"You’re civilized," the Israeli interrogator said, in mocking Arabic. "Inta mathaqaf. You have connections. Do not think I am afraid of your connections. Go tell them what I said, and that I threatened you. Tell Al-Manar and Al-Jazeera."
His name was Doron Zahavi, otherwise called "Captain George," and he was known for the brutal interrogation methods he had used against Lebanese prisoners. The purpose of this "conversation" to which I’d been summoned kept changing.
First, it was that I’d hung a sign on the community center I’d founded in Wadi Hilweh, Silwan, saying that it belonged to the Palestinian Authority. Then it was that I lied by saying the archeological digs conducted by the settler organization, Elad – whose spokespeople have declared that their aim is to "Judaize Jerusalem," and who run the popular archeological tourist attraction they call the "City of David" – had caused the road to collapse in our neighborhood. Then it was that I sent others to attack Jews for me.
"We know that you attacked Jews."
"You saw me attacking someone?" I asked. "You know full well that I never use violence."
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"I know that you’re sophisticated," he said. "You don’t do it on your own."
At one point in the conversation, my interrogator said to me:
"If you were in Syria, or Lebanon, or Jordan, do you think they’d let you talk like this? We’re idiots, we Jews are. If we understood anything, we would expel people like you."
People like me.
I am a trained social worker. I am the father of two children and a resident of a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Wadi Hilweh, in Silwan. In 1967, my neighborhood was occupied and made part of the "united city of Jerusalem." We were annexed to Israel, but not given citizenship. 350,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem are considered permanent residents of Israel; officially enjoying some social rights, but in fact, deprived of many basic ones.
In Silwan in particular, we live under an undeclared special regime. Because of our proximity to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy sites; because ancient Jerusalem was located on the slopes of our neighborhood, and because we are at the symbolic core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israeli authorities, together with the settlers, have always wanted to take over our land, to make Silwan more "Jewish," more "theirs."
I am a nonviolent community organizer who has spent the last 20 years of my life standing up for my community, for the children who don’t have a single playground, for the families, like the Sumarins, who are threatened with eviction on the basis of racist laws. For this, I am considered a threat by the Israeli authorities and the settlers.
In real time, the authorities kept files on Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black civil rights activists in America. They were blackmailed, threatened, shamed and attacked.
In retrospect, of course, everyone claims to admire the work of the Black-led freedom movement, to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King. So too in South Africa: In real time, the activists were tormented and reviled, but in retrospect, everyone claims to have been in favor of their efforts.
In East Jerusalem, and in Palestine, we are in the middle of real time. There is no retrospect. And in the throes of this real time, things may seem "complicated." But when you zoom out, you can see clearly that, like in South Africa or the American South, the story is one of oppression, of a freedom struggle – and of the lengths the oppressors will go to in order to put down efforts at resistance, especially nonviolent ones.
When my father died in the late 1990’s, I was studying social work in Germany. I returned to Jerusalem in order to defend my family’s home from the threat of eviction.
The settlers of Elad (the City of David Foundation), claimed to have bought the house from my late father, when he was no longer alive to testify otherwise. In parallel they claimed that they bought my grandmother’s part of the house from my uncle, who lived abroad.
My family had to wage a long and costly struggle in the courts in order to prove them wrong, which we did: but as soon as we won the case, Elad started another one.
Eventually, after 20 years of extortion and exhausting legal battles, they managed to take over half of our property. In July 2019, my sister-in-law and her four children were thrown out of their apartment, and Israeli settlers moved in. After this lengthy and expensive fight, the settlers recently just won another case in the Israeli courts, and now are forcing me to pay them $200,000 as "back rent."
This story is not just about one house, or one family. Soon after returning to Jerusalem, it became clear to me that the problem was much deeper and broader than that.
I saw families struggling to make a living, struggling against home demolitions, resisting settlers plans for takeover and expulsion, doing everything in their power to free their children from unjust detentions. I saw the children forced to play in the streets because the municipality of "United Jerusalem" does not provide a single playground or community center for the children of Silwan.
I started organizing efforts to provide the community with the services they lacked and to create a media and information site that would tell the truth about our neighborhood and our home, unlike the propaganda put forward by Elad to the millions of tourists who visit their site each year. For this, I was punished and continue to be punished to this day.
I have lost track of the number of times I have been arrested, or summoned to "conversations" like the one I had with Captain George.
In one case, they went so far as to use a Palestinian collaborator to invent accusations against me, saying that I assaulted him: accusations which even the Israeli courts recognized to be false and baseless, but only after I’d been under house arrest for six months.
I have been accused of uprooting the settlers’ trees, of training children to throw stones, of being part of the PLO. And Hamas. And the PFLP. Nothing is true, so nothing sticks. Instead, they have to resort to action.
Part of the community center I built was demolished by Israeli authorities for not having the proper permits; this, despite the fact that it is virtually impossible for Palestinians to get permits to build anything in our own neighborhoods. The Jerusalem municipality is now demanding we pay hundreds of thousands of shekels in municipal taxes, defining our community center as "trade" rather than giving us the common discount provided to NGOs.
More than once, I have been offered "a salary and a half" in exchange for leaving my home, and leaving Silwan. More than once, I have been told that if I keep my head down, they will leave me alone. More than once, more than a hundred times, I have refused to leave my home, and refused to stop struggling on behalf on my neighborhood.
Because I know that my case is not unique: one day, it is my house, the next it will be my neighbor’s. One day, it is Wadi Hilweh, the next it will be the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood of Silwan, and the day after that, it will be Sheikh Jarrah, or elsewhere in East Jerusalem. I understand how this occupation works: for that reason, I am a threat.
Back in 2010, in the "conversation" to which I was summoned with "Captain George," I asked my interlocutor: "Do you want me to welcome the settlers who, through forgery, have come to take my home?"
"But you won in court," he said, referring to a ruling in our favor, before the settlers filed another one claiming other parts of our house. "What more do you want?"
"I know they have other plans."
I understood then, as I understand now, that they will not stop at anything. Someday, the occupation will end, and on that day, everyone will look back and claim: "I was always in favor of the oppressed."
Jawad Siyam is a community leader and non-violent resistance activist from the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem. A social worker by training, he is the Director and co-founder of Silwan's Madaa Creative Center and Wadi Hilweh Information Center