This week I was very pleased to receive a guest blog from someone who recently visited three towns in East Jerusalem on the other side of the separation wall. I am always aware that my blog has been quite narrowly focussed on my experiences around Sheikh Jarrah and the reality for many East Jerusalemites is much tougher. I’m also a bit embarrassed to admit that I have only passed through Abu Dis briefly and had no idea about it’s biblical history. This is definitely now on my list of post-lockdown visits.
GUEST BLOG: “Road 417 in East Jerusalem winds along beside the ancient olive trees of the garden of gethsemane, between a blanket of pale Jewish graves that look over to the Old City, and skirts round the side of the Mount of Olives. If you continue to follow this road for two or three minutes you will reach an innocuous roundabout beside a petrol station, one exit heading off sharp left and the other sharp right. A colossal concrete wall looms in front, with just the minaret of a mosque peering over from the other side.
Last weekend I went to a visit an old friend – Abu Amir – who offered to show me the other side of the wall. There are three main towns, all suburbs of Jerusalem, which are on the other side of the wall. These are called Al Ezariyah, Abu Dis, and Al Sawahrah Al Sharqiyah.
The drive there was a lot more circuitous. The old Jericho road is usually bustling, heaving with cars and trucks that use it to connect up the northern and southern West Bank towns. But today it’s Ramadan, 6 in the morning, already roasting hot, and the streets are blissfully quiet.
The road makes its way up a gentle hill until it reaches an abrupt stop. This is a metre or so away from that innocuous roundabout on the other side of the wall. Tall vertical slabs of brutal grey concrete have been planted here with complete disregard. Unlike the other side, here there has clearly been no effort by the Palestinian Authority to smooth over the fact that this road, that once connected the town with the rest of Jerusalem, has been crudely blocked off. It just ceases to be a road. The wall is decorated with paintings of the yellow Fatah flag (the leading Palestinian political party in the West Bank), a portrait of one of its popular detained leaders, and black pen portraits of ‘shaheed’ (or ‘martyrs’).
Abu Amir wants me to get a better view of Al Ezariyah, so we sneak up ten floors of a tall new apartment block in the still heat, past sleeping flats with shoes outside. Up on the roof we get a bird’s eye view.
Looking East towards the dusty hills of the Jordan valley the town is spread out before us. It’s a historic spot, identified as the town Bethany in the Bible. Abu Amir points out a church and mosque side by side, on top of the tomb of Lazarus, which is reached via some closed souvenir shops and a low slung blue painted door. Jesus is said to have raised Lazarus (or Al Uzair) from the dead four days after his burial – just a hint of what was to come!
This place is ranked the fourth holiest in Christianity, which is no mean feat given the competition. Jesus is also thought to have stayed at the home of Simon the leper here and there is a 2,000 year old house you can visit in the town.
Immediately to the West is that same blanket of Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives that the 417 Road passes and the walls of the Old City. These are all within reach except for the separation wall snaking off towards Herod’s volcano-shaped hilltop palace in the distance. Something as simple as a wall severs the land, it cuts off the view, it cuts off family, friends, schools, your own holy city, it disturbs your sense of where you actually are, and eventually it stifles hope. It now defines everything here.
As your eye follows the wall South it passes a large unmarked cream coloured building, begun in 2000 in anticipation of serving as the Palestinian national Parliament. Those dreams dashed, it now lies vacant. Another vacant curiosity of the conflict, is the Cliff Hotel in Abu Dis, set up in the 1960s by the Ayyad family. In 2002 it was taken over by Israeli police and thirteen years of legal battles later, the courts ordered that it should be returned to its rightful owners. Victory! Five years later however, and the hotel is stranded on the other side of the wall. The top floor windows are empty, and fences and security cameras still circle the rooftop. We stopped chatting when we spotted someone asleep on the roof under a thick brown blanket; and tip-toed away, laughing, and back down the ladder.
Nearby is the very slick, modern looking campus of Al Quds University in Abu Dis. It has been in the local news recently for responding to the covid-19 crisis by inventing a cheap, homemade ventilator system using easy to access materials. This has already been licensed for manufacture by the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Al Sawahrah Al Sharqiyah is one half of a town lost to its western half by the wall. A few hundred residents have special permission to use a small checkpoint nearby to reach the other side. We watched a man in a purple shirt park up, walk to the checkpoint to present his credentials, and then traipse back before being allowed to drive through. To one side was the twisted remains of a house demolished by Israel for being too close to the checkpoint. Further out, beyond trees, bountiful with figs and apricots, there are some beautiful neighbouring valleys. These look south and west towards Bethlehem, and east back to the Jordan Valley and the dead sea – ideal hiking territory when it isn’t about 40C!
There are lots of things to see and do here in East Jerusalem despite the troubles it faces. The wall has become the defining feature of this bustling and growing collection of towns and villages that reach out east to the Jordan Valley and should reach back west to the rest of Jerusalem.
Abu Amir had been too generous with his time and energy in the Ramadan heat. As I headed off, people were gathering in numbers along the 417 Road despite covid-19. The drive from here to the other side of that little checkpoint took about 45 minutes on a traffic free day, and I don’t even need a permit to visit. Others aren’t so lucky. Let’s have hope we will see the wall come down one day”.