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Displacement, swimming and resistance: Vignettes from Jerusalem at 50 years of occupation

Dome of the Rock Photo: Andres Gomis-Perez / Andres Gomis-Perez

I moved to Jerusalem in 2003 and lived for the first two years in Beit Hanina, a neighborhood located in the North of the city on the way to Ramallah.  The house I lived in was literally next to the Ar-Rum checkpoint which made the surroundings quite “lively”, to say the least, and a bit “messy” to be generous.  My landlord, an old, gentle, blue-eyed Palestinian man took good care of me and helped me in navigating the intricacies of being a young, single, foreign white woman in Palestinian land.  The checkpoint was removed a couple of years later and I no longer live in that house, but I still visit my landlord’s grocery shop and he still greets me with a big smile and a “Hello, Ms. Mati!!!”. 

One day, in the peak of violence of the Second Intifada, I was talking to him and sharing my initial thoughts about what I was seeing in my travels to Nablus, Hebron, Jenin and Gaza, and about how the construction of the Wall was encircling the city.  Instead of following my conversation about the existing situation, he started to tell me his story and how his family and himself as a child, back in 1948, had to flee their house located in German Colony, another neighborhood in what is today the Israeli side of the city.   I realized then that, in addition to hosting Palestinian refugees from villages inside Israel, Jerusalem also has internally displaced, i.e. families that still live in Jerusalem but were expelled from their houses to which they cannot return.  For them, for my landlord, it was not about what was happening at that point in 2003, it is not about the 50 years of occupation but about almost 70 years of displacement within their own city.

Jerusalem sunset by Mati Gomis-Perez

Many will be celebrating the unification of Jerusalem these days.  To any visitor with a reasonable inclination of wanting to learn about the place, it is strikingly clear that the city is not unified but deeply and systematically divided. The fact that my landlord cannot go back to his house in German Colony says much about the type of unification the Israeli government has achieved. It has “unified” the city for its Jewish residents at the expense of keeping the Palestinian population as second class “residents” in their own city, living in increasingly crowed neighborhoods, paying extraordinarily high municipal taxes for services they hardly get and suffering constant pressures to leave Jerusalem and give up their residency.  The wall built around Jerusalem has already pushed thousands of Palestinians out of Jerusalem and since 1967 (50 years ago this week) a total of 14,000 Palestinians have seen their residency revoked.

Also, many will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the city.  If you ask the Palestinians from Jerusalem, such liberation looks like a constant threat of demolition of their houses, adolescents and young Palestinians being stopped and searched in the middle of the street and even detained if they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Those who have the means and possibilities are moving abroad as their sons and daughters hit adolescence.  Being a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem today is a risky business not because of what you may do, but because of what can be done to you.  Most families stay as a matter of principle to keep the Palestinian presence in the city.  And all try to cope as best as they can, trying to make ends meet and live a life as normal as possible.

Jerusalem wall by Andres Gomis-Perez

For the last three years, my two children have joined a Jerusalem swimming club which holds the swimming lessons at odd hours in the late evening at the YMCA in West Jerusalem (across the street from where President Trump slept during his last trip to the city), because the more normal hours for swimming are reserved for the members of the sports complex, most of them Israelis.  There are few swimming pools in Jerusalem that can be easily accessible for Palestinians and the few swimming clubs in the city look for options in the various sport complexes, most of them located in the Israeli side of the city.  Through these years, it has been remarkable to witness how, despite the hours, closures and difficulties, every Friday and Saturday, Palestinian parents would cross the city from far away neighborhoods to take their children to learn how to swim.  One could tell that there were troubles in the city when the number of children coming to swim would suddenly decline. 

Swimming pool in the YMCA in Jerusalem, photo by Mati Gomis-Perez

One day all the roads around the swimming pool were closed because of Jerusalem Day (the day settlers celebrate the unification of the city).  Given that it would be almost impossible for the Palestinians in the East cross to the West, I called Ibrahim, the head of the swimming club, to ask him if there was swimming that day or not.  He said, “of course there are lessons, it is Saturday, there is swimming!”.  I was hesitant and thought he had not realized what day it was but then I got embarrassed at myself and understood that for Ibrahim not canceling the lessons was his small, quiet, but powerful act of resistance.  When I think of what happened in this city 50 years ago, I think of my landlord and Ibrahim and realize that this is what Palestinians in Jerusalem have been doing for all these years: resisting the occupation by being here, by continuing swimming, by keeping normalcy within their lives with the hope that, one day, true liberation for all in Jerusalem will arrive. 

Related content:

Reflecting on Palestine: Violence, occupation, and apartheid by Mike Merryman-Lotze

Drawing for justice: Mohammad Sabaaneh on Palestine, art, and justice, interview with Lucy Duncan

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