Being Palestinian

Nowhere is language and identity more complicated than in Jerusalem. Since I arrived last year, I have been treading carefully to try and use the right language with people so as not to offend or worse, antagonise them. I will often refer to ‘Israel and Palestine’ however, knowing full well that the two things do not exist as a comparable pair.

Palestine is not an independent state. Most consulates and NGOs delicately refer instead to the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ or OPTs for short. This at least gives some recognition to the fact that there are Palestinian people. They exist!

So what does it mean to be Palestinian? As with every nationality in the world, there is no single answer. My friend summed this up perfectly by saying that identity is ‘like a recipe without measurements’ and different ingredients can change their strength over time. The difference with being Palestinian, is that the system of occupation has created a set of rules and boundaries to treat Palestinians differently depending on where they live.

As someone who is not Palestinian, I feel ill-equipped to do this topic justice! My reason for saying anything it is to try and help people reading this from different countries to better understand some of the issues. I’m sure everyone reads about Palestinians in the news, so who are the people living below the ink? Any sweeping statement or inaccuracies are unfortunately my own!

Palestinians living in Jerusalem have ‘Jerusalemite’ status. This means they are permanent residents of Jerusalem who have a claim to the land here. If they move out of the city they lose it. And Palestinians can’t move in and get it: it’s not a fluid thing.

Having Jerusalemite status comes with some benefits. They can travel freely within Israel which means they can access the sea. They can fly out of Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv but many Palestinians will receive extra hassle if they don’t have an Israeli passport[1]. It’s also easier to access work opportunities and they are close to amazing historical and cultural sites such as the Dome of the Rock and the Old City.

Israeli settlement in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City

But there are of course downsides too. Ironically, it can be harder for Jerusalemite Palestinians to access the West Bank as they will have to cross check points and may be subjected to unnecessary hassle. In East Jerusalem there are also a lot of Israeli settlements which are points of friction, as well as the daily struggle of living in such a militarised place. Linguistically most of the state bureaucracy is conducted in Hebrew. Many families also live under the awful threat of having their houses demolished for spurious reasons. For sure life is not made easy.  

I asked three of my Palestinian friends living in Jerusalem if they consider themselves as Jerusalemites and here are their answers:  

Lovely neighbour friend: I always identify myself as a Palestinian from Jerusalem. It is a political statement to show that there are Palestinians still living in Jerusalem (around 1/2 million). Palestinians, depending on the place they live and ID they hold, have different kinds of struggle but we all share a common occupation. Of course occupation tries to fuel those differences to divide Palestinians and kill the unity. You see it clearly on check points and with permits given to some but not others. The most important thing is to be aware and keep unity between Palestinians wherever they are, no matter where they come from or where they live’.

Local businessman friend: ‘I am culturally Palestinian, ethnically Arab, and bureaucracy Jerusalemite. However, I will not subscribe to the Israeli definition of Jerusalemite – and I don’t see myself sharing this identity with an Israeli “Jerusalemite”.

Work colleague family friend: ‘Originating from, or living in or being in Jerusalem does not necessarily mean we automatically identify as “Jerusalemites” – it is a label rather than an identity and unless one chooses to adopt it as an aspect of their personality, it remains a label. For example, I was born in Jerusalem – my family hails from Jerusalem and our historical presence in Jerusalem goes back centuries, this means that I am Jerusalemite by label. If I choose to adopt that description as part of who I am, the it crosses over to being an identity’.

My conclusion is that the term ‘Jerusalemite’ comes with deeper political and ideological connotations than I had realised and it’s another word to use carefully and sensitively.

I want to tell you about West Bank Palestinians, and Palestinian refugees both in the West Bank and in neighbouring countries and Palestinians in the diaspora and Arab-Israelis. It is a big topic so bear with me for a second instalment coming up soon.

Let me just leave you with some small examples of what those other experiences might include. There is my friend in Bethlehem, which is less than 10km away from Jerusalem, who until recently only had childhood memories of Jerusalem. He hadn’t been granted a permit in 20 years so he hadn’t seen the city, had lost touch with family and friends and felt little connection to it now.

Then there are the lovely work colleague friends who hosted us like royalty at their house but we can’t have them over for dinner as the wife doesn’t have a permit to come to Jerusalem. Or the man who travels around 90 minutes into work in Jerusalem for what should be a 10 minute journey if the Separation Wall hadn’t cut off his East Jerusalem town from the rest of the city. These are not unusual stories. They are part of daily life here for many Palestinian people living outside Jerusalem. Look out for part 2 of Being Palestinian coming soon….

Please get in touch and share your comments wherever you are from and whatever your identity. I would love to hear from you!

A street sign in three languages, that has had a life

[1] All Palestinians in East Jerusalem have an Israeli travel document Laissez Passer – as they are not Israeli citizens they have no passport. This travel document is not easily recognized worldwide. In addition to that, many of them apply and take up a temporary Jordanian passport which allows them to travel internationally. This is a hangover from when East Jerusalem and the West Bank was under Jordanian control (until 1967).

3 thoughts on “Being Palestinian

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post, Kirsty. I knew about most of this, but I really love the way the businessman friend of yours expressed ‘identity.’ So many of the categories used to control Palestinians because of the occupation could easily control their very identities, and he or she is having none of it….Parts of the demographic control system (permits, checkpoints, statuses, ID cards) are just that–a system with no respect for the people and their history…

    Liked by 2 people

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