MIDEAST: The Man Who Would Move a Hill

  • by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler (occupied east jerusalem)
  • Saturday, November 28, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Israelis dream of the world accepting their hold over the whole of the city; Palestinians dream of Jews accepting their dream of Israel finally relinquishing its hold over their part of the city; Jewish religious nationalists dream of expunging those Palestinian national aspirations in the city; developers and diplomats dream of bridging the conflicting dreams in a universal embrace.

But, Jewish and Muslim dreams are mutually exclusive, never intersecting. When they do clashes result and Jerusalem ends up trapped in an unending nightmare.

Then there’s Naim’s dream...

Fifty metres up Deir el Sinne, a rocky, wind-battered hillock, the rough and muddy track comes to an abrupt end. Naim Aweisat leaps out of the battered Land Rover. He’s borrowed it from Jihad, an indulging friend.

There is a spring in Naim’s step - even amidst the heavy boulders, desert rocks and wild squill. The tall flowers provide a canopy of white across the otherwise barren hillside.

And there is a glint in Naim’s eye: 'Here’s the top pool, 25 by 12 metres, below there is the covered one for winter, 15 by 8, over there the sports hall.''

Naim talks in the present tense; he lives in the present, as if the water was already cascading into his swimming pools, the children already splashing about joyfully.

He has already picked out a name for his project — ‘The Heights’.

'Like people anywhere in the world, we need not only to get up to go to work, to go to sleep at night, but to have other things in our lives - parks, soccer fields, somewhere for our children to play and to swim. There’s just no such place for us Palestinians here.'

Naim is working to create the first country club for the quarter million Palestinians of East Jerusalem, a place for families to escape the gloomy reality of daily life.

Only days ago, Israel announced that it was going to build 900 new homes in Gilo, the Jewish neighbourhood built on occupied land - some 30 percent of East Jerusalem land has been appropriated since Israel’s annexation in 1967 to settle the 200,000 Israeli Jews who now live in the eastern part of the city.

Only a day before, just below Deir el Sinne in the neighbourhood of Silwan, several more Palestinian homes were demolished. The pretext was that the owners did not have the requisite building permits.

From the hilltop you can see where Israel, with its new housing projects, has re-defined the borders between the two peoples living in the city: neglect and unpaved roads in the old Palestinian neighbourhoods, neat parks and playgrounds, street lighting and tarred roads in the Israeli enclaves within East Jerusalem.

Naim’s project lies in the heart of the Holy Basin; down below a puny biblical seasonal river that winds its way from the Old City and its famed holy sites down to the mountains of the Judean Desert.

Within sight of Deir el Sinne is the golden Dome of the Rock, at the epicentre of Jerusalem’s most disputed holy site inside the walled Old City and a wing away from Israel’s disputed security wall that cuts the city off from the West Bank.

In a city blessed, but also cursed, by its own holiness, how can Naim’s project not possibly crash from the problems that beset the city: Israeli soldiers and Muslim faithful squaring off, houses built and houses demolished, land requisitioned and land appropriated, incessant charge and counter-charge between the rival national claims.

To succeed, Naim must not succumb to the bitter realities of life for Palestinians in Jerusalem. There are ultra-nationalist Jews whose drive into east Jerusalem is creating a sort of ‘Biblical Disneyland’. He has to reckon with the Israeli bureaucracy, urban planners and foreign NGOs involved in development projects as well as charges of ‘collaboration’ by fellow Palestinians.

Naim was called in by the Palestinian Authority. 'They feared I’d sell the land to the settlers. I told them ‘never’. I told them, ‘I don’t want any money, not from them and not from you.’ We’re under occupation, true. All I want is to serve our people, to make life better for our kids.'

He’s ready to engage all sides, to challenge them. Already, he’s proved he’s made of sterner stuff than dreams.

A year ago he was elected the head of the council of his neighbourhood. With other young entrepreneurs, he runs independent bus lines that, for the first time in decades, provide Palestinians residents with a decent public transport system. He has built a modern health centre for the 25,000 people of his neighbourhood.

'Now, it’s happening on this hill, I’m sure. The land is here (family land plus some Naim recently bought — six-and-a-half-acres in all), the money is something of a problem (I need around three million US dollars) but I’ll get it somehow, and then the proper permits from the mayor and the Israeli planning authorities. That’s an issue, but I have a good feeling that in two years time ‘The Heights’ will be up and running here on top of the hill.'

Just across from Naim’s hill, in the shadow of the security wall, the Israeli master plan for the city calls for the building of a major highway that will link settlements that lie in the West Bank to the east and south of the city. 'That doesn’t interfere with my plans,' Naim says. ‘’Our community will build our own access road up here to the sports complex.'

The hill project is part of a new mindset among Jerusalem Palestinians, not to wait for outside saviours, but to take their future into their own hands, irrespective of who owns the city.

'I don’t like politics, actually I loathe politics. What have we got from it?' Naim asks rhetorically. 'Still, I hope it doesn’t get in the way and ruin my project,' he says, climbing up higher between the rocks and the scattered wild flowers. Like the tall white squill, Naim is not one to bend easily, even in high winds.

When Israel took over East Jerusalem in 1967 this hill was zoned ‘a green area’, ostensibly set aside for public amenities: 'They wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t build more houses - even on our own land,' says Naim. 'Here maybe, in retrospect, it’s turning out okay.’’

‘’There are other things — all over East Jerusalem we need more than 1,350 new classrooms. Our council is working to get permission for a new school for our girls to be built here on the peak, not far from the sports centre.'

There’s a dark side to his hill, though.

Beyond where the planned school would be, foreign Jewish organisations that bankroll the ultra-nationalist Israelis have bought up Deir el Sinne’s other flank. Even Naim knows there’s no guarantee that a new settler housing complex will not rise there.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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