"Illegal in your own city."

At least 40 Palestinian demonstrators, part of the #GreatReturnMarch, have recently been shot dead in Gaza by Israeli military snipers, including two clearly identified press members, with more than 5,000 others seriously injured by Israeli gun shots, tear gas attacks and other means. And the Trump administration has for the first time removed the descriptive term “occupied” in reference to the Palestinian territories in its annual 2018 State Department Report on Human Rights.

In less than 10 days, Washington is scheduled to officially relocate its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, symbolically and physically aligning itself with Israel’s decades-long campaign to claim the entire still-divided and partially occupied ancient city as its capital, in contravention of international law and long accepted diplomatic norms. No other major Western power recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, including every NATO member state. Israel has militarily occupied East Jerusalem since 1967, which the Palestine authorities also claim as their rightful capital.

With all these accelerating developments and more in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the stalled Middle East peace process, I asked Nada Awad, advocacy officer at the Community Action Center (CAC) of Al-Quds University in occupied East Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter in the Old City, what actions people in US and elsewhere can do to support Palestinians’ internationally recognized rights as an occupied population according to the Geneva Conventions and other applicable treaties and statutes.

“For Jerusalem, for one thing, oppose (your) government decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I don’t know if there is any movement in the US that opposes the administration’s decision. That is one thing,” remarked the knowledgeable spokeswoman in spacious modern CAC offices within what was once St. Julian’s Church built during a European Crusader campaign more than 800 years ago. “The other things are to raise awareness of the (ongoing occupation) and stop using the security argument all the time when we talk about Israel.

“When we talk about Israel, we have to talk about colonialism, we have to talk about occupation, and not talk about war and terrorism. Because where we live, we are occupied. We live under occupation, and fighting occupation is our right. Whereas in the US what you hear is that Palestinians are at war with Israel. This does not exist. We are not at war. We are fighting occupation. So we have to change the narrative that has been . . .  a lot of propaganda happening since ‘48.”


Zionist duty to forcibly transfer Palestinians

Awad continued with a position not heard often on US mainstream media sources: “Since ‘48, Israel has had a very clear agenda: to create a state on the Palestinian land. And in order to do so, they had to forcibly transfer Palestinians. It was their duty, you know, for all these Zionist leaders that clearly stated that in order to create the state, we have to expel the Palestinians. And this is a plan that has been ongoing since then, since ‘48 until today; and it’s continuous, a continuous crime that was not recognized from the basis in ‘48. It should have been recognized as a crime.”

Pressed about conditions on the ground, Awad added the following from a physical location only yards away from Israeli military units controlling access to the golden domed Al Aqsa Mosque grounds, third holiest site in all Islam, as well as the main Old City checkpoint leading into the plaza surrounding the Western Wall, a site revered by countless numbers of the Jewish faith.

“Those efforts to forcibly transfer Palestinians are increasing. Definitely. Definitely increasing. We are seeing it increasing with the laws in Jerusalem, but also the bedouins who are being forcibly transferred around Jerusalem. From Hebron being heavily colonized. (Like) in 1948, it’s the same idea.

“I just talk about Jerusalem. We are very specific (at the CAC). It can be more generalized, but for me, the message I want to convey everytime I speak about the situation in Jerusalem is we have to stop seeing the occupation as, ah, a good provider of services, et cetera, et cetera. The occupation tries to show itself as a democracy that has everyone (in mind); in Jerusalem we have the three religions. And we have to stop looking at the occupation this way. We have to change glasses, and look at it the way it is.

“Palestinians in Jerusalem live at risk of forcible transfer everyday. They cannot even stay in Jerusalem because you have targets by the Israeli government, and the (Jerusalem) municipality, that want to maintain their number. 30% Palestinians if they could, but they will visit it to 40%. The idea is the (Palestinian population) cannot exceed 40%. So we have to live with psychological warfare everyday in Jerusalem.

“We have to (nonviolently) fight to be able to stay in our city we were born in. Where our grandparents were born in, and where our grand-grandparents were born in.

“If there is one message about Jerusalem, it’s forcible transfer,” Awad emphasized the point. “It’s not the only city where there is forcible transfer, but the fact that Americans through their administration has recognized the unity of the city, and denied that East Jerusalem is occupied in an illegal event.” In December 2017, the Trump administration announced its official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but delayed relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv until now.


4th Geneva Convention still applies

“This is very important for people to know what it means,” Awad continued. “It is not just a term, occupation. The Law of Occupation, and the 4th Geneva Convention that’s applicable in occupied East Jerusalem gives, provides protection for Palestinians. And removing the term “occupied” means that this is not applicable anymore, and the 4th Geneva is not applicable any more. And this protection, we’ll lose it as a population under occupation. It’s very important.”

Awad stressed again what those in solidarity with the human rights conditions in occupied Palestine can do: “We call on the international community to do what it should do. To bring back Israel to legality. By all means that are legitimate. To bring back Israel to legality. It means if we lose also the Geneva Convention, the Palestinian population will lose protection. This is the standard to people living under occupation. We have that. We cannot lose that.”

Awad sat at her desk computer dressed in casual clothes like any other millennial, with no veil or hijab, though at least one other female in the office was dressed in more traditional attire. Young European and American CAC workers and volunteers also were present.

“I think this is the most important idea,” she added. “What does it mean to recognize East Jerusalem as part of Israel, and (its illegal) annexation? It means they are denying Palestinians the right to live in their city. They are denying Palestinians. And it’s continuous. The United States has continued to support Israel, have continued to support forcible transfer, which is a war crime against humanity. So the idea is, this is a responsibility (to oppose forcible transfers), a responsibility that should be taken, and policies should be changed.”

Asked if any countries are, in fact, effectively supporting Palestinians in these forcible transfer issues, Awad didn’t have much good news.

“Well, there were in the UN, for example. We have a lot of states discussing this issue publically, issuing statements,” she noted. “The European Union issued a very strong statement against the (most recent residency) law when it was issued. But it stays in the terms of declarations and statements, and it does not materialize.”

For the past two years, Awad has worked at the Community Action Center, operated by Al Quds University, which is one of several institutions providing pro bono legal aid to Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. Other community services provided by the university in the Old City include library, cultural center, and an Arabic language school currently under renovation.


CAC fights occupation through legal means

“But this center specifically, the Cultural Action Center is providing legal aid because they live in a situation of occupation, and they have to fight the occupation on a daily basis, whether it’s, ah, because of residency revocation Israel is possibly transferring Palestinians from the city. And to fight this forcible transfer, we fight it legally, through the legal Israeli system, which is illegal. We have to in a way deal with the Israeli system since we realized Israel is, the laws, are becoming more and more discriminatory, more and more clearly violating international law, and more and more clearly calling for forcible transfer. We have been working on this aspect of international advocacy.

“We work mostly with other Palestinian and international organizations, human rights organizations. And we lobby states, whether it’s in Palestine, or through the U.N., or through the other representative offices in Jerusalem, in Palestine, or abroad. The idea is to lobby for changes in the laws . . . and to get criminals, war criminals, and people committing crimes against humanity in the Israeli government to be tried in international courts.”

How busy are the caseloads for the Center’s staff lawyers and support employees? “We have dozens of cases coming in everyday. And we are open six days a week.”

Revoking Palestinian residency, redrawing the borders, not granting family reunification, not granting child registration, and demolishing homes in a systematic discriminatory manner are Israeli occupation policies all working together in order to change the overall demographic equation in occupied East Jerusalem, according to Awad.

“The demographic goal is what makes this all become normal, you know?,” she added in a matter-of-fact way. “In the (Israeli Knesset parliamentary) bills, it is clearly stated it is for demographic goals. ‘And how can the Jewish capital of the Jewish state not be Jewish?’ To be a Jewish state they recognize a percentage of Palestinians or non-Jews living in this state should be a maximum of 20. (Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu re-uses these alarming statistics, speaking of, ‘If the (non-Jews) become 40 (percent), there is no more Jewish state. So we have to use extreme measures.’ And he said it very clearly.”


Israel could not kill Palestinian identity

Do people at the CAC working daily with Palestinians under direct military occupation remain optimistic? “Yeah, always,” Awad replied without hesitation. ”The fact that the Palestinian identity is very strong today shows Israel and the colonial aspect of Israel could not kill the Palestinian identity, although we are divided by now. We have East Jerusalem Palestinians, we have West Bank Palestinians, and Gaza Palestinians, refugees all over the world, in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, all over the place. And still you have very strong Palestinian identity.”

The determined Palestinian spokeswoman maintained that “we have not forgotten the right of return. People are still marching. People have not stopped since 1948. We have not stopped fighting. The fight is very difficult because, well, the power imbalance is very dear, but the fact that we are still fighting the occupation keeps me very optimistic in all ways. In all legitimate ways, we fight occupation, whether it’s through legal services, or through advocacy, or through (other means) like Boycott, Divest, Sanction.

“I’m not saying the Center supports BDS. But personally now, I’m speaking personally, not in the name of the Center, it’s what touches most of the occupation, which is the economy, and this is why BDS is being fought so hard by the Israelis. Because they feel pressure, and this is one of the only times, one of the only tools we have, to bring back Israel to legality because this is what scares them. If the West stops economic ties, Israel’s economy would fold. So it’s very important.”

Awad went into great detail about each aspect of the CAC’s priority legal work — opposing redrawing borders, opposing refusal of family reunifications, opposing prohibitions on child registration, and opposing systematic discriminatory home demolitions — for East Jerusalem’s threatened Palestinian population. But she insisted on emphasizing the residency issue, “situations that are in place for Palestinians in Jerusalem,” in order to best understand the occupation.


They call us Arabs

“Since 1967, all Palestinians — there’s a plan by the Israelis, the municipal plan, enacted in 1973 that wants to create and maintain an Israeli majority in the city. So in order to get there, a demographic balance, a demographic ratio that’s supposed to be 70/30. The overall ratio of the population must be maintained at 70% Jew and 30% Palestinian. They call us Arabs.

“So in order to put this plan into practice, Israelis have been revoking residencies of Palestinians. What does that mean? It means that Palestinians have been given by the occupation a ‘residency status.’ They call it ‘permanent residency status’ for each individual who lived, was physically present during the time of the occupation in 1967. So all the people who were outside did not get residency status, although they were from Jerusalem. So in 1967 we were granted this residency status that is a revocable privilege that is given by the occupation, and not a right.”

And it apparently gets worse. “So this status has been more and more easily revocable since 1967,” Awad claims. “In 1995, the center of life policy was introduced meaning that a Palestinian who lives in the city, or in Palestine, the West Bank, would lose their residency because they cannot prove center of life. Before that, the Minister of Interior was invited to revoke residency ​only​ when a Palestinian would leave the country for 7 years or more, get a permanent residency abroad, or nationality abroad. So you see, it’s escalating.

“And more recently, a law was adopted allowing the Ministry of Interior to revoke the residency of Palestinians based on ‘breach of allegiance.’ Of course, as Palestinians living under occupation, we do not owe allegiance to the occupier. The definition of ‘breach of allegiance is a terrorist attack, or belonging to a terrorist organization, or supporting a terrorist attack, or inciting for a terrorist attack, espionage, assault. It’s a very broad definition given to ‘breach of allegiance’,  which is totally illegal.”

So any Palestinian can be accused?, I asked “Yes, they can use it against me, against all my friends here living in Jerusalem because a terrorist organization, according to Israel, is any (Palestinian) political party. So affiliations with any political party, even Fatah, for Israel is a terrorist organization. Basically, all of us here, Palestinians, are politicized. And being politicized is becoming a crime. So even our freedom of thought, our freedom of political participation. And we have a right to participate in politics in Palestine, according to the Oslo Agreements. We have the right to elect representatives, and we have the right to be elected as representatives of Jerusalem.”


We are really worried

According to Awad, the residency issue for Palestinians continues to deteriorate. “The Ministry of Interior says that between 1967 and 2017 we have more than 14,500 residencies revoked. But between 1995 and 2017, it’s more than 11,500. So we see that after the introduction of the ‘center of life’ policy the residencies were revoked in a very bigger, way larger way. And after the adoption of the recent ‘breach of allegiance’ law, after 2018 in March, the new amendment, we are really worried about this that allows Israel to revoke thousands more residencies.”

The practical result of the occupation’s increasing use of residency revocations is pervasive and significant. “The impact of residency revocation is that you don’t have the right to legally live, legally according to Israeli law of course, to live in Jerusalem. So basically you become illegal in your own city. This is the first impact. The second one is that if you continue to live in Jerusalem, you don’t have any rights. You don’t have any right to work. You don’t have any papers. You don’t have the right to circulate, to move. To go to school. To get any health services. As Palestinians, they pay the same taxes as Israelis and we are entitled to benefits. But in these cases, when residencies are revoked, you are not entitled any more to any of the health insurance, or any of the benefits that you paid for.”

And the loss of legal residency for a growing number of Palestinians in Jerusalem leaves them wide open to exploitation by nearly everyone around them with an agenda.

“You can receive a first permit, but it has to be renewed every year,” Awad noted. “Then you try and renew it, and they will tell you ‘no’. So you can find yourself living in Jerusalem without a permit. This person cannot support, cannot go out, visit their family who live outside Jerusalem. Well, you will try to work even for an Israeli company who will hire you for less. Of course, everyone without proper documentation is open for society to exploit them. Even for lawyers to exploit them. When they’re vulnerable, it can be an Israeli exploiting you, it can be a Palestinian, it can be your family.

“For example, your husband will . . . you are beaten by your husband, but you don’t have any papers. And you have children. And you want to go to the police, but your husband say, ‘Ah!’, and you can’t say anything. Or the police say where are your papers?, and they can forcibly transfer you. So you don’t go to the police about the issue of being beaten or violence at home, domestic violence. Because you’re afraid you will be forcibly transferred. You will be left without your children.”

The CAC provides a referral system for people with mental health problems, chronic diseases based on stress, the need for psycho-social support, and other physical and emotional issues all connected to the ongoing Israeli occupation.

Awad said she has lived behind a checkpoint her whole life, and regularly walks through 4 or 5 checkpoints daily from the Damascus Gate to her office, but usually is not stopped because she does not wear a head cover or veil. For many of her fellow Palestinians, the experience in the Old City and elsewhere is quite different:

“The youth, men, veiled women, et cetera, when (Israeli authorities) see clearly that a person is Palestinian, they will stop them every time. (They) check the bags. For men, (they) do a belly check, and put them on the wall. It’s very humiliating. It’s very important to keep that in mind that this situation only creates wanting vengeance, but not in a sense that, where everything is a reaction to (only these checkpoint conditions). The idea behind the protests and demonstration is the end of this occupation, the illegal occupation, that has been going on for 70 years.” []


State Department Response

A U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be referred to by name, at the Jerusalem Consul General office, to be the temporary site of the new embassy, responded via email about the relocation after this article was initially published:

“We are proud to announce that on May 14 we dedicate the new U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. In doing so, President Trump fulfilled a major campaign promise. As the President stated in December, for the United States, recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a recognition of reality. Seventy years ago the United States, under President Truman, recognized the State of Israel. Ever since then, Jerusalem has been the seat of the modern Israeli government. And today, after years of promises and waiting, we are fulfilling a pledge; Jerusalem is now also the home of the U.S. Embassy to Israel.”

Perhaps trying to minimize the international controversy surrounding the unprecedented U.S. recognition of Jerusalem, the State Department official added:

“The United States continues to support the status quo with regard to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and we are committed to continuing to respect Jordan’s special role regarding holy sites in Jerusalem. By taking the long-overdue step of moving our embassy, we are not taking a position on final status issues. We are not taking a position on the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem nor on the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved. We remain committed to advancing an agreement between the parties that leads to a lasting and comprehensive peace.”

The same State Department official also responded to my question regarding the recent omission of the occupation description:

“We have retitled the Human Rights report to refer to the commonly-used geographic names of the area the report covers: Israel, Golan, West Bank, and Gaza. That is in line with our practices generally. We also believe it is clearer and more useful for readers seeking information on human rights in those specific areas. The use of the term has not been barred, and that will be apparent on reading through the text of the report.”

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