The flag draped down the entire three-storey building in the quiet Jerusalem neighbourhood of Katamon. In the weeks between Israel’s Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, it is common to see Israeli flags on houses and cars, but the size of this flag on a side street was startling.
It dawned on me that the flag was a large “fig leaf,” trying to cover up the fact that the house belongs to Palestinians, none of whom have been allowed to live in their homes since the 1948 war.
Jerusalem was divided between Jordan and Israel until the 1967 war, and in 1980 Israel declared the city united, but in reality the Eastern (Palestinian) side, with 37 per cent of Jerusalem’s residents, has been neglected by the municipality and state, and is segregated from the Western (Jewish) side of the city. The world once again saw the divisions on full display Monday when dozens of Palestinians were killed during protests over the United States embassy being relocated to Jerusalem.
At the official embassy opening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted a biblical passage from Zacharia: “Thus says the Lord, ‘I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth.”
Since the heart of Jerusalem is the walled Old City, which is primarily non-Jewish, the statement represents a fantasy, much more than a reality. The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to relocate the embassy ignores the fact that half of the city is still occupied and awaits an accepted political solution (and the reason why most embassies, including the U.S. until this move, are in Tel-Aviv).
In 2007, I rented an apartment in Katamon while on sabbatical from Queen’s University. As an Israeli Jerusalemite, I knew about the famous battle at Katamon’s St. Simeon Monastery, and that the neighbourhood housed Jewish refugees from the Old City after the war. But I knew nothing about pre-1948.
When I read In Search of Fatima, a memoir by Palestinian Ghada Karmi, I could not align her neighbourhood with the one I was now walking. The streets bear the names of Israeli militaristic landmarks from the 1948 war. Here and there blue plaques adorn a stone wall with stories of the military exploits of the right-wing paramilitary groups, “The Irgun” and “Lehi,” also known as “The Stern Gang.”
But nowhere in sight (aside from Arabic stone carvings above a few doorways) is the Palestinian history present. Karmi’s landmarks are now unmarked.
Not that long ago, realtors would advertise “Arabic villa for sale” in bold letters, knowing the idea of the beautiful craftmanship associated with Arabic villas would raise the house’s market value. Then it became “Ottoman houses” — even though the neighbourhood was developed in the 1920s after the Ottomans were long gone.
And then any indication of Middle Eastern origin was dropped from the ads. The enormous flag furled down the three-story building is part of this wilful omission, a strong desire to forget, bury and erase the Palestinian past of Israel.
When the United Nations voted on Resolution 181 in 1947 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the country had 600,000 Jews and 1.2 million Palestinians. The land was to be divided: 55 per cent of it was to be given to 30 per cent of the population. The Jewish leadership readily accepted the deal.
The Palestinian and Arab world understandably rejected it.
On May 14, 1948, the British left Palestine, and Israel declared independence. On the next day, the armies of the neighbouring Arab countries invaded, and a full war erupted. Within eighteen months, Israel managed (miraculously, perhaps) to conquer much more territory than the partition plan designated for it. As a result, the nascent state expelled at least 750,000 Palestinians.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said: “As for the Arab refugees, we must do everything to ensure that they never do return!”
Indeed, in September 1948, the Israeli militant group Lehi assassinated the UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, for whom the bottom line was that all displaced people would be allowed back to their homes.
From 1949 to 1951, Israel settled new Jewish immigrants into the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem. Israel passed a series of laws preventing the return of the Palestinian refugees.
No compensation was ever offered, nor any official acknowledgement of their loss. If empathy from a displaced Jewish family to a Palestinian one was felt and expressed, it was in private.
Meanwhile, the Israeli public sphere actively and consistently erased the Palestinian homeowners from its consciousness. Indeed, a fellow Israeli filmmaker told me recently: “I realized one day that for 16 years I grew up in an Arab home, but I never asked myself who are those Arabs?”
Excavating the past for a better future
For six years, I co-excavated the Palestinian past of Katamon. Using digital tools, we virtually brought the Palestinians back into a space that has been declared Israeli.
The result is the interactive documentary Jerusalem, We Are Here.
I witnessed happy memories and nostalgia, but also the pain of losing homes and community. Together we created virtual walking tours, and when we reach any of the participants’ homes, viewers can watch short poetic videos that we produced together.
Through this process, I realized that if we — as Israelis — do not face the past and remedy its wrongs, we will have no future.
For most Palestinians the Nakba (or catastrophe) of 1948 is a festering wound.
Katamon was conquered on May 2, 1948. But the Palestinian children and grandchildren of Katamon — all born in exile, and many who have not ever been able to return, even for a visit — still know the neighbourhood by heart.
Since March 30, 2018 — Land Day — Palestinians in Gaza have been walking towards the bordered fence with Israel demanding a return to their villages and towns inside Israel. The Gazans have been under blockade since 2007, locked in what has been described as “the world’s largest open air prison.”
Until recently they protested their condition and called for the removal of the blockade. But the solidarity with Land Day — a commemoration of a 1976 violent Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land owned by citizens in the Galilee — represents a new political horizon, in which solidarity between occupied Palestinians and citizens of the state has formed. The marches, organized by a popular committee, have claimed many lives. On May 14, more than 50 Palestinians died and hundreds were injured, but the Gazans will continue to march. This March of Return symbolizes a new political reality, in which all Palestinians under Israeli control share political goals.
For most Israelis, the mere mention of the Right of Return of refugees (U.N. resolution 194) is tantamount to a call for the destruction of the state of Israel, and hence taboo.
Liberal Israelis are willing to acknowledge the pain, maybe even consider reparations, but only a small percentage of them (although growing, especially among young adults) are willing to consider return.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a zero-sum game: Both peoples will continue to cohabitate the land, and there’s no way to remedy one wrong expulsion by initiating another.
Both tragically, in Gaza, and pompously, in Jerusalem, the developments of May 14 mark the day where Palestinians, Israelis and the U.S. all admitted that a One State solution is where we are headed.
If we’re to have a shared future in Israel/Palestine, acknowledgement, compensation and return will have to be negotiated openly and with all parties having an equal say.
Real conciliation in Israel/Palestine is possible, and in fact, amicable living between Jews and Arabs was the norm for centuries. But with the lack of political vision on the part of most of our leaders, it is up to us — ordinary Israeli citizens and occupied Palestinians alike — to start imagining the terms.
To view the documentary, go to: Jerusalem, We Are Here