting out and the government officials are repeating without much of a story on how we got here. To fully understand the picture I would please ask you to look up the living condition of Palestinians from the limited unbiased sources available to you. And think how since 2005 23 out of 24 deaths were Palestinian. 96% as per the United Nations statistics. Think of what the family that just lost their children is going to think of this self defense? What amount of hate are they distilling in them? And then saying look.. they are terrorizing us! We want them to live under oppression. Take away their land and kill their parents and children, keep them from practicing basic human rights, and when they grow up they need to respect us because we want to live in peace. We were only protecting ourselves. That is the mythical logic of self defense circulated today. Focus on news bites and the now. Let’s not get into the why or how we got here because it doesn’t fit the narrative written by the powerful. 

In the grand scheme of things these homes represent the struggle of the past 70+ years where people either lived under apartheid or got expelled from what is known to them as home for hundreds of years. 6 million live in makeshift homes and/or live abroad in a land that’s strange to them not for the sense of adventure but to pursue a better life. Or A life period.

There is a saying I really like that rings true today: 

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”

Unfortunately in our recent history men have not only decided to do nothing but have decided to support a state where human rights is nothing but two words that get applied selectively to certain people with certain ethnic backgrounds and religions. Rings true around the world where systemic racism is present. 

If you are wondering why this is not apparent to the world it’s because the powerful have written the short term narrative through media and throughout history. 

The major powers are either covering their eyes as they watch from the sidelines or cheering for the stronger team as they see them break every law and right that’s considered a crime in their own country in the name of “ally” and to keep the Balance of Power where they would like it to be.

I write this as I sit in my home in the U.S. knowing that if I post this there is a chance I will be kept from entering the land I call home ever again. Israel abuses of power and human rights violation have no limits. Keeping someone that was born and raised in that country from exercising their basic human right is very common today. 

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