From the top of the hill, I see a blotch of navy blue and khaki green against the backdrop of a Biblical landscape. There are about 30 police officers and soldiers in full riot gear. They huddle together on opposite sides of the road. All is silent for a moment, then a rock comes flying and they race after the youth who has flung it. A loud and percussive pop reverberates around the valley and a fog of tear gas fills the air. It is a typical Friday afternoon in East Jerusalem.
Two years have passed since the last time I was here in the Silwan district, on the cusp of the Old City. The tension is more palpable and there are more Israeli flags here now, a sure sign that Palestinians are being driven from their homes by force.
Fakhri Abu Diab, a community leader, says he had been expected in court a few days earlier. The Israeli authorities want to take over more than 80 Arab houses to make way for the City of David park. That park is promoted by Zionist extremists who claim to have unearthed a royal palace from 3,000 years ago. The court hearing on the project was called off at the last minute because the judge handling the case committed suicide.
The Diab family are paying a heavy psychological price for their efforts to save their homes. Last month the Israeli police turned up at his front door in the early hours of the morning. They arrested his 19-year-old son, alleging that he had been throwing stones. Diab followed them to the police station. “They took my ID and I waited for four hours,” he tells me. “One said: ‘I want to cut your tongue because what you say is dangerous’. I said: ‘All people have the right to speak. Me and my children are against the demolition of our home but we are non-violent people.’”
Diab had to pay 2,000 shekels (€400), more than the average monthly wage for a Palestinian worker, to have his son released. Arrests of children and adolescents are common in Silwan; in early February, police also nabbed a 42-year-old woman, who they found alone when they broke into her house. The habitual use of tear gas means that locals often feel they are smothering. The metal canisters containing tear gas are collected by residents after they have been fired. A recent inspection of such canisters found that some had past their “use-by” date almost five years ago. Israeli forces still fired them, even though doctors have warned that tear gas becomes more toxic after it expires. The tear gas grenades are manufactured by Combined Systems Incorporated, a firm based in New Jersey. Although promotional catalogues describe them as non-lethal, Jawaher Abu Rahmah died at the beginning of January after she inhaled tear gas during a protest against the massive wall Israel has built in the West Bank.
On paper, the European Union is opposed to the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem. In a secret report, that was leaked to the press last month, EU diplomats protested at Israel’s expropriation of Arab property. This is in contravention of international law; the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 forbids an occupying power from transferring its civilian population into the territory that it occupies. Of more than 500,000 Israel settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories, about 190,000 live in East Jerusalem, the report noted.
The apparently strong stance of these diplomats is not replicated by other EU bodies. In their report, the diplomats criticised the way a pro-settler group El’ad has been tasked with managing the archaeological sites Israel regards as central to the City of David scheme. “The organisation has entered into a partnership with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) which is paid directly by El’ad to physically carry out the excavations without Palestinian involvement or international oversight,” the report said.
The same IAA is among the participants in Euromed Heritage, an EU-funded scheme allocated €13.5 million between 2008 and 2012. That is despite how the authority is located in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. This is just one example of how the EU is failing to live up to its legal obligations not to confer any recognition on Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967. Europol, the EU’s police office, is examining ways of cooperating with the Israeli police, despite how its national headquarters are also in East Jerusalem.
Catherine Ashton personifies the inconsistency of the EU’s approach. As the Union’s foreign policy chief, she has issued several statements against the expansion of Israeli settlements here. Yet she has embraced the political architects of the expansion. When she chose the Middle East for her first working trip abroad of 2011, she exulted in how EU-Israel relations are “strong and solid” and voiced hope they will become even stronger in the months ahead. She is scheduled to discuss the practical aspects of these links with Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, this week.
There is much talk here about the uprising in Egypt that caused Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. The Israeli government is petrified by the turn of events. Israel had relied on Mubarak to abet its crimes, particularly to enforce the blockade on Gaza. It is too early to say what the Cairo protests will mean for Palestine but the discomfiture of the Israeli elite offers at least some hope.
·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 20-26 February 2011