Interview with Fakhri Abu-Diab: Can Non-Violence Work in Jerusalem?

Reported by Ziva Galili

"There is very little hope in East Jerusalem today, but we are committed to the struggle for our homes and our rights, and we are determined to do it by legal means and without violence."

The speaker is Fakhri Abu-Diab, a resident of Al-Bustan neighborhood in the Silwan quarter of East Jerusalem. Situated just south of the holiest and most contested ground in Jerusalem -- Temple Mount to Jews, Haram-al-Sharif to Muslims -- Silwan is a troubled place. What used to be a cluster of villages spread over some 550 acres, is now a crowded neighborhood of over 30,000 Palestinians. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Jerusalem and still lacks basic urban infrastructure, such as paved roads and adequate schools. Israeli settlers began to move in two decades ago, and have received both tacit and overt support from several government agencies. Today, close to 500 of them live in fortified enclaves, complete with private guards and surveillance cameras.

Fakhri Abu-Diab lives in the most contested part of Silwan, comprising of Wadi Hilweh and Al-Bustan neighborhoods. Located within this area of about 30 acres are the archeological digs of the "City of David"; the ancient Shiloah tunnel and pool; and the Bustan [orchard] at the bottom of the hill, along the Shiloah spring. Much of this area was declared a national park -- intended as one link in a ring of national parks that is projected to surround the Old City. In 1997, the Parks and Nature Authority transferred all responsibility for the national park to the settler association Elad. The State's Antiquities Authority has likewise given Elad direct responsibility for the archeological digs in the "City of David." The massive digs it has conducted have been criticized by leading archeologists as tendentious and dangerous to the surrounding homes of Wadi Hilweh. Meanwhile, Elad is creating an archeological "theme park" around the digs and is moving with government support to turn the Bustan into a park -- "The King's Gardens." This plan looms large and heavy over my conversation with Abu-Diab. His home and roughly 90 other homes in Al-Bustan stand where "The King's Gardens" are planned. Since all of the houses were either built or expanded without permits, they all face court-issued demolition orders.

"My home is where I used to find shelter from the confusion and pressures of living under occupation, but now the occupation has reached into my home; when I enter, I look around me at the kitchen, the rooms, the furniture that makes a home, and I remember that I might be seeing it for the last time... When a home is demolished, a family is destroyed... In media reports, you don't hear about the emotional toll it takes. I volunteered to tutor a boy in the local school and discovered that he had no books in his school bag, only toys. When his parents asked him about it, he said he was so afraid the bulldozers would come while he was in school that he took his most beloved toys to school every day..."

I ask Fakhri about his family's history in Jerusalem. He belongs to one of 12 clans that make up Silwan's Palestinian population and can trace his own lineage seven generations back. He was born in 1962 in a one-room home in the bustan, right next to the Shiloah spring. There he grew up with 14 other siblings, but like many Silwan residents, half of his siblings left for other countries -- in the Arab world, Europe and America. Fakhri inherited the one-room home and after he married and children began to be born (there are five of them, ages 17 to 26), he began to worry about enlarging his home. Like many Palestinian residents of Jerusalem he could never obtain a building permit from the Jerusalem municipality and eventually decided to build without it. This decision now serves as the grounds for the demolition order on his home.

"It is my basic right as a human being to have a home for my five children, to have a kitchen, to have a place to sleep... I like the idea of a park, it is my dream to sit there with my wife, but I want it to be near my house, not in place of it. Now it looks as if the municipality wants to take my place, to erase me."

It was not always so hopeless. A few years back, international criticism forced the Jerusalem municipality to suspend plans for a massive eviction of Al-Bustan residents. Lupuliansky, then Jerusalem's mayor, offered to work with the residents on a plan that would minimize the number of home demolitions while addressing environmental and planning needs. The residents got organized, each contributed some money (some sold their cars, some women gave their dowry gold), and they hired an architect and a lawyer. But in February 2009, after five years of work and many a back-and-forth with the planning authorities, and just a few days after the city confirmed that the plan met all the requirements, the approval was retracted. Left with no recourse, the residents built a "protest tent" to highlight their plight and to keep themselves organized.

The conversation with Fakhri points to some interesting developments.The Residents' Committee of Al-Bustan is part of a larger network: a Silwan-wide committee, and another committee for all of Palestinian Jerusalem. Fakhri is proud that today women make up about 30% of the committees' membership. In Al-Bustan, the Residents' Committee no longer limits itself to planning and housing issues; instead, it tries to address the many gaps in municipal services. It operates a sort of community center in a house that was donated by a resident of Al-Bustan for a school (this was when the city argued it could not open a much needed new school because there was no place to put it; now the city argues that there is no money for construction). The place is used for educational activities and other gatherings. During Ramadan, the women cooked together the traditional evening meal. Fakhri thinks the opportunity to spend time with each other helps the women and children of Al-Bustan to cope with the uncertainty and frustrations.

It seems that every story Fakhri tells me leads to the same point: his belief in using legal, non-violent means. He tells me of another member of the Residents' Committee who had spent time in an Israeli prison for acts of violence, and who changed his mind -- not because of prison, but through conversations with other committee members.

"He and I work together now to educate our children to struggle in legal, democratic ways. But we worry that one day our children will stop believing us, because they see that non-violence brings us nowhere. How can I speak to them of co-existence when they see the home of our neighbors -- a family with five children, ages 5 to 11 -- being destroyed? Reality contradicts our preaching and pushes our youth toward radicalism. Discrimination and neglect by the Israeli government and Jerusalem municipality have created a vacuum in East Jerusalem, and it invites radical elements. When the mayor refuses to open in Silwan a "milk station" (an infant service center), he forces us to accept services from Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel."

I ask Fakhri how he feels about Israeli individuals and organizations like Ir Amim, who are trying to help.

"I judge people by their actions, not their religion or nationality. It is important to me that Israelis come to Silwan and see the situation as it is, and it is also important that the many people in the Arab world who are in contact with me by phone and email know that among the Israelis there are those who care. For the conflict to be resolved, people must hear each other, meet face to face and see the other, talk together over coffee. It is essential if our two peoples are to safeguard the future for our children. The presence of Israelis and international visitors also gives us some protection. The police see that we are not alone."

Finally, I ask Fakhri how he finds the strength to hold on to his belief in non-violence.

"The strength comes from my hope and belief that one day things will be better. It comes from our strong desire not to lose the children -- not to see them commit violence and end up in jail... I think of international law and of the law of humanity -- don't do anything to hurt another person... Of course, the reality around us makes it difficult for many to accept this position, so I have to argue with my own children and my neighbors...

I myself don't see much hope for Silwan and East Jerusalem in the next few years. This is why our direction must be one of autonomy; we should build our own services -- electricity, infant care, education, health, even judicial matters. We have to make ourselves ready for the moment Jerusalem is ours. I want to live in a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, but I don't want it to be like other Arab states. I want a truly democratic state."