Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A symbol of steadfastness: Sumoud Camp in Sheikh Jarrah


By Annelies Verbeek - June 25, 2018
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Jerusalem]

Sumoud Camp looks like an ordinary building from the outside. Its white stones are nothing exceptional in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. On the outside one might think it’s an office building.

The Israeli flag fluttering next to the building is not even strange, as the Palestinian neighbourhood has been pervaded by Israeli settlements in the last decades.
 
Inside, any visitor can see this is no ordinary residential building. The walls are concrete barren, only decorated with graffiti; “resistance,” “Jihad,” paintings of Al Aqsa and names of the building’s residents. Electric cables hang loose.
 
Bilal Ghatit, a 15-year-old resident of the building, sat down to talk. His parents were not home. “They went to the police station, I have to go back to prison in two days,” he said.
 
Bilal was first arrested when he was 14. The Israelis accused him of possession of weapons and throwing a molotov at settlers. “We thought this was crazy,” his sister Sajida Ghatit said. “He is just a child, he did not have anything to do with that.”
 
Bilal first spent five months in prison, and was then put under house arrest until the end of his court case. While he was detained at home, the court ruled he needs to go back to prison for another nine months.
 
“Of course I don’t want to go,” he said, while he lit up a cigarette.
 
“He started smoking in prison,” his sister said disapprovingly.
 
Bilal’s family is one of the 35 families living in the building commonly referred to as Sumoud Camp.
 
The Arabic term Sumoud can be translated as “steadfastness,” “perseverance,” or “resilience.” It is a Palestinian concept with an ideological meaning; to stay in the land despite oppression and dispossession.
 
Its inhabitants fought a long struggle to live there.
 
“Me and my family are from Al-Eizariya,” Mohammad Al Husseini said. He is known in the camp as Abu Yazan, and played an important role in the foundation of Sumoud Camp. “We lived just one hundred meters behind the wall.”
 
When the separation wall between Jerusalem and the West Bank was constructed in the nineties, the Palestinians who lived close behind the wall were at risk of losing their Jerusalem IDs.
 
Losing their IDs would have equalled losing the right to go to Jerusalem and Israel, as inhabitants of the West Bank are not allowed to go there, except with special permits.
 
Abu Yazan was determined to keep his ID, so he and his family, together with 15 other families decided to set up their tents in the Sawaneh neighbourhood in Wadi Joz. They felt they had no other option to keep their IDs and stay in Jerusalem.
 
“In the beginning, the police attacked us. They took our tents and bulldozed the camp.”
 
But Abu Yazan was determined to stay. “I was willing to take it to the Knesset.”
 
He received help from Faisal Al Husseini, who was at the time Minister for Jerusalem Affairs under the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) - an umbrella of Palestinian resistance groups with a semi-governmental structure.
 
“Al Husseini gave me 12 tents. I went to the same place we were attacked before. But after I put up the first two tents, they attacked me.”
 
Abu Yazan called on the help of lawyers. “They helped establish our right to put his tent there,” he explained.
 
The Palestinian families then lived in the tents in Al Sawaneh for ten months, under difficult living circumstances and harsh weather conditions. But the initiative was still successful.
 
“More and more people came to live with us,” Abu Yazan told Palestine Monitor. “In the end, we had 52 tents.”
 
After those ten months, Israeli authorities attacked the camp again. “But we went to the high court and made a big demonstration,” Abu Yazan explained.
 
After a legal battle, the High Court ruled that Israeli authorities could not take away their ID cards.
 
Abu Yazan explained their efforts were so successful, the high court equally ruled that other people in close proximity to the wall on the West Bank side, could maintain their Jerusalem IDs.
 
One of these areas is Kufr Aqab. This neighbourhood officially belongs to East Jerusalem, but is located on the West Bank side of the separation wall. This area is overcrowded, and Palestinians often keep living there, despite lack of municipal services and overcrowding, for the sole purpose of holding on to their Jerusalem IDs.
 
The residents of Sumoud Camp, on the other hand, found shelter in an empty building in an area close to the centre of Jerusalem, in the neighbourhood Sheikh Jarrah. This is the building that became home to the 35 displaced families since the last 20 years.
 
The building belonged to the Waqf, an islamic charity endowment, but it remained empty.
 
“It was full of drug dealers here,” Abu Yazan said.
 
He encouraged people to move into in the building. 35 Families from the West Bank side of the wall eventually moved in. “All of them received the Jerusalem ID,” Abu Yazan boasted.
 
Though the building is surrounded by settlements whose inhabitants would rather not see Palestinians living in the area, the Israeli authorities have allowed them to remain.
 
“The only thing we pay is water, electricity and arnona (an annual land tax levied against land and building owners). Thank God we don’t have to pay rent,” Abu Yazan said, referring to the high housing prices in the centre of Jerusalem.
 
“The Israelis can’t expel us anymore now.”
 
“We are remaining steadfast,” Sajida Ghatit, Bilal’s sister explained, referring to the name of the building. “Despite everything, we will stay here.”
 
Sajida explained that settlers organise religious festivities in the proximity of the building. When the building’s residents go out to see what’s going on, Israeli authorities shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at them.
 
Abdallah Sarha, a resident of the building, told Al Jazeera that whenever the settlers organise a memorial service for the pilots buried next to the building, no Palestinians are allowed to go in or out of their homes. This often leads to clashes.
 
“But when they hit us, they hit all of us,” Sajida explained. “We stand together, hand in hand. And here we will stay.”
 
Lead image:  Bilal, 15 knocks on the door of his neighbour in Sumoud Camp.

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