An Apartment in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter Tells the Story of Israeli Apartheid
The existence of apartheid in Israel can be proved by means of an air conditioner. A simple device that blows cool air in the summer and warm air in the winter, affixed to a wall in an apartment with very few windows, whose occupants, an older, unwell couple, may be in need of its services.
A few years ago, Norat Gheith Sub Laban, 68, and Mustafa Sub Laban, her 74-year-old husband, installed an air conditioner in their small Jerusalem apartment. A short time later, however, they were forced to remove it by order of the Israeli authorities, on the grounds that the building they live in is a historic structure in which it’s forbidden to install an air conditioner. The “owners of the apartment,” namely the State of Israel, didn’t allow any such device. The air conditioner was ripped out of the wall, the niche remained.
Now a similar air conditioner unit is visible on the outer wall of the neighbors’ apartment, the Friedman family. Suddenly the building isn’t historic. A proud, provocative Jewish air conditioner juts out from the wall of the ancient Muslim structure, as if to say: apartheid is alive and well here. What’s permitted to Jews is forbidden to Palestinians.
Here it’s all right to evict hundreds of Palestinian families from their homes in disgrace and destitution, because prior to 1948, the dwellings were owned by Jews. But no one even considers doing the same for the Palestinians who lost their property that same year, under the same circumstances, in the same city. And all of this takes place, of course, with the sweeping authorization of the vaunted Israeli judicial system at all its levels, over whose autonomy a battle is now being waged in Israeli society. Jews may return to the property they lost in East Jerusalem, but Palestinians may not return to the homes they lost in the western part of that city, under the court’s approval. Is that not apartheid? Then what is it?
According to the United Nations, 218 families, nearly 1,000 individuals, are in danger of being similarly evicted in Jerusalem. Outside the home of the Sub Laban family, settlers last week shouted, “The Muslim Quarter is Jewish!” Wait for it: What happened in Hebron could be reprised here. “God is the King,” someone has scrawled in huge Hebrew letters opposite the home of the Sub Laban family at 33 Aqbat Al Khalidiyah Street, in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. On the wall is a plaque commemorating Eliyahu Amedi, who was murdered here in 1986. Will the Jerusalem Municipality permit a similar plaque to be hung commemorating Eyad al-Hallaq, the disabled Palestinian whom Israeli police officers killed outside Damascus Gate in 2020? Or one for Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the teenager whom Jews burned to death in the Jerusalem Forest in 2014?
The bedding of the Sharabi family, the settlers on the floor above, flaps in the breeze above the small balcony that still belongs to the above-mentioned Palestinian couple for a few days. The building at 35 Aqbat Al Khalidiyah Street, next door, has already fallen completely into Jewish hands; at No. 33 the Sub Laban family is the surviving remnant. Living in the apartment across from theirs is Roni and Hadar Friedman, the Sub Labans’ storeroom has turned into the apartment of the Wermesser family, and, as noted, the Sharabis are on the floor above.
The upstairs neighbors flattened the building’s fine, ancient dome of stone in order to create a balcony, thus destroying – certainly in contravention of the law – another old architectural gem, but who’s counting? The settlers renovated their apartments, but Norat and Mustafa are not permitted to fix anything, and the plaster on the walls of their home is peeling. Smart electric doors lock the uninvited settlers into their apartments; some of them walk around armed with pistols.
On Tuesday this week, police officers again arrived at the home of Norat and Mustafa, as they do almost every day, to sniff around, check things and mainly to harass and intimidate. The couple’s eldest child, Ahmad, asked one of the officers, “Are you checking all the homes in East Jerusalem?” The reply: “We try to identify all the residents.” Ahmad, who works for Ir Amim, a nonprofit organization that works to advance the causes of equality and sustainibility in Jerusalem for the Israelis and Palestinians who live there, replied, “Lovely. I didn’t know. What nice guys.”
By the end of the month, Norat and Mustafa will no longer be here. A 47-year struggle against the occupation bureaucracy will come to an end, in a painful defeat. But Norat’s brother, Anwar Gheith, who was expelled from this building many years ago, wrote on the living room wall during his last visit, “We will be back.” Among the other declarations appearing there is: “Palestine will be free.”
In the meantime, they Sub Labans are trying to cling steadfastly to their home, until the last minute. The only things they have removed are the photographs, mementos that can’t be replaced. Other than that, they have left behind everything, even though they know the end is in sight. Every knock on the door makes the couple jump; Norat says her heart pounds at every noise. They know the police are on the way. Norat shows us a full refrigerator, to demonstrate that they haven’t yet given in. Theirs is a 67-square-meter apartment (721 sq. ft.), divided into two small rooms, whose original entrance was blocked by the unneighborly neighbors, and which is in urgent need of refurbishing considering its mildewed walls and narrow stairwell. Here Norat was born, and here she will apparently not die.
Norat and Mustafa are a restrained and respectable couple, the parents of five. Mustafa was formerly a member of the Israel Police. This week he found himself resting for long stretches on his bed in the narrow bedroom, after being rushed twice to Hadassah Medical Center in the city’s Ein Karem neighborhood, where he underwent cardiac catheterization, his heart weakened at least in part by the tensions of the past few weeks. Norat had to use an inhalator during our conversation.
Outside, a settler tour guide explains to a group from Australia about the right of the Jews to the Muslim Quarter. Rifaat, 34, Norat and Mustafa’s youngest son, who is employed in the UN’s human rights agency office in Ramallah, tries to correct the guide’s propaganda, and the Australians are keen to listen. A yeshiva of the Bratslav Hasidic sect also resides opposite the Sub Laban family’s home, and there’s also a sign marking the 19th-century Tzuf Dvash synagogue of the Eidat Hama’aravi’im.
A young Haredi man uses an electronic key card to open the door of the Wermessers’ apartment. For their part, the Friedmans have been living here since 1984, when they took over the apartment of the Karaki family. The Sharabis’ laundry hangs so low over the Sub Labans’ home that they need to bend over when they are on the balcony. Neighborly relations are nonexistent here. Norat says she sees hatred in the eyes of the settlers, “like wild animals.”
The history of the family’s exhausting and endless struggle, stretching over 47 years and thousands of hours in court, was chronicled in these pages by Amira Hass earlier this year. Beginning with pre-1948 possession, attributed to Samuel Moshe Ben David Shlomo Gangel, who owned the building in the late 19th century, via the Custodian of Enemy Property of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, to the entry of Norat’s parents into the building in 1949 as protected tenants. From the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property via the release of the property in 2010 to the “Little Galicia Endowment,” down to Aviezer Zelig Asher Shapira, Joshua Heller and Avraham Avishai Zinwirth, the mysterious individuals who claimed the building for themselves via a settler functionary, Eli Attal, who manages the dispossession in the Old City everywhere; from Shuvu Banim to Ateret Kohanim and Ateret Leyoshna, the arcane settler nonprofits – the differences between them imperceptible.
The Sub Labans’ struggle traversed all the legal instances, going all the way to the Supreme Court, and in the final stretch it ended with a 2016 decision to allow the couple to remain in the apartment for 10 more years, on the assumption that they would pass away, God willing. Their children have long been forbidden from living in the house. But as Rifaat explains, every court decision always left an opening for a new decision, which indeed was not long in coming – in the form of the latest, and final, decision to evict them immediately.
Rifaat terms the Israeli legal system “the settlers’ court.” The decisions about his parents’ apartment show how right he is. In one case, a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge had to jump over the settler neighbors’ wall in order to enter the Sub Labans’ house, as he insisted on seeing with his own eyes that the settlers had in fact blocked the entry to it, after which he issued a ruling consisting of complicated engineering procedures to enable the couple to enter their home.
On another occasion, the couple was accused of not residing in the apartment. That happened when the municipality decreed that it needed to be refurbished because it had become hazardous to reside in – and when the couple moved out temporarily during the renovations, the Custodian of Absentee Property prohibited the renovations and they weren’t able to return. On another occasion, when Norat moved out for a few months in order to live with her son – who was not allowed to live in the apartment – because she had a herniated disc and needed help getting around, the settlers informed on her to the authorities; she was compelled to bring documentation from medical authorities in order to return to her home.
Kafka also lives at 33 Aqbat Al Khalidiyah Street in the Old City of Jerusalem.
And now the letter from the state bailiff’s office, dated May 4, 2023: “You are herewith informed that the execution of the evacuation order is set for June 11, 2023, beginning at 8 A.M.” The 11th of June at eight in the morning passed this week – a form was missing, it was hinted to the family. Before that, the eviction had been scheduled for March 15, 2023, but the police objected due to a manpower shortage.
The claimants requested a “flexible eviction order,” which allows a certain range of days to do the job, and it was granted. The expulsion is now due to take place between June 11 and June 26 – today, tomorrow or a few days after. Rifaat is certain that the police are not updating them about the exact plans as part of the authorities’ psychological warfare intended to wear them down. He believes the police are waiting for a propitious moment when there won’t be too many people in the house – not the foreign diplomats, the activists or the many journalists who have visited in the course of the years of struggle. The family will have to pay 30,000 shekels ($8,450) for their own eviction, as they will not be leaving of their own volition.
In the meantime, Norat and Mustafa are living on anti-anxiety pills. The battle has been decided.
Did they never think of leaving? Norat: “I will answer with a question. If you had been born in this house, and all your brothers and sisters had been born here, grown up in it, married in it, if your mother and father had died in it, your brother had been exiled from it – would you surrender and forsake it? I want an answer. Every minute that I remain in this house is another minute of protecting my childhood memories. Every minute is to feel embraced by family members who are no longer with us. I am never alone in this house, even when I am by myself – all my family and all my memories are always with me in this house.
“If they come to evict us, I will not open the door. But if I feel danger to myself and to my husband, I will surrender and forsake it in order to safeguard my family. If I am evicted, I will give the house to God. This house will remain a prison until it is liberated. I will return. And if not me, then my children. One day the occupation will end, and we will return.”Article link: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/twilight-zone/2023-06-16/ty-article-magazine/.highlight/an-apartment-in-jerusalems-muslim-quarter-tells-the-story-of-apartheid/00000188-c4d0-dd1d-ad98-cdd1eaaa0000
Article source: Haaretz | Gideon Levy | Jun 16, 2023