For Arabs in Israel, a house is not a home

Three representatives of Hamas have been forced to seek sanctuary at the Red Cross compound in East

Day 33 of the sit-in at the Red Cross compound in East Jerusalem began much like those that preceded it. The three Hamas parliamentarians who have been charged with disloyalty to a state whose jurisdiction they do not recognise awoke at 6am in the meeting room on the second floor of the white stone building in the Sheikh Jarrah area. Ahmad Atoun, who was an imam before he began his brief political career, led the first prayers of the day. The men washed in a bucket, ate breakfast and at ten o'clock came down to the L-shaped courtyard that has become the site of their protest. The plain white walls of the courtyard are decorated with posters that explain their case: "Jerusalem Is An Occupied City." "We Will Stay Here For Ever." "We Will Not Leave Our Homes."

Photographs of the three bearded men, and a fourth colleague who is in prison, were superimposed on an image of the gold-plated Dome of the Rock - the holiest site in the city in which they were born, and from which the Israeli authorities are attempting to expel them.

When I arrived five minutes later, a television crew was setting up outside the green metal gates at the entrance to the courtyard, and one of the teenage boys who attends to the men and their guests was updating the sign that keeps a tally of the length of their confinement. As the numerals changed from 32 to 33, Mohammed Totah, Khaled Abu Arafeh and Ahmad Atoun took their seats beneath the canopy where they would spend the day receiving guests. The chairs lined up against the walls in the traditional Arab manner are constantly in use, and sometimes the courtyard is full to overflowing: on Friday lunchtimes, an awning is erected in the street, and an imam says prayers to the assembled crowd. According to Red Cross officials, most of East Jerusalem society has passed through the courtyard. Three British peers - Jenny Tonge, Nazir Ahmed and Raymond Hylton - have been among the guests.

Despite the uncomfortable conditions in which they live, the three men at the centre of the protest were smartly dressed in pressed shirts and dark trousers. Until 2006, Moham­med Totah taught business administration at al-Quds University and Abu Arafeh was an engineer, while the preacher, Ahmad Atoun, worked for various Islamic charities. Yet their lack of experience did not prevent them from standing as candidates for the "Change and Reform" movement, as Hamas was called in the legislative elections held in the Palestinian territories in January 2006; if anything, it was an advantage, because the endemic corruption of the Palestinian Authority, which was dominated by Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, had turned the voters against the political elite. "People knew we were good Muslims and they trusted us," said Mohammed Totah, a tall and well-mannered man with thinning hair and a neatly trimmed beard.

Hamas, which was set up in the Gaza Strip in 1988, is known in the west for the crude, anti-Semitic rhetoric of its founding charter and for its terrorist activities. Its paramilitary wing has killed several hundred Israeli citizens, through the use of suicide bombers and other means, yet it also runs a network of charitable organisations in the Palestinian territories, and is respected for the even-handed way in which it distributes resources. In 2006, it won 44 per cent of the vote; Mohammed Totah and Ahmad Atoun won two of the 74 seats that gave it a majority in the 132-seat parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, and Abu Arafeh became minister for Jerusalem affairs.

“The world witnessed that we were democratically elected," Abu Arafeh said through his colleague Mohammed Totah, who speaks the best English of the three. But the men had little chance to implement their mandate. "The European Union said there must be democratic elections, and we must accept the results," says Mohammed Totah. "But afterwards, they said, 'No, we will not accept Hamas.'"

Four months after the election, the then Israeli minister of the interior revoked the men's rights to residency in Jerusalem and ordered them to leave Jerusalem and Israel "permanently". Events prevented the order being carried out: before the 30-day limit had expired, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas militants in Gaza, and Israel began arresting officials and representatives of the movement. The three men, together with their colleague Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir (who is distinguished in the many posters by his bright red beard, which he dyes in honour of a tradition supposedly established by the Prophet Muham­mad), spent the next three and a half years in Israeli prisons.

That none of them has been accused of terrorist offences is irrelevant as far as Israel is concerned - it regards Hamas's paramilitary, political and charitable activities as inextric-ably linked and mutually reinforcing, and the men's attitudes to Hamas's use of violence would do little to persuade it that it is wrong. If they could "secure their rights" by peaceful means, Mohammed Totah said, then they would do so, but negotiations have led nowhere, and under international law they have the right to use all available means to resist the occupation. "It isn't violence," he insisted repeatedly, "it's resistance - and even if you don't want to resist, the occupation will give you no choice. It will come to your house, it will kill your children, it will take your land, it will put you in prison."

The four men were released at the end of May, and the Israeli authorities promptly "unfroze" the 30-day order that had been issued in 2006. Mohammed Abu Teir - the eldest of the four, and the most experienced politician, who has spent a total of 30 years in Israeli prisons - was told to leave Jerusalem by 19 June. The others were told to leave by 3 July.

The concern their case provoked was sufficient to overcome the bitter factional dispute between Fatah and Hamas. All four men went to see Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, at his office in Ramallah on two occasions during the 30-day period. He told the men that the deportations were "a red line" and they couldn't be permitted to proceed. In public, he described the decision to deport them as a "grave act", and yet he was unable to do anything to prevent it.

Mohammed Abu Teir said that he would not leave the country where his family has lived for 500 years, or renounce his membership of a parliament to which he was democratically elected, and he was arrested and imprisoned "for staying in Israel illegally". The other three knew their time would come, and sought sanctuary at the Red Cross compound on 1 July. The aim of their protest is simple, says Mohammed Totah: "We want our rights - nothing more - and we will stay here until the international community recognises the justice of our case."

It is not the first time that Israel has attempted to deport Hamas representatives: on 17 December 1992, it responded to the killing of a border police officer by deporting 415 of the organi­sation's leading figures to Lebanon. The tactic was meant to destroy Hamas, but instead it provoked a wave of international condemnation that enhanced its status. "Everyone wanted to meet with them, Hamas became stronger, and, in the end, Israel was forced to bring them back," said Abu Arafeh.

On 18 December 1992, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 799, which expressed "its firm opposition" to the measure, and reaffirmed that the "deportation of civilians constitutes a contravention" of Israel's obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which applies "to all the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem". Eighteen years later, the men's lawyers have urged the Security Council to hold Israel accountable by Resolution 799, though Israel is unlikely to comply, simply because it does not recognise East Jerusalem as occupied territory. The international community regards Israel's decision to annex the areas of East Jerusalem that it captured during the Six Day War of 1967 as illegal, but the Israelis insist that Jerusalem is the "eternal and indivisible capital" of the Jewish people.

Since 1967, they have built settlements for 250,000 people on occupied land and devised various policies to combat demographic trends which indicate that the Jewish proportion of the city's population could fall to no more than 50 per cent by 2035. One-off measures, such as the decision to exclude almost a third of the Arab-Palestinian population from the city's first census, and the construction of the "separation wall" along a route designed to "remove 50,000 Arabs from East Jerusalem", as one official put it, are complemented by a long-term policy of revoking and restricting Palestinian residency rights. There are said to be at least 10,000 unregistered children in East Jerusalem; a child who has only one parent with residency rights does not receive a Jerusalem ID, and a person without residency rights cannot win them by marriage - though a person with them may well lose them. Residency rights can be revoked if a resident of East Jerusalem cannot fulfil stringent bureaucratic requirements to prove that the city is their "centre of life", or if they are said to have "severed their connection" to the city.

Israel revoked the residency rights of 8,558 Palestinians between 1967 and 2007, yet this is the first time that it has attempted to do so on the grounds of "disloyalty". Whether rumours that Israel has drawn up a list of 315 people who are next in line for revocation of residency status are true or not, the vagueness of the charge concerns the parliamentarians' lawyer, Hassan Jabareen, general director of the human rights organisation Adalah. "If this decision is final," he told me, "the conclusion is that residency can be revoked from any Palestinian engaging in public political activity. Today it's a Hamas member; tomorrow they'll revoke the residency of a Fatah member, or a senior PA adviser. Or a Palestinian journalist."

The protest tent at the Red Cross compound is just one of several that have been set up across Jerusalem in the past two years. There is another in the village of Silwan, where a group of settlers that controls the archaeological site and visitor attraction known as the "City of David" is attempting to expand the Jewish presence, and another on the far side of Sheikh Jarrah, where settlers have displaced two Palestinian families from their homes.

Sheikh Jarrah is a typically run-down district of East Jerusalem, though also home to many of the city's embassies, hotels and international NGOs. On my way back to the Red Cross compound later in the afternoon, I watched an Orthodox Jew in tailcoat and ringlets emerge from the turning to the contested houses - 300 metres beyond the hotel where Tony Blair maintains lavish headquarters on his rare visits to the Middle East - and walk past a patch of derelict land where a group of Palestinian kids were playing. Such sights are increasingly common in East Jerusalem.

Mahmoud Abbas insists that Israel must stop building settlements as a precondition for starting peace talks, but President Barack Obama's administration has failed to force Israel to comply. Last November, Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing administration agreed to a ten-month, partial freeze on settlement-building in the West Bank, but it insisted that Jerusalem was exempt. And in March, the interior minister, Eliyahu Yishai, precipitated the most severe breach in US-Israeli relations in years when he announced, during a visit by the US vice-president, Joe Biden, the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

The previous day, George Mitchell, the US peace envoy to the Middle East, had announced that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to hold four months of indirect peace talks - the first since December 2008, when Israel began the three-week assault on Gaza that it called Operation Cast Lead. Biden had begun the day by asserting America's "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security", but finished it by condemning "the substance and timing of the announcement".

Abbas, whose democratic mandate has expired, and whose credibility with the Palestinian electorate has been severely weakened, had little choice but to pull out of the talks. When they eventually began in May, they made no progress, and yet the Americans pressured both parties to move to face-to-face negotiations.

On 20 August, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that Netanyahu and Abbas will meet in Washington, DC on 2 September. It is highly unlikely that these new talks will lead to a successful conclusion: unless the Israelis renew their moratorium on settlement development, which expires in September, there will be only the briefest opportunity for engagement on the possibility of creating a circumscribed Palestinian state on the West Bank. And in any case, the other final status issues - the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem - are likely to prove insurmountable.

The parliamentarians' fate would form no more than an insignificant footnote in any negotiation, and yet it is indicative of the deadlock over the city's status. When I arrived at the compound, I was told that the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, had been to see them earlier in the day. It had been a busy afternoon.

At three o'clock, the men had retired upstairs to pray and sleep, and at five they had handed out school leaving certificates to four coachloads of students. In the evening, the men's families arrived to see them. Each man has at least four children, and by eight o'clock, as the call to prayer from a nearby mosque drifted through the evening air, there were as many as 50 people in the courtyard. The men and women formed separate lines facing the wall of the building, their discarded shoes heaped beside the carpets that served as prayer mats, as Ahmad Atoun intoned prayers in a rich baritone.

Afterwards, the guests sat on the chairs beneath the awnings, or remained seated on the mats as a boy distributed bitter coffee in plastic cups and a girl in a blue headscarf passed round an ice-cream tub filled with home-made fig rolls. Children ran in and out of the gates, or darted through the open doors of the Red Cross building. Mohammed Totah gestured towards a girl in a dark dress. "I have an eight-year-old daughter, and she says to me that families all over the world live under one roof - why aren't you allowed to come home?"

The men say the attempt to deport them will prove as counterproductive as the mass deportation of 1992: they see it as another step on the long road to Palestinian liberation. Yet such optimism seems at odds with the precariousness of their situation. The Red Cross does not enjoy diplomatic immunity, and the main police station in East Jerusalem is no more than a hundred metres up the hill.

Israel has recently begun inquiries into the deaths of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, the ship that was attacked by Israeli forces as it attempted to carry aid to Gaza in May. Mohammed Totah believes it is only the disastrous consequences of that raid that have prevented their rearrest. "There are no red lines for the occupation, but after they killed nine people on the ship, they don't want to add another crime to their account. They don't want to do it now, but they will come, sooner or later - maybe after a few days, maybe less."

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the NS. He is working on a book about Hebron.

How Hamas works

The role of Hamas - considered a terrorist organisation by the EU and US - divides broadly into two main spheres of operation: social programmes such as building infrastructure, and the militant operations carried out by the underground Izz ad-Din al-Qassam.

Given its beginnings as a guerrilla movement, Hamas retains a degree of secrecy about its power structures. Gaza is led by the disputed prime minister Ismail Haniyeh (who was dismissed in 2007 by President Mahmoud Abbas but ignored the decree). However, most of the day-to-day decisions are made by the political bureau, chaired by Khaled Meshal and made up of about ten members, many of whom live in exile in Syria.

Major policy decisions are made by the Shura Council, an internal parliament consisting of roughly 50 members inside and outside the Palestinian territories. It cannot meet often, because some of its members are unable to travel into Gaza or the West Bank for fear of assassination.

Meshal's political bureau in Syria is the main fundraising arm of Hamas, and manages relations with Arab and Muslim countries. Some argue that this makes the bureau more pragmatic than the leadership within the territories. However, there is a question mark over how much control Meshal, though the group's leader, has in this uncohesive organisation.

Samira Shackle

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