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Slow Violence, Cold Violence: Teju Cole in East Jerusalem

by Teju Cole       17 April 2015        The Guardian

Why the viciousness of modern Israeli law directed against Palestinians must be taken as seriously as the cruelties of war

Palestinian children collect water in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian children collect water in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters


Not all violence is hot. There’s cold violence too, which takes its time and finally gets its way. Children going to school and coming home are exposed to it. Fathers and mothers listen to politicians on television calling for their extermination. Grandmothers have no expectation that even their aged bodies are safe: any young man may lay a hand on them with no consequence. The police could arrive at night and drag a family out into the street. Putting a people into deep uncertainty about the fundamentals of life, over years and decades, is a form of cold violence. Through an accumulation of laws rather than by military means, a particular misery is intensified and entrenched. This slow violence, this cold violence, no less than the other kind, ought to be looked at and understood.

Near the slopes of Mount Scopus in East Jerusalem is the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Most of the people who live here are Palestinian Arabs, and the area itself has an ancient history that features both Jews and Arabs. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are in a special legal category under modern Israeli law. Most of them are not Israeli citizens, nor are they classified the same way as people in Gaza or the West Bank; they are permanent residents. There are old Palestinian families here, but in a neighbourhood like Sheikh Jarrah many of the people are refugees who were settled here after the nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948. They left their original homes behind, fleeing places such as Haifa and Sarafand al-Amar, and they came to Sheikh Jarrah, which then became their home. Many of them were given houses constructed on a previously uninhabited parcel of land by the Jordanian government and by the UN Relief and Works Agency. East Jerusalem came under Israeli control in 1967, and since then, but at an increasing tempo in recent years, these families are being rendered homeless a second or third time.

There are many things about Palestine that are not easily seen from a distance. The beauty of the land, for instance, is not at all obvious. Scripture and travellers’ reports describe a harsh terrain of stone and rocks, a place in which it is difficult to find water or to shelter from the sun. Why would anyone want this land? But then you visit and you understand the attenuated intensity of what you see. You get the sense that there are no wasted gestures, that this is an economical landscape, and that there is great beauty in this economy. The sky is full of clouds that are like flecks of white paint. The olive trees, the leaves of which have silvered undersides, are like an apparition. And even the stones and rocks speak of history, of deep time, and of the consolation that comes with all old places. This is a land of tombs, mountains and mysterious valleys. All this one can only really see at close range.

Another thing one sees, obscured by distance but vivid up close, is that the Israeli oppression of Palestinian people is not necessarily – or at least not always – as crude as western media can make it seem. It is in fact extremely refined, and involves a dizzying assemblage of laws and bylaws, contracts, ancient documents, force, amendments, customs, religion, conventions and sudden irrational moves, all mixed together and imposed with the greatest care.

The impression this insistence on legality confers, from the Israeli side, is of an infinitely patient due process that will eventually pacify the enemy and guarantee security. The reality, from the Palestinian side, is of a suffocating viciousness. The fate of Palestinian Arabs since the nakba has been to be scattered and oppressed by different means: in the West Bank, in Gaza, inside the 1948 borders, in Jerusalem, in refugee camps abroad, in Jordan, in the distant diaspora. In all these places, Palestinians experience restrictions on their freedom and on their movement. To be Palestinian is to be hemmed in. Much of this is done by brute military force from the Israeli Defence Forces – killing for which no later accounting is possible – or on an individual basis in the secret chambers of the Shin Bet. But a lot of it is done according to Israeli law, argued in and approved by Israeli courts, and technically legal, even when the laws in question are bad laws and in clear contravention of international standards and conventions.

The permanent residency of a Palestinian in East Jerusalem is anything but permanent
The reality is that, as a Palestinian Arab, in order to defend yourself against the persecution you face, not only do you have to be an expert in Israeli law, you also have to be a Jewish Israeli and have the force of the Israeli state as your guarantor. You have to be what you are not, what it is not possible for you to be, in order not to be slowly strangled by the laws arrayed against you. In Israel, there is no pretence that the opposing parties in these cases are equal before the law; or, rather, such a pretence exists, but no one on either side takes it seriously. This has certainly been the reality for the Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah whose homes, built mostly in 1956, inhabited by three or four generations of people, are being taken from them by legal means.

As in other neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem – Har Homa, the Old City, Mount Scopus, Jaffa Gate – there is a policy at work in Sheikh Jarrah. This policy is two-fold. The first is the systematic removal of Palestinian Arabs, either by banishing individuals on the basis of paperwork, or by taking over or destroying their homes by court order. Thousands of people have had their residency revoked on a variety of flimsy pretexts: time spent living abroad, time spent living elsewhere in occupied Palestine, and so on. The permanent residency of a Palestinian in East Jerusalem is anything but permanent, and once it is revoked, is almost impossible to recover.

The second aspect of the policy is the systematic increase of the Jewish populations of these neighbourhoods. This latter goal is driven both by national and municipal legislation (under the official rubric of “demographic balance”) and is sponsored in part by wealthy Zionist activists who, unlike some of their defenders in the western world, are proud to embrace the word “Zionist”. However, it is not the wealthy Zionists who move into these homes or claim these lands: it is ideologically and religiously extreme Israeli Jews, some of whom are poor Jewish immigrants to the state of Israel. And when they move in – when they raise the Israeli flag over a house that, until yesterday, was someone else’s ancestral home, or when they begin new constructions on the rubble of other people’s homes – they act as anyone would who was above the law: callously, unfeelingly, unconcerned about the humiliation of their neighbours. This two-fold policy, of pushing out Palestinian Arabs and filling the land with Israeli Jews, is recognised by all the parties involved. And for such a policy, the term “ethnic cleansing” is not too strong: it is in fact the only accurate description.

Each Palestinian family that is evicted in Sheikh Jarrah is evicted for different reasons. But the fundamental principle at work is usually similar: an activist Jewish organisation makes a claim that the land on which the house was built was in Jewish hands before 1948. There is sometimes paperwork that supports this claim (there is a lot of citation of 19th-century Ottoman land law), and sometimes the paperwork is forged, but the court will hear and, through eccentric interpretations of these old laws, often agree to the claim. The violence this legality contains is precisely that no Israeli court will hear a corresponding claim from a Palestinian family. What Israeli law supports, de facto, is the right of return for Jews into East Jerusalem. What it cannot countenance is the right of return of Palestinians into the innumerable towns, villages and neighbourhoods all over Palestine, from which war, violence and law have expelled them.

History moves at great speed, as does politics, and Zionists understand this. The pressure to continue the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem is already met with pressure from the other side to stop this clear violation of international norms. So Zionist lawyers and lawmakers move with corresponding speed, making new laws, pushing through new interpretations, all in order to ethnically cleanse the land of Palestinian presence. And though Palestinians make their own case and though many young Jews, beginning to wake up to the crimes of their nation, have marched in support of the families evicted or under threat in Sheikh Jarrah – the law and its innovative interpretations evolve at a speed that makes self-defence all but impossible.

This cannot go on. The example of Sheikh Jarrah, the cold violence of it, is echoed all over Palestine. Side by side with this cold violence is, of course, the hot violence that dominates the news: Israel’s periodic wars on Gaza, its blockades on places such as Nablus, the random unanswerable acts of murder in places such as Hebron. In no sane future of humanity should the deaths of hundreds of children continue to be accounted collateral damage, as Israel did in the summer of 2014.

In the world’s assessment of the situation in Palestine, in coming to understand why the Palestinian situation is urgent, the viciousness of law must be taken as seriously as the cruelties of war. As in other instances in which world opinion forced a large-scale systemic oppression to come to an end, we must begin by calling things by their proper names. Israel uses an extremely complex legal and bureaucratic apparatus to dispossess Palestinians of their land, hoping perhaps to forestall accusations of a brutal land grab. No one is fooled by this. Nor is anyone fooled by the accusation, common to many of Israel’s defenders, that any criticism of Israeli policies amounts to antisemitism. The historical suffering of Jewish people is real, but it is no less real than, and does not in any way justify, the present oppression of Palestinians by Israeli Jews.

A neighbourhood like Sheikh Jarrah is an x-ray of Israel at the present moment: a limited view showing a single set of features, but significant to the entire body politic. The case that is being made, and that must continue to be made to all people of conscience, is that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is criminal. This case should also include the argument that the proliferation of bad laws by the legislature and courts of Israel is itself antisemitic in effect, to the extent that they fuel the ancient calumnies against Jewish people. Nothing can justify either antisemitism or the racist persecution of Arabs, and the current use of the law in Israel is a part of the grave ongoing offence to the human dignity of both Palestinians and Jews.

Teju Cole’s books include Open City. He is a contributor to Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation, edited by Vijay Prashad (Verso). 

Teju Cole

Teju Cole. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images


Israeli Supreme Court Allows Confiscation of “Absentee Property” In East Jerusalem
 Friday April 17, 2015 02:01 by IMEMC & Agencies
As part of the Israeli “Absentee Property Law," The Israeli Supreme Court approved, Thursday, a law allowing the Israeli government to confiscate Palestinian property in occupied East Jerusalem if the owners resides in the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip.

Israel first passed the “Absentee Property Law” in 1950, just two years after its establishment in the historic land of Palestine, following the massive displacement of Palestinians from hundreds of villages and towns.

Under the law, “abandoned property” left by the Palestinians following the 1948 war, who then moved to “enemy states” or “enemy territory” will be confiscated and become at the disposal of the government after the owners are declared “absent” or “missing."

The law was then applied to East Jerusalem following the 1967 war; to include Palestinians who are “not missing” or “absent," but are living in the occupied West Bank and Israel illegally confiscated their homes in Jerusalem.

Israeli daily Haaretz said the an expanded seven-justice panel, headed by former Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, and its current head Miriam Naor, warned that applying this law to East Jerusalem presents several problems; therefore, the law must be used in what was described as “rarest of rare cases.”

The reason why this law is to be applied in “rarest of cases” is because many Jewish settlers who live in the occupied West Bank own property in Israel, therefore, a legal case could be made to demand confiscating their property as well.

According to the Haaretz report, Grunis said that the law could be interpreted in a way that could cause an Israeli who owns property in Tel Aviv, but lives in Ariel or Bet El settlement blocs could lose their property to the custodian.

It also quoted Grunis stating, “The absurdity of the working of this law, a soldier sent by the government to serve in the (occupied) territories, or an enemy county, could have his property declared as “absentee property.”

However, the law targets Palestinians who, for numerous reasons, including Israel’s Annexation Wall and illegal policies, were forced to live in the occupied territories, and those displaced during Israel’s establishment in the historic land of Palestine.

Israeli also repeatedly resorts to revoking ID cards of Jerusalemite Palestinians, including those born in the occupied city, for living outside the Jerusalem city boundaries.

It is worth mentioning that the way Israel built the Annexation Wall in different areas of East Jerusalem placed dozens of families, who have Jerusalem ID cards, on the Israeli-occupied, Palestinian side of the wall.

Member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the head of the Jerusalem Affairs Committee, Ahmad Qurei, said this law aims at eliminating the Palestinian rights in occupied Jerusalem, in order to replace them with Jewish settlers.

He added that law was racist, and part of the hostile Israeli policies against the Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem, including the ongoing construction and expansion of colonies in direct violation of International Law.

Qurei also said that applying the “Absentee Property Law” on residents of occupied Jerusalem is theft of Palestinian property in the occupied city.




Israeli Occupation Municipality of Jerusalem is about to implement a new Judaization project of a huge underground building in front of Damascus Gate in Occupied Jerusalem.

The Expert of settlement in Jerusalem Ahmad Sub Laban said, in a statement on Thursday, the Israeli project will be a huge underground parking for cars and buses. It will be located directly in front of the Damascus Gate.

The statement added that it has been revealed that the project will be the same parking called “Mesrara” which has recently been evacuated along with Damascus gate’s parking.

Above the new parking, a new big municipality courtyard will be established to replace the old one in the Damascus Gate. A bridge is also going to be built over the new project, the statement added.

The Israeli occupation authority continues its Judaization projects and plans to change the historical Islamic and Arab landmarks especially in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Furthermore, the Israeli high court on Thursday issued an order allowing the execution of the absentee property law in the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.

According to the court verdict, the state should confiscate Palestinian property in Jerusalem belonging to Arabs only under extreme conditions and only with the permission of the state comptroller.

The court made its decision following a series of appeals that have been filed by Palestinian residents and human rights groups against the confiscation of their homes and property in the holy city.

The decision is considered part of Israeli steps aimed at Judaizing the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

The Absentee property law (1950) is one of Israel’s major legal instruments for seizing Palestinian property.

The law has served to confiscate the land and real estate left behind by the Palestinians who were forcibly displaced in 1948. It is still in effect and used to confiscate Palestinian properties more than six decades later.

The law violates international law and has been strongly condemned by the UN.