Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2001, page 13

A House Is a Home

By Samah Jabr With Betsy Mayfield

No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.—Article 17. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A few years ago, my family built a small apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Shufat. We did this to safeguard our Jerusalem ID cards and to maintain our right to live in and move about our own hometown.

Owning property in Jerusalem is a necessity for any Palestinian Jerusalemite who wishes to live in the city where he or she was born. Our family home lies in Dahiat Al-Barid, immediately within Israel’s mandated northern border of Jerusalem. That makes it vulnerable should Israel once again arbitrarily decide to expand the city.

We were fortunate to be able to purchase the apartment, because at the time the Israeli government was stepping up its “quota system” designed to limit the number of Palestinian Jerusalemites by changing the city’s borders. A Palestinian native of Jerusalem might one day find that his or her dwelling suddenly is beyond the border, and his or her Jerusalem citizenship just as suddenly gone. Without Jerusalem citizenship—which non-Jewish residents must prove by showing on demand the apartheid-like ID card—Palestinians are prevented from attending Friday prayer at the Al-Asqa mosque, shopping in the Old City, or legally attending schools or programs which previously had been a regular part of their everyday comings and goings.

An Israeli Jerusalemite, however, can decide to leave Jerusalem and move to Tel Aviv, America or anywhere in the world without losing his or her right to live there. Similarly, any Jewish person from Tel Aviv, America or anywhere in the world can move to Jerusalem, settle there and become an official resident. The Middle East’s only democracy does not grant this right to Muslim and Christian Palestinians, many of whom were born in the Holy City.

In order to maintain the apartment, I can often enjoy the wonderful option of privacy by living there. But, if Shufat is my sanctuary, Dahiat Al-Barid is my home. When I think of my mother, I see her bustling around moving furniture that everyone else thinks is just fine where it is. I hear my father and brother groaning about having to lift that sofa “again,” but moving it just the same, winking at each other as they do.

Eleven years have passed since we had the good fortune to move into the Dahiat Al-Barid house. I was in my early teens, but, even now, when I want a happy memory, I think of those first days in our new home. The whole family worked like bees surrounding our mother queen. “Samah, are you cleaning that brush before you dip it in another color?” Mom would call out. We’d all laugh. Of course, I was cleaning the brush. As a family, we painted all the walls, all the doors, window sills and shutters. We placed our old furniture in its new environment, drilled holes in the wall for our pictures, and hung new curtains. Then we attacked the garden, digging, planting, watering.

For many people, moving is a stressful activity, but for us the move was sheer joy. There was no time to think or worry about the Israeli settlement Neve Yaqoub that lies a hundred meters from our house and expands closer to us every year. We had our own lives to attend to, our own place. We were simply happy.

Since those moving-in days, my older siblings have married and gone their own ways. Yet they all come back at least once a year to Dahiat Al-Barid. Each year, we spend a couple of weeks working together to renew the beauty of our family house. Even our beloved grandma comes to boss us like Mom did when we were kids. Our identity and life as a family—all of our energy and efforts, all of our enjoyment of each other—manifests itself in that house and in the so-called “renovations” we love undertaking together.

In occupied Palestine, building a new house is no small matter. It is an undertaking that requires years of saving and planning. Once money to buy land or a property is in the bank, repeated trips to secure various licenses from our own government and from the Israeli government, which insists on its right to interfere in Palestinians’ private affairs, become a daily travail.

Like many young families, even in America, saving to achieve our goal was part of our lives for a very long time. It took my parents, a professor and a university administrator, five years, with all of us old enough to work contributing to the family “house fund,” to raise the money to actually build our house, deal with two governments and make the house a reality. The younger children gave up clothes and treats we would have liked in order to help “pay” for the house. It became a goal for us.

Neither Dahiat Al-Barid nor Shufat is considered a “ritzy” neighborhood in any sense of the word. There is no equivalent of Beverly Hills in East Jerusalem. Still, the West Bank does have places where families can lead lives approximating normalcy—working, going to school, having friends over or going out, caring for their house.

As pleasant as Dahiat Al-Barid and Shufat are for us, however, a satisfying lifestyle is not an option for our countrymen who live in the refugee camp at the bottom of our hill. There Palestinians live amid all the squalor that the words “refugee camp” imply: in crowded and poorly built housing compounds, many containing only shells of houses, merged one upon the other, defaced by graffiti seen in the more urban areas of East Jerusalem. There is little water available—certainly not an extra drop to nurture even one decorative vine such as those which adorn our doorway. Privacy is not even to be imagined.

During my years as a medical student, I worked with the people who live in refugee camps around Ramallah and Jerusalem. Understandably, the atmosphere in the camps reflected the residents’ frustration with the constant and pervasive interference of two bureaucracies, Palestinian and Israeli, in their daily lives. I learned, however, that the love I feel for my family home is not unique. Photos nailed to a wall, a calendar with a colorful picture of an ocean, a special corner made clean and neat for prayer, a special rug or a small token of another home, now abandoned, adorn refugee houses with as much pride as any piece of furniture or any trinket in our family home. If they are not tucked away in drawers for safekeeping, keys of lost homes are hung on walls like original paintings, valued for what they represent and what they say to those who look upon them.

Last month, 17 Palestinian houses were demolished without notice in the Shufat refugee camp. “The camp is growing toward our Visgat Zeiev settlement,” said the Israelis who came with their bulldozers. The next day in Gaza, the Israelis razed 27 more homes in Rafah. “Security reasons,” officials told the receptive press. This morning a huge building was demolished in Beit Hanina because the owner was “a relative of the terrorist Ali Al-Joulani.” Now, many Palestinians are told, “Be ready, your house could be gone in the blink of an eye.”

In occupied Palestine, if one member of a family is even suspected of criminal activity, the family’s home can be leveled in an instant. Where else in the world do parents, brothers and sisters lose their homes because one member of the family is suspected of committing a crime? Did the U.S. government destroy the family home of Timothy McVeigh? Or, for that matter, did Israel destroy the terrorist Baruch Goldstein’s house?

Over its long black years of occupation, Israel has destroyed or taken over an uncountable number of Palestinian homes, including those of such well-known intellectuals as Edward Said and Hisham Sharabi. Indeed, Israelis brag about the “romantic Arabic style” of their expropriated houses!

Discreet Expropriation

Israelis constantly worry about their own security, parroting the old propaganda line that all we Arabs want is to push them into the sea. Their demolishing of Palestinian homes indicates that the reality is just the opposite: that the Israeli goal is to uproot and push out the Arabs if they will not leave of their own accord. As Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, wrote in his Diaries in 1895, “We shall have to spirit the penniless population across the border... Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”

Imagine the potential for peace if we Palestinians were permitted to focus on family and safely celebrate the happiness of daily life in our private homes. When people have even modest homes such as my family’s, that proudly represent a lifetime of hope and accomplishment, their thoughts are not tied up with anything which need worry Israelis—or anyone else.

If the Israelis want peace, as they claim, why don’t they let us have our homes and our land, go back to their “Israel” (not into the sea), and leave the West Bank and Gaza to us Palestinians? Why don’t they allow Palestinians to live, not merely exist, by their side, united through economic development, stewardship of water and other natural resources, and mutual respect?

This can happen only through the establishment of a viable Palestinian sovereign government—not as the result of Israeli military checkpoints, tanks, and settlers unwilling to live under Palestinian law, but quite willing to take our homes, our lives, and our livelihoods.

That a house requires a foundation is a concept that Israeli leaders, Palestinian leaders and would-be peacebrokers ought to understand. Leaders exist on both sides, and throughout the world, who could help build this foundation. The question is, will they? 

Samah Jabr is a medical student who writes from her home in Jerusalem. Betsy Mayfield is an American writer living in Iowa.

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