There is no one family who can capture all of the complexities, problems, pleasures and dramas of life for Palestinians living in Jerusalem. So The National spoke with three Palestinian families living only kilometres apart for a window into the daily ways politics shape everyday life here.
Ala Al Qassem is exhausted. The 58-year-old mother of four is battling cancer and tires easily from the chemotherapy treatment. But it’s more than that.
The day we met in February in her home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem she had just returned from visiting her husband in Ramallah with one of her daughters. Their separation is not by choice: Qassem is a Jerusalem resident, while her husband is originally from the Gaza Strip and is a Palestinian ID holder.
When they married in 1995 this wasn't a problem and they lived happily in her childhood home where she herself was born. But then in 2001, during the second Intifada, or uprising, Israel changed its policies and since has denied nearly all requests for what's called family unification, namely permission for a Palestinian ID holder to legally live with their spouse inside Israel.
That meant for years Qassem would travel alone with her kids, even while pregnant, across the ever expanding and crowded checkpoint to Ramallah, where the family would spend the weekend and then hurry back for another week apart.
“How many years I’ve lived alone?” asked Qassem, her eyes narrowing. “And now to die alone? It’s very difficult. So I need my husband to be with me, to help me, to look after his children.”
Yet it’s even more complicated than that.
For decades, the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah have been battling in court, and sometimes in the streets, the efforts of Jewish Israeli settler groups to take over their homes. Qassem’s family moved from the Old City to Sheikh Jarrah in 1956, when the area was under Jordanian control. Then, in 1967, Israel occupied this part of East Jerusalem, granting Palestinians like Qassem permanent residency – contingent on them living in Jerusalem. Now Israeli settler groups, often backed by the Israeli government and courts, have been using a series of laws governing Jewish ownership to claim Sheikh Jarrah homes as theirs, all as part of a stated goal of increasing the Jewish presence in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem.
So Qassem can’t leave her house in Jerusalem – lest she lose her residency and claim to her family home – while Israeli authorities have denied her husband a permit to live with her because of his previous arrest.
“I can’t leave this house,” she said. “If I go live with my husband [in the West Bank], this is what they [Israeli government] want… I was born in this house. Nobody can tell me that this house is for him.”
Salah El Din Street, East Jerusalem's main thoroughfare these days, is quiet after the fajr dawn prayer when 83-year-old Ahmed Muna makes his way on his electric scooter from Al Aqsa Mosque to the original Educational Bookshop.
The family patriarch opened this shop in 1984 while also working as a teacher. He still insists on taking the morning shift, ritually selling newspapers and exchanging pleasantries with customers he has known for years. A few hours later one son comes to take his place, while another minds the English-language bookstore and coffee shop across the street and another son, or sometimes grandson these days, works at the third branch a few minutes away adjacent to the historic American Colony hotel.
The Muna's were a middle class Jerusalem family who've now risen to local prominence for their famed Educational Bookstore, which serves as an intellectual and socio-cultural hub in East Jerusalem.
“The message of the bookstore is trying to contribute to social, economic and political change in Palestine and Jerusalem,” explained Mahmoud Muna, the youngest of the seven Muna children. “You know, a very big goal. But maybe we do small things through the literature and books… There’s a need for cultural institutions in the city that’s not just NGOs.”
Ahmed met his wife, Majida, while teaching in Jordan, where her family lived as Palestinian refugees. Together, they filled their home with books and a focus on education.
“There are always in our house discussions, disagreements, [and] arguments,” said Mahmoud, calling it an “intellectual exercise every night”. It’s the same spirit, he added, that they’ve tried to imbibe in the bookstore.
The family – six sons, one daughter, and now 24 grandchildren – live together in a compound of nine homes they’ve built in Ras Alamoud by the Mount of Olives. But before the wars in 1948 and 1967, the family home life looked different. The Muna family owned property in the Old City, as well as the neighbourhood of Musrara, which after the 1948 war was split between the west Israeli side and Palestinian east side (then Jordanian controlled). The Muna’s lost their west Musrara properties, which Jewish Israelis then moved into, and ultimately left the Old City and settled into a remaining home on the Musrara east side.
All of the Muna children have studied and lived abroad, in places from England, to Norway to Iraq. But they’ve ultimately returned home.
“We all studied and then returned to give something to the community,” said Mahmoud, adding, “In the end we all returned to Palestine. That’s something that distinguishes the family.”
It’s late one weeknight in February and the extended Derbas family is gathered around a heater in the ground floor parking area of their family’s apartment building in Isawiya, an infamously rough and tough East Jerusalem neighbourhood. It’s a modest gathering of small coffee cups and a plate of baklava to informally celebrate that three days ago seventeen-year-old Yehiya Derbas was released from Israeli prison. Most of the men gathering that night have spent time in jail, too.
“In every house in Isawiya there is a prisoner,” said Yehiya. “It’s normal. We’re all locked up.”
Yehiya’s father, Arafat, 39, was imprisoned himself for six months in 1998 for throwing stones and therefore couldn’t visit his son for the first seven months of the imprisonment, he said. So it was up to Muna, 35, to make the trip every permitted fifteen days to speak to her son through a glass window and show him pictures of his family.
Yehiya is slight and the family’s oldest of three children. For the Derbas family, his arrest marks the before and after. It all began to change during protests in December 2017 in Isawiya against US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem. Arafat and Muna were both also arrested that day and shortly after released. Only Yehiya was shot three times in his leg and, after trying to evade arrest, ultimately imprisoned for ten months in Megiddo prison in northern Israel.
Now Yehiya’s back in the family’s apartment at the top of over one hundred stairs (he’s counted). Arafat proudly built and designed the apartment himself. But sometimes the electricity cuts and he’s incurred a 2,000 shekel ($555) fine for it: Israeli authorities denied him a building permit, as they routinely do, and he built it anyway. Isawiya’s roads are hilly and narrow, and sometimes filled with smoke when the border police, who often station themselves as an informal checkpoint at entrance, clash with residents.
Arafat works as a school bus driver and Muna works in the home. They complement each other: he’s reserved while she’s more immediately warm. Yehiya, meanwhile, has left school and doesn’t plan to return. His arrest and the limp he incurred from the insufficient care of his bullet wounds now mark his future.
How, then, did they see their future as Palestinians in Jerusalem?
“Our God has written from above that we’ll live with the Jews,” said Arafat. “But with their racism, that’s a big problem [for us].”
As for the prospects of a Palestinian state, Arafat wasn’t optimistic. “In the situation that we’re in with the current Palestinian Authority, it’s hard,” he said. “Change the PA and then we’ll think about a state.”
Their daughter in high school wants to go to college. And as for the youngest son, who’s just ten years old, will he one day be in prison?
“No,” Muna said, at the same time that Arafat answered, “Maybe.”
“I don’t like these things,” Muna explained.
“But it’s not in her hands,” Arafat added.