The Forgotten Palestinian Arabs of Israel

The largely Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, and the Wall in the background.

When the sky is clear like today, it seems as if the Old City of Jerusalem and the Wall are only a short walk away.

Still, [this] 708 kilometres [barrier] mark[s] the boundary between the Israeli territory and the West Bank, which remains mostly under full Israeli control, when not under a joint Israeli-Palestinian Authority control. Israel calls it a ‘security barrier’ against terrorism. But in order to prevent these borders from becoming permanent, the Israeli state was careful to not build the Wall along the Green Line — or pre-1967 border, which corresponds to the original demarcation line decided by the 1949 Armistice Agreements.

Beyond this arbitrary line, live millions of Palestinians, living through military occupation, expropriation and abuses of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Some of them respond with militant activism; others with terrorism; others again by filming raw and highly biased online-testimonies, as this conflict is also a media war.

But there is another side to this well-known story: the presence of Palestinian Arabs inside Israel, and in the Holy City itself.

The East-Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan.

On the hillside, opposite where I am standing, the east-Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan faces the Old City. From afar, all we can see is a messy cluster of concrete blocks with crooked windows, resting on hundred-years-old brick and rock foundations. This strange looking town stands in sharp contrast with the beautiful ancient buildings of the Old City or the ultra-modern city centre.

The predominantly Palestinian village of Silwan was incorporated to Israel in 1967 along with the rest of East Jerusalem. It became a focus of Jewish settlement ever since. Why? By sheer accident, it was there that laid the necropolis of the Judean Biblical kingdom, whose tombs were long since plundered. But more than that, the Kidron valley below happened to be the site of the Pool of Siloam, used to water King Solomon’s Royal Garden, and later by Jewish pilgrims to ritually cleanse themselves during the festivals of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. Zionists are now destroying houses in Silwan, legally or not, in order to conduct archaeological searches that will prove the prestigious Jewish history of the site.

It is these kinds of Arab neighbourhoods that we were forbidden from exploring on our own in Jerusalem. Crossing the border to the West Bank was also out of the question, if not for security reasons, simply because going back to the UK after receiving the wrong stamp on our passport would constitute a real nightmare.
But still, we could cross if we really wanted to. Like an Israeli cab driver said, we are ‘lucky’. He can’t himself go to Bethlehem, which is under Palestinian Authority. Indeed, after several deaths, his government has decided that it was definitely too dangerous for its citizen to be allowed to travel there.

The opposite is not true. Not only is there an Arab population living in the Arab quarter of the Old City, in the Golan Heights and in East Jerusalem — the part of the city that was until recently supposed to become the capital of the future Palestinian independent state — but there are Arabs living everywhere else in Jerusalem. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, they currently represent more than 20% of the population of the Israeli state, next to 1.7 million, and growing fast.
This is a complex and vast subject, with many social, economic, cultural and political implications. One of them is that many Zionists fear the ‘inside threat’ of the raising Arab demographics. However, in Jerusalem, the Israeli birth rate has recently overtaken that of Arabs.

Some of the Arabs living inside Israeli territory choose not to be citizens. They are granted the status of ‘permanent residents’ instead, which still allows them to travel more or less freely and to vote in the municipal elections, and entitles them to health care and to social security benefits. However, the Arab population is more heavily impacted by poverty, unemployment, the lack of lands and infrastructure, and diverse social issues.
A poster in Hebrew on a shop window showed us this hidden disparity. A fashion boutique was looking for a female employee who ‘had done her military service’, meaning a full-Israeli citizen. It obviously meant that she had to be Jewish, and not Arab.
But quite unexpectedly, Prof. Alexander Yakobson, who we briefly met, assures that there is hope for a more harmonious cohabitation, quoting a recent poll in the country. Indeed, when asked, most Israeli Arabs consider themselves ‘proud to be Israeli’ and better off in Israel, while at the same time rejecting Zionism as a racist, colonialist ideology.

It is often impossible to distinguish ‘Palestinian Arabs’ from the people who self-identify as ‘Israeli Jews’, apart from the kippah the latter often wear. But the clearly recognizable uniform of the Palestinian National Security Forces sets them apart. It is them who control the entrance of the Haram esh-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount, one of the most disputed holy sites in the world. Its most prominent feature is the famous Dome of the Rock. The day we went to visit it, the sun was high and its golden globe shining.

A Muslim woman swipes the floor in the Christian part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In another holy building, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I caught the ghostly image of a Muslim woman, all in black in her hijab and long dress, swiping the floor in the Christian part of the Church.

© This article was originally published in the University of Leeds Human Rights Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Summer 2018; by Lucie Léquier.

Student in journalism. Paris. Leeds. Beirut.