East Jerusalem is occupied but the hearts and minds of the children are not

This column first appeared in the Middle East Eye on 6/10/2016

Jerusalem has a special place in the hearts of people all over the world. I was fortunate to visit it again recently, or rather “return”, as my parents were both born in this great city.

My first sighting of the Dome of the Rock never fails to send a shiver down my spine. There is no other place like it. It is home to holy sites revered by followers of the world’s three great religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism. They are literally within shouting distance of each other.

Politically, Jerusalem is claimed by Israel as its “eternal united capital”, but the Palestinians too claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. No state, apart from Israel, considers it to be Israel’s capital and, in the absence of a Palestinian state, Palestinians can only dream of it becoming their capital.

The additional reality is that far from it being united, the city is divided into West Jerusalem, which is predominantly, if not exclusively, inhabited by Jews today after the expulsion of its Palestinian residents by Jewish gangs in 1948, and East Jerusalem with an overwhelmingly Palestinian population but an increasing number of Jewish settlers in illegal settlements which Israel has been building since the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967.

One city, two worlds

The contrast between the two Jerusalems could not be starker. As a friend who recently visited for the first time told me: “I could not believe the difference between west and east. The west in many places had a western, American feel with wide roads, pavements and grass verges, while the east seemed underdeveloped, crowded and chaotic.”

There are many aspects of the occupation of East Jerusalem that are troubling, including the settlements, the wall, house demolitions, house evictions, arbitrary closures, attacks on Al-Aqsa mosque and lack of permits for Palestinians to build and expand. However, the situation for children is particularly disturbing.

A quick drive through east and west reveals almost no playgrounds or parks for Palestinian children in East Jerusalem to use while a visitor would encounter many well-equipped playgrounds and parks in the predominantly Jewish west.

While Palestinian families occasionally make use of facilities in West Jerusalem, they do so reluctantly, fearing discrimination and harassment by their Jewish counterparts. Instead, some choose to make a journey to Ramallah or Jericho for their children’s and their leisure outings. This is sad because it reduces the opportunities for interaction between the two communities, especially the children, before their characterisation of the other is formed through parental or societal influence.

You have to ask what the municipality presiding over both parts of the city is doing to deliver services to the Palestinian taxpayers, who cannot turn to the Palestinian Authority for them because Israel does not allow it to operate in Jerusalem.

Never shall they meet

Opportunities for Jewish and Palestinian children to mix at school are almost non-existent. Jerusalem’s only Arab-Jewish school has faced attacks from Jewish extremists including an arson attack in November 2014, anti-Arab graffiti in June 2015, and even had its listing on Waze, a google-owned app changed to “a threat”.

While the two populations are largely segregated, the level of poverty in the city affects both communities with some 50 percent of Jerusalem’s 850,000 residents living below the poverty line including 82 percent of the population in East Jerusalem.

The impact of Israel’s “security needs” on Palestinian children is profound. Every year, hundreds are arrested and interrogated. Between January and the end of August, 560 children alone were detained by Israel. Many are taken during the night or in the early hours of the morning. They are reportedly often deprived of the presence of a parent or lawyer and sometimes are made to sign confessions written in Hebrew under duress.

In the absence of reasonable provision of leisure facilities and under a brutal daily occupation you would think that children can find some comfort, enjoyment and security in their East Jerusalem schools.

Well, on the face of it, this should be possible. However, in reality there is no happy story to tell. Israel, through its occupation, is on a mission to attract the hearts and minds of Palestinian children, to love it, adore it and accept it as the ruling entity over them, without question.

During my visit, I witnessed the start of the new school year. Families were busy buying books, stationary and the status symbol school bag for their children. The bag tends to be in the style of the current craze. This year, it seemed anything depicting images from Disney’s Frozen was a must have.

One of my young relatives was upset not because she had not bought a Frozen bag and book covers, but because her cousin was also planning to buy the same. “Why can’t she buy Mini Mouse?” she asked. Children will be children. She, like most if not all Palestinian children, was oblivious to the battle for her identity and belonging that is being waged by Israel on Jerusalem’s youngest residents.

Chronic shortage of space

East Jerusalem’s schools suffer from a basic lack of infrastructure and resources.

A report published in August by the nonprofit organisation Ir Amim found that the number of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian children studying in the “informal education system” – schools which are publicly recognised, but only partially funded and operated by third parties – has surpassed those studying in both the formal education system, which are fully publicly funded and operated, and those who study in private schools.

Ir Amim reported that the shortage of classrooms in East Jerusalem had grown to 2,672 units, stating that “authorities have perpetuated the classroom shortage by not allocating sufficient land to build more classrooms in East Jerusalem”.

The report also worryingly noted that 36 percent of students drop out of school in East Jerusalem. Anecdotally, the number of boys that drop out is higher than girls. As men are often the main breadwinner in families here, this raises a serious question about what the boys go on to do with their time, considering their low skill levels and the lack of opportunities for employment, and its overall impact on the society.

As a result of parent perception of the inadequacy of public schools, many are forced to turn to private education. This is extremely costly, particularly when one considers the economic situation in East Jerusalem characterised by low wages and high taxes.

Hearts and minds

The other worrying feature of the current situation is Israel’s attempt to influence children’s understanding of their identity and how they should view it. It has been trying to do this through the imposition of the Israeli curriculum as opposed to the PA curriculum in East Jerusalem schools. Israel has been trying to do this for years but, having faced severe resistance from parents and the schools themselves, it is now linking the release of investment in schools to the adoption of the curriculum.

People I talked to during my recent visit referred to this as “educational blackmail”. Several told me they felt that Israel “was brainwashing our children to forget their Palestinian identity while at the same time becoming admirers of their occupier,” as one put it.

The Israeli curriculum refers to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and encourages children to celebrate what Israel has done since capturing it or, as they refer to it, as its “unification”. This is only one example of how Israel attempts to impose its own narrative on impressionable young children in early school years.

My recent experience though tells me that Israel cannot win the battle for the hearts of the children who are Palestinian, feel Palestinian and will grow up as Palestinian. Israel may feel that imposing its own narrative through blackmail may change minds, but it will fail. Palestinian schools may adopt the Israeli curriculum in order to secure funds, but Israel should realise that the industrious and proud Palestinians will ensure their children think Palestinian too.

East Jerusalem may be under occupation, but the hearts and minds of the children are not.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Who singles out Israel, its critics or its apologists?

First published by the Middle East Eye

25/7/2016

Israel and its supporters often accuse supporters of Palestinian rights for unfairly singling Israel out for criticism. They suggest that with so many abusers of human rights around the world, the focus should be on them, with some suggesting that once all the other abusers have been dealt with then they might accept some criticism of Israel.

Their reasons for singling Israel out for special treatment are that it is the “‘only democracy in the Middle East”, with “most moral army in the world” and the “only Jewish state” struggling to exist in an unstable and dangerous Middle East. Just look at Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen they say. The Assad regime has killed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens and the so-called Islamic State has slaughtered Muslims in their thousands in Iraq, Syria and Libya and continues to terrorise peaceful civilians around the world.

To support their claim further, they refer for example to the United Nations Human Rights Council which they argue has an “unbalanced focus” on Israel when it comes to human rights abusers. In 2007 Alejandro Wolff, deputy US permanent representative at the United Nations, accused the council of “a pathological obsession with Israel”. Even the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joined Western nations on Wednesday in criticising the world body’s own Human Rights Council for “picking on Israel” as part of an agreement on its working rules. The council had decided to include a permanent item on its agenda specifically considering Israel’s action.

Israel’s supporters have recently added the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to their examples of Israel being singled out for boycott. Some, including former UK Justice Secretary Michel Gove went as far as calling the BDS movement anti-Semitic and worse than Apartheid. In recent months, the UK’s Labour Party was hit with claims of endemic anti-Semitism in its ranks, not because members had demonstrated hatred towards Jews because they are Jews but because they criticised Israel. Some demanded that a new term is adopted, “new anti-semitism” which they attributed to criticism of Israel. This was not endorsed by Labour’s inquiry into anti-Semitism, led by Shami Chakrabarti.

Let us consider the reasons Israel’s supporters give for singling it out for special treatment. The claim that it is a democracy is partly true. It offers a five-star democracy for its Jewish citizens but an inferior two-star democracy to other non-Jewish citizens. Its five-star democracy extends to those Jews residing illegally in the West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements but not to the Palestinian population residing in the same geographic area. Israeli settlers live under civil Law while Palestinians live under military law. Furthermore, Israel passes the democratic rights of Palestinians under occupation to its convenient invention, the Palestinian Authority, while effectively controlling every aspect of their lives. Therefore, the claim that Israel is a democracy is a fallacy.

The claims of the morality of its army hardly stands up to scrutiny. It claims that during major attacks on Palestinians, it uses smart weaponry that reduces civilian casualties. However, a comparison of fatalities on both sides shows a hugely disproportionate number of civilian deaths on the Palestinian side when compared with Israelis. In recent months, the Israeli Defence Force has executed Palestinians at checkpoints for alleged attacks and inflicts unbelievable suffering on the Palestinians in Gaza.

The IDF carries out “operations” in the area designated “A” under the Oslo Accords, which it is not meant to enter. It also regularly mistreats the Palestinians it detains and abducts children from their beds in the early hours of the morning. It detains Palestinians under administrative detention without charge for indefinite periods. There is no question of the IDF being considered a “moral army” by the Lebanese people who endured an occupation and several wars that brought them into close contact with the IDF. The morality of the Israeli army is therefore another fallacy.

The last claim, that Israel is the only Jewish state and that it is singled out because it is the “Jewish homeland’”assumes that Israel’s critics en masse or a substantial proportion are simply anti-Semites. Supporters of Palestinians who campaign against Israeli policies do so because of Israel’s misdemeanours, not because it is the “only Jewish state”.

Many Jews around the world did not ask for it to be created and do not accept that Israel is their state or speaks on their behalf. Take for example the reaction to Benjamin Netanyahu’s call to French Jews to emigrate after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo paper. He was told in no uncertain terms by French Jews that this was not a welcome intervention. The claim that Israel is somehow targeted because it is the only Jewish state is a further fallacy.

If the claim that Israeli is singled out for criticism is over-exaggerated, do its supporters and apologists single it out for special treatment?

Consider the US for a start. Its support for Israel is not comparable to support for any other state. The US funds it to the tune of $3 billion per year. It wields the UN Security Council veto for no other state even when a resolution comes to condemn settlements, which it has consistently considered illegal or to request the setting of a date to end the occupation.

Various states have moved to introduce legislation to effectively ban boycotts of Israel, which are being introduced to protect only Israel. Senior US politicians make regular appearances at conferences organised by the pro-Israel lobby, attempting to outdo each other in their love and support for Israel. This charade only applies to Israel.

The EU refuses to suspend its EU-Israel Association Agreement, despite it consistently violating human rights. Israel is a member of the European football federation, UEFA, despite no part of its territories being in Europe, racism being endemic in Israeli football and it hindering the development of Palestinian football.

Israel is a member of the Eurovision song contest, an “honour” not bestowed upon other non-European state, including Palestine. However, more seriously, Israeli academia is a regular winner of funding from the EU’s research funding under Horizon2020 despite its complicity in Israel’s occupation.

The UK is particularly guilty of singling Israel out for special treatment. It continues to promote trade with Israel, particularly in arms, despite Israel’s occupation and repeated wars on other states and horrific attacks on Palestinians, especially in Gaza. Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition changed the Law on Universal Jurisdiction to protect Israeli officials accused of war crimes from being arrested to answer for their possible crimes.

The coalition did this for Israel and no other state. When this change was found wanting, British officials cleared the diary of a Foreign Office minister to meet suspected war criminal Tzipi Livni, who was on a private visit to the UK to provide her with diplomatic immunity. They did this only because Livni is Israeli.

The above illustrates that when singling out takes place it is by supporters of, and apologists for Israel. If Palestinians are accused of singling Israel out then they have every right to do so. Surely, apologists for Israel cannot really expect Palestinians to campaign for solving all the world’s ills before turning their attention on their occupier and oppressor.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at http://www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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