Friday, April 10, 2015

An Israeli journalist in Tsur Baher

Israelis, including Israelis who live in west Jerusalem, rarely venture into the neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. Eliezer Yaari has just written a book on Yaari's encounters with the Palestinians who live in Tsur Baher, an area of the city that was annexed to Israel after the 1967 war. This story is from Ha'aretz, April 10, 2015

A link to Yaari's website about the book can be found here: The Book (English). In Hebrew: The Book (Hebrew).

Doctor's orders led this journalist to discover his Palestinian neighbors

After heart surgery, doctors told journalist Eliezer Yaari he needed to walk. His feet led him to a nearby Palestinian village – a microcosm of political developments in Jerusalem – and a new book with some frank observations.

Eliezer Yaari, on the backdrop of Tsur Baher. Photo by Emil Salman
By Nir Hasson | Apr. 10, 2015 | 4:10 AM


The hill that divides the cemetery of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel from the Palestinian village of Tsur Baher is visible from the home of journalist Eliezer Yaari, in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood. It’s a broad, open expanse that until 1967 was the site of a large Jordanian army base and until 15 years ago still contained a minefield, the last remaining one in the vicinity. These days it’s an olive grove, in the heart of which is an impressive – and disturbing – sculpture entitled “Olive Columns” (by Ran Morin, 1991): three olive trees planted atop huge 15-meter-high columns.

'Olive Columns' by Ran Morin (1991). 
Impressive and disturbing. Photo by Emil Salman
The national watershed runs across the hill, as does the unofficial boundary between East and West Jerusalem – on the right, if you’re facing north, Arnona and Ramat Rachel; on the left, Tsur Baher and Umm Touba. Almost 50 years have passed since Israel conquered and annexed East Jerusalem, and it’s been 15 years since the mines were cleared, but the border remains clear and sharp. Few Israelis cross it.

In the past two years, however, Yaari crossed and recrossed the (in)visible boundary time and again. He struck up conversations with residents of Tsur Baher and photographed them. The result is a book, “Beyond the Mountains of Darkness,” probably the first book written in our time by an Israeli Jew about a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem. (It will be available in English as an eBook later this month; in the meantime, a teaser can be seen at

“Beyond the Mountains” ends with the wave of the violence that rocked Jerusalem last summer, following the kidnapping and murder of three yeshiva students and the subsequent murder of a Palestinian teen, which made the feeling of a boundary splitting the city even more acute.

Next to the olive trees are large blocks of concrete with which the Israeli security forces blocked the road to nearby villages, as a collective punishment meted out to Palestinians involved in the violence. A police van still occasionally blocks the road.

Yaari provides fascinating documentation of the complexity of Palestinian life in Jerusalem: On the one hand, efforts to achieve social and economic integration in Israeli society; on the other, tenacious adherence to a Palestinian and Islamic identity, and to waging the struggle against the occupation. Above all, though, the book offers a picture of an intimate, unforgettable acquaintanceship between neighbors on the two sides of the border in Jerusalem.

“‘Beyond the mountains of darkness’ is a phrase aimed at the readers,” Yaari says, in an interview with Haaretz. “It’s not really beyond the hills of darkness. The people there have ears, eyes and a political viewpoint, and we don’t know them.”

Yaari, a former air force fighter pilot, was a correspondent, editor and anchorman and Channel 1 news, and afterward director general of the New Israel Fund. He left the NIF, which works to advance democracy and equality in Israel, in 2010, just before it became the focus of a demonization campaign by right-wing politicians.

Two years ago, not long after his doctors told him he needed heart surgery, his second grandchild was born. That occurred the day after a heavy snowstorm hit Jerusalem. For a moment, he writes, he felt as though he was in the Russia of his grandfather, his blood carrying memories of frigid winter scenes. He was born in the East, he notes, in Jerusalem on the edge of the desert, but on that winter’s day, he felt momentarily disconnected from this land. Then a voice sliced through the imagined snowy silence – the call of the muezzin, “Allah hu akbar,” “God is most great” – and he was instantly catapulted back to Jerusalem, to the village across from his home, whose sounds he heard but whose residents he didn’t know.

Like many residents of West Jerusalem, Yaari admits, he is ignorant when it comes to East Jerusalem and its inhabitants. “The line exists, make no mistake about it,” he says. “Formally, though, Jerusalem has been one unit for the past 50 years. I am ashamed that I don’t know the language and that I didn’t act earlier. I say this with embarrassment.”

Following his operation, he obeyed his doctors’ orders and started to take walks. At one point, not far from his house, “I came to a descent, and to avoid having to exert myself by climbing back up afterward, I kept walking toward Tsur Baher,” he recalls.

The first person he met, by the olive trees, was a shepherd named Sallah Abu Kaff, who told him that herding sheep was just a hobby and that he was actually truck driver by profession. That conceptual duality, between livelihood and the everyday, on the one hand, and preconceived “Orientalist” images, on the other, would return.

Nothing to hide

Many Israelis who know something about Tsur Baher probably think of it in a political or security context. One village resident perpetrated the 2008 bulldozer attack that claimed three Israeli lives. Another resident is Mohammed Abu Tir, a member of the Palestinian parliament on behalf of Hamas, who is known for his ruddy beard and for being parodied several years ago on the popular Channel 2 satirical show “A Wonderful Country” – the only Jerusalem-based Palestinian to enjoy that honor. (He and the rest of the vast Abu Tir family live in Umm Tuba, a huge neighborhood in Tsur Baher.)

The village is strongly identified with Hamas, and until a few weeks ago, residents flew the movement’s green flag in its center. But when one actually crosses the dark mountains of images, a far more complex reality presents itself. Though Tsur Baher is associated with the Islamist Hamas, it may also be the most feminist Palestinian village in the West Bank. Many of it s female residents run businesses, NGOs and other organizations, many of the drivers on the roads are women, and the local girls’ school is a major source of pride.

In addition, quite a few residents are businessmen and civil servants, some of them quite senior, on the Israeli side of the city. And there is a united village leadership that is determined to improve the quality of life of its residents – via tense cooperation with the Israeli authorities.

Many of the people Yaari met do not fit some of the conventional stereotypes of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. For example, Mohammed Hamed teaches Arabic and is a Ph.D. student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His subject: Hebrew grammar in the period of Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon, the 10th-century philosopher and linguist. Nesim Abu Khalef is an engineer at Intel; Jamal Dawith is a senior employee at the Jewish National Fund; and Ibrahim Dabash is a veteran broadcaster on Israel Radio. Another resident, Ali Nimer, is the director of one of the biggest transportation companies in Jerusalem – Ya’ari tells me that he works with tourists “from Morocco to Iraq” – and Dalal Dafi manages a not-for-profit education association that employs 180 people.

Last month, Tsur Baher’s Tareq Abu Hamed won was selected for the position of Israel’s deputy chief scientist. He is almost certainly the highest-ranking Israeli government official from the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem. Like most of that population, he too does not hold Israeli citizenship, but only temporary-resident status.

“I’d like to say a few words about my ‘schizophrenia,’” Abu Hamed tells Yaari in the book. “The Arabs of East Jerusalem have several advantages. You can travel around the world with a Jordanian passport, with which you can enter Arab countries. You leave here with an Israeli travel document. These passports reflect the schizophrenic situation – we want and don’t want Israel, at the same time.”

Everyone Yaari spoke to told him that the fact that they chose to utilize their skills and achieve professional success in Israel hasn’t changed their national or religious identity. Thus, the Intel engineer speaks of a “great commitment” to his nation and of waging an ongoing struggle to resolve the Palestinian problem.

Yaari: “All those I spoke to, including those who had accepted an Israeli ID card, told me, ‘You can give us ID cards, but you can’t take away our identity as Muslims who belong to the Palestinian people.’”

This duality was equally apparent in the Abu Bakr Girls School – a private institution, like many of the schools in the village. Fully 80 percent of its graduates go on to academic studies (about double the Israeli average). But Yaari notices that at the school, the main decorative motif in the corridors are “keys of the return” – iconic house keys that Palestinians took with when they had to leave their homes in 1948 and 1967, believing they would soon return.

Hasan Abu Asalah. Photo by Emil Salman
“That’s like a punch in the stomach to an Israeli,” he says. “But it’s our misperception, because to teach mathematics and science without also teaching homeland studies is impossible, both for us and for them.”

Hasan Abu Asalah, who accompanied Yaari on many of his visits to the village, adds, “We have nothing to hide. We are cultivating the scientists of the future, but also the leaders who will redeem the Palestinian people.”

‘A new breed’

I asked Yaari what surprised him during his visits. “My biggest surprise was that the main issue for most of the people I met concerned the education their children will receive. A coordinated effort to improve education in all its facets was launched in the village in 2000, and the first pupils to benefit from the upgrade are now graduating. Tsur Baher is investing a great deal in education, and Israeli legislation about state-funded classes for preschoolers applies to East Jerusalem, too. The project was also a big boost for women who wanted to enter the job market.

“Another subject that surprised me,” he continues, “was the approach to religion. I found people who are not religious, but for whom Islam is an essential part of their life. Take Mohammed Fawaka, for example, the director of the local Leumit HMO. He’s a modern fellow who attended an Israeli university and is in business. True, he doesn’t have a prayer rug in his office, but he has a big picture of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

HMO director Mohammed Fawaka.Photo by Emil Salman
“Islam is deeply ingrained. But that doesn’t mean the people are becoming extremists. There are six mosques in Tsur Baher – and people tell me quietly that they are empty. But even if they don’t always go to pray, religion is still a very strong element in their identity.”

Yaari adds that he also discovered much about the hierarchy in the general Palestinian population. “As newspaper readers, we think that it’s Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] who decides things and that there is a hierarchical order. But the order is actually very different. What’s most important is the nuclear family, then the extended family. In Tsur Baher the territory of the extended family is sacrosanct.”

Yaari found that East Jerusalem Palestinians constitute a group unto themselves. “I didn’t get swept into romanticism, and it’s so easy to slide into ‘orientalism.’ But you meet smart, well-established, educated people – people of the world. They have become agents between the West Bank and Israel, something of a new breed. In the past, you could divide the Palestinians into four units: Israel, Gaza, West Bank and the diaspora. Now there is also East Jerusalem. They are a subgroup in terms of employment and also linguistically.

“Take Anis Abu Tir. He’s a technician for Yes [satellite television] and works in the territories, traveling between the settlements and army bases. His advantage over other employees is that he doesn’t need a security guard. He tells me, ‘If I feel like it, I get into my car, and in an hour I’m in Tel Aviv.’ That’s how it is.”

You are describing an “Israelization” process. Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett views this as a permanent solution: All Israel has to do is improve their lives, they will get used to the good life and will stop demanding a state, and no one will talk about dividing Jerusalem anymore.

“They are not about to give up their identity. They say: Just because you have forced a political identity on me doesn’t mean I am going to relinquish my religious or national identity. They don’t see the existing situation as a solution, but they have learned to live with it – after all, it’s been almost 50 years.”

During the writing of the book, Yaari was invited to a wedding in the village. The high point of the evening came around 11 P.M., he writes, when a local troupe did a dance featuring a fiery display and flags – Palestinian – in honor of the groom. Guests moved aside so Yaari could photograph the event. This, he observes, is how a member of the Palestinian nation celebrates his marriage, even when he is politically part of Israeli Jerusalem. The oath of loyalty to his flag on his wedding day is natural and celebratory.

Where do things go from here?

“The overall conception was that if we made life hard for them they would not stay – but that failed. When [Yesh Atid leader] Yair Lapid was asked what he thought about dividing Jerusalem, he said Jerusalem is ‘an idea.’ That makes me furious: I am not an idea, and neither is the person who lives across from my window. What we’re doing is holding down the lid tightly to stop it from blowing off. I don’t envisage major political change in the foreseeable future. So people are telling themselves, ‘If no one at the top is doing anything, we at the bottom have to look after our own interests.’

“I didn’t set out to draw conclusions,” Yaari continues, “but if there is a conclusion, it’s that Jerusalem is a binational city, and if we want to solve the problems, we have to begin by paying attention to the people on whom we have forced ourselves. The potential exists for a shared, jointly organized city. We have to see that as a resource, not a burden. All we’re doing is praying that the situation won’t blow up. And we’re also touching sensitive nerves on the Temple Mount – one sure way to keep the [same] story going for many more years.

“People always said that [the issue of] Jerusalem is the toughest nut to crack, so it should be left until the end. But it’s actually the opposite: We need to start with Jerusalem and bring about a division, whether in terms of sovereignty or autonomy. After we solve that, all the rest won’t be so difficult anymore. The solution has to give these people the minimum, not only economically but also in regard to their honor.”

Potential for violence

A recurrent theme of Yaari’s interlocutors was that a violent eruption would occur because of the political situation, economic pressure and, more critically, the concern that Israel would damage the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Temple Mount in general. Yet, for the most part, calm had prevailed.

In early 2014, Yaari found cause for some optimism in the fact that political slogans had been erased from a wall in the village and replaced with one word – “Barcelona” – referring to the soccer team. He wrote on his Facebook page: “These are the moments that make life worthwhile, moments when politics disappears and what remains is people’s true loves.” But he was mistaken.

Later in the year, the situation deteriorated rapidly: a hunger strike by security prisoners, the kidnap-murder of three yeshiva students, a wave of arrests of Hamas activists, among them some village residents, and the closure by police of the building housing the office of the movement’s local leadership. A few weeks later, one day after the three students’ bodies were found, a Palestinian teenager was brutally murdered in East Jerusalem, and shortly afterward a war broke out in the Gaza Strip.

Tsur Baher and Jerusalem’s other Arab neighborhoods – indeed, the whole city – were hurled many years back. Night after night, masked young people clashed with the police. Israeli security forces sporadically blocked the road to the village next to the olive trees monument with large concrete blocks. A swastika was scrawled on a wall of the old Jordanian army outpost. A gang of masked individuals stormed the new community center and torched it.

The situation has calmed down since then. The community center was repaired, the swastika was erased and the Hamas flags that were hoisted on electric poles were taken down. But the potential for violence continues to simmer beneath the surface.

“I am not a prophet, I am a journalist,” Yaari says. “But I came out of this story more optimistic than when I entered it. We’re in a binational situation for the foreseeable future. Three of the country’s four districts are binational: Jerusalem, Galilee and the Negev. That’s not to say that I advocate binationalism – but that’s the situation. Part of our propaganda involves dehumanization of the other, because humanism is confusing.

“At 3:50 A.M., every day, the muezzin sounds his call. Sometimes he leaves the microphone open, and you hear him coughing. Jerusalemites have learned to live with it. The acoustics in the city are such that you become accustomed. Recently I was at a basketball game in Jerusalem, and there was a wedding in Beit Safafa [another Palestinian part of the city], with fireworks. All the fans from Tel Aviv pressed up against the walls, but the Jerusalem residents continued as though nothing had happened. Jerusalem is founded on being different.”

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