A Real Estate Dispute
Real estate dispute or genocidal land grab? The devil is in the details of the words we use.
Last night, Israeli police officers stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem, firing stun grenades and rubber bullets as Palestinians observing the Holy month of Ramadan prayed inside. At least 163 people were wounded—by and large, Palestinians.
It is unclear exactly what instigated the violence—but journalistic obligation means I must also tell you that Palestinian protestors resisted by throwing stones and water bottles, injuring at least six Israeli police officers.
Watching the horrifying video footage of stun grenades exploding outside the mosque and older women besieged inside made me remember reporting this article for The Nation some eight years ago. I was really just a baby journalist back then, and had a tendency to follow my heart when it came to my stories—a quality that earned me a reputation of being both genuine by those who liked me, and biased by those who didn’t.
Al Aqsa mosque on a clear day. Credit: Wikipedia
So, when I stumbled upon a protest in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, I decided to stay. Several people from the neighborhood were standing around, protesting the fact that one family had recently received an eviction order so that Israeli settlers could take their place—a move that many saw as a continuation of the Nakba and the Israeli policies that forcibly and systematically displace Palestinians.
That was where I met Saleh.
He was eager to tell me about his neighborhood and offered to take me on a drive to show me around, so I accepted. Perhaps it seems like I was too overly trusting of strangers, but it always served me. Palestinians in particular were always generous with their time and stories, a quality that comes off as rooted in genuine kindness, but likely comes just as much from shouting into the void about injustice for the better part of a century.
Saleh was no exception. He was earnest and kind, regaling me with both beautiful stories of what it was like to grow up and then raise his family in the neighborhood, and unsettling ones about the Israeli settlers who moved into the house across the street from him, and put up Israeli flags to mark their territory. He resented them for enjoying the beautiful lemon tree that had been left behind by the Palestinian family who was forced out, and resented the watch tower that had been installed to surveil their neighborhood.
“Sheikh Jarrah is the key to Jerusalem,” he told me, explaining how he saw the land grab playing out, family by family, neighborhood by neighborhood.
“Then it is Wadi Joz, Issawiya, Al Sawana, A-Tur, Silwan—finally it is the Old City, and then lastly, Al-Aqsa Mosque”
It sounded like a conspiracy. How could Israeli soldiers—or worse, violent settlers—claim Al-Aqsa Mosque? It was too beautiful, too important, too grandiose to be threatened. I couldn’t imagine anyone looking at it with an emotion other than awe.
Still, I believed him—if a biased journalist wouldn’t give him a chance, who would? He gave me one of his wife’s headscarfs and took me to a small building, where he told me that people went to worship when they didn’t feel safe going to Al-Aqsa. Unlike the mosque, it was drab and gray—with small windows and a tiny fan blowing recycled air over prayer mats strewn across the floor. It felt like displacement.
Eight years later, Saleh’s words feel surreal—and the fact that last night’s attack sits in the context of twelve more families facing eviction from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, even more so. It makes me think of all of the time I’ve seen Palestinians have their testimonies doubted, gaslit that they are blowing the occupation out of proportion, that it can’t possibly be that bad, that there are two sides to every story.
Now, even social media companies are doing it. After a horrifying video of Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah resident Mona al-Kurd demanding an unidentified Israeli settler to stop squatting in her home went viral, activists report that posts tagged #SheikhJarrah and #SaveSheikhJarrah are being deleted en masse. Just another form of erasure.
Perhaps the most disturbing post of all was a post from the Israeli Foreign Ministry who referred to what was happening in Sheikh Jarrah as a “real estate dispute” and those standing up to it as “Palestinian terror groups.”
A real estate dispute or a genocidal land grab? The devil is in the details, and depending on how you twist the words and strip them their context, the truth can be cast as a lie just as easily as a lie becomes the accepted truth. Language is almost never neutral, and even the journalistic language that we have accepted as such comes couched in its own bias by virtue of being removed. We write about aggression in the passive voice, victims that had something happen to them rather than perpetrators who deliberately did something with meaning and intent.
Journalists who see evidence of systemic injustice and the pain it causes are taught to be skeptical of their sources, to seek confirmation from “unbiased” sources. We are told to resist being emotional, to water down our language to avoid libel lawsuits. It affects how we write, or perhaps rewrite history. Clashes and tensions. Too little, too late.
Anyone who knows Palestine will tell you that what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah right now is a continuation of the Nakba (for those who don’t know, Arabic for catastrophe) in 1948—the violent, Zionist land grab of Palestinian cities and villages and forced expulsion of Palestinians that left hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and many of their descendants born stateless today.
Was this catastrophe simply a real estate dispute?