A Human Being in Beit Safafa

Most of us never imagine waking up one morning to find our property vandalized and racist writing covering our walls. And yet this is the reality of many Israeli Palestinians.

Published originally in The Jerusalem Post

Last night the Sheik went all about the city, lamp in hand, crying, “I am weary of beast and devil, a human being is my desire.” – Rumi, 13th century Persian poet

One of the most decent human beings I know lives in Beit Safafa, a Palestinian village of about 10,000 in southern Jerusalem. My friend, Abu Nasser, is a wise and generous man, a man of dignity, integrity, and peace, who is slow to anger and quick to find a diplomatic solution to any conflict.

Recently, my friend woke up, together with the rest of Beit Safafa, to discover that its residents had once again become the target of a hate crime. Vandals had slashed the tires of about 30 cars in the neighborhood and sprayed the walls with anti-Arab graffiti, in what police suspect is the second “price-tag” attack on the village in six months. The graffiti read: “Arabs=Thieves,” and “There is no coexistence.”

The blatant falsity of these messages cannot be lost on anyone familiar with the history and people of Beit Safafa. Like the city which annexed it, the village was reunited in the Six-Day War after having been split for nearly two decades between Israeli and Jordanian rule. Since then, Beit Safafa has been a model of peaceful coexistence, maintaining good social and working relations with Jewish visitors and shoppers. Beit Safafa is also where the Max Rayne Hand in Hand bilingual school for Jewish and Arab children is situated, bordering on the Jewish neighborhood of Pat.

As for the racist accusation of thievery, I find it ironic that vandals who show no respect for the property of others should accuse their victims of stealing. One could argue that if anyone is stealing anything in Beit Safafa, it is the State of Israel, through its confiscation of Palestinian lands. As Jerusalem’s legendary mayor Teddy Kollek wrote in 1988, “Throughout the years, the residents of Beit Safafa have already ‘contributed’ much of their lands to the development of projects such as the Pat-Gilo highway, Gilo neighborhood, Pat neighborhood, Talpiot industrial zone, ITRI Yeshiva, etc.”

Beit Safafa’s latest “contribution” to the common good is the land on which a six-lane highway known as Route 4 is being built to connect Jerusalem’s Begin Highway with the tunnel road linking the Gush Etzion settlement bloc to Jerusalem.

This highway bisects the village, severs important internal roads and threatens to destroy the fabric of communal life by separating dozens of families from the village center. Route 4 has leveled ancient terraces, uprooted olive groves, and will likely increase noise and air pollution in the village. (By the way, residents report that the valuable olive trees were taken away without compensation given to the owners.) In several places, the highway passes just a few meters from legally built houses, reducing the value of the properties and the residents’ quality of life. But because work on the highway began before detailed plans were presented to the residents, they were precluded from submitting objections and receiving compensation.

For more than a year, the women and men of Beit Safafa fought the construction of the highway and the imminent harm to their way of life through civil and legal means. In contrast to the cowardly acts of “price-tag,” whose perpetrators used the cover of night and ski masks to engage in vandalism, the residents of Beit Safafa conducted themselves with dignity and stood up for their rights peacefully and courageously. They refused to let the authorities drag them into illegal action. And they refused to isolate themselves within their community, opting instead to harness their connections with larger Israeli society – private individuals, reporters, politicians, academics, and civil rights organizations – to aid their struggle.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court rejected the residents’ appeal against the construction of the highway, though it did rule that the State must find a solution to internal transportation problems caused by the highway.

I do not have the legal expertise to assess the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the plan’s legality. But I can take issue with the Court’s decision to reject the residents’ request for an additional tunneling of 180 meters to reduce pollution and avoid disrupting village life. This decision was based primarily on monetary considerations, i.e., lengthening the existing tunnel to preserve the unique character of the village and the residents’ quality of life was deemed too costly. Because the distribution of public funds reflects institutional priorities, this suggests, at the least, that the interests of Beit Safafa’s residents were not deemed sufficiently important by the Jerusalem Municipality and the Ministry of Transport.

The injustice here is glaring, when one compares the construction of Route 4, where a plan that would have avoided splitting Beit Safafa was rejected, with the construction of the new highway to Jerusalem, known as Route 16, where significant effort was made to minimize environmental impact. Of the two alternative plans for Route 16, the one chosen was four times more expensive, with 80 percent of the highway being built inside a tunnel. While this solution was not won without a fight, it seems odd that when the interests at stake were not those of Israeli Palestinians, a way was found to realize the less harmful of planning options.

There are troubling parallels between the actions of the perpetrators of price-tag and the conduct of the authorities responsible for the highway through Beit Safafa. Though the first is a hate crime and the second is a crime of moral indifference (assuming no malice is involved), both are creating troublesome facts on the ground (slashed tires, bulldozed trees) based on might rather than right. And like the bullies that they are, individual and institutional agents are both confident that they can commit wrongdoing with impunity.

Both cases are also forms of discrimination against Palestinians based on ethnicity and religion, and in that sense are also forms of humiliation. A hate crime deliberately targets innocent individuals based on group membership as a way of terrorizing and degrading the group. Simply being Palestinian is enough to render one a legitimate target, regardless of one’s actions and character. Palestinians are thereby denied the basic respect owed to all persons simply in virtue of our shared humanity.

The construction of the highway is a more subtle form of instutuional discrimination and humiliation. While the Jerusalem Municipality conducted what it calls “a fruitful and lengthy diaglue with the residents of Beit Safafa,” reports of residents and the independent criticism of Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, indicate that despite official statements, the highway was constructed with minimal if any regard for the basic needs and interests of the people of Beit Safafa. The implicit message conveyed to the residents is that, “You don’t count” – not as individuals and not as a collective.

Most of us have never had to endure systematic discrimination and humiliation at the hands of state institutions and agents. Most of us never imagine having to wake up one morning to find our property vandalized and racist writing covering our walls. And yet to some extent this is the reality of many Israeli Palestinians.

“It is a shame,” my friend Abu Nasser said when the police told the residents that it didn’t have any suspects in the latest price-tag attack, “but this is all there is.”

I shall never completely understand how my friend can endure all this and more, and yet for all his frustration maintain his basic decency, dignity, and humanity, for I have never been in his shoes. I am just grateful that he does. I am grateful for a human being like Abu Nasser.

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