By Uri Avnery
First, an honest disclosure: I loved the Shepherd hotel very much.
In the first years after the Six-Day War, I was a frequent guest there. My work in the Knesset demanded that I stay in Jerusalem at least two nights every week, and after the war I switched from the hotels of West Jerusalem to those in the Eastern part of the city. My favorite was the Shepherd. I felt at home there.
The charm of the place lay in its special atmosphere. It is located in the middle of that ancient Arab town which itself aroused my intense curiosity. Its rooms have high ceilings and old furniture, and it was run by remarkable people – two elderly Arab ladies who were educated in Beirut and steeped in Palestinian-Lebanese culture.
The area surrounding the hotel is the neighborhood of the al-Husseini clan. The holdings of this vast extended family, with more than 5000 members, comprise the greater part of the Sheikh Jarrah quarter, which also includes the legendary Orient House.
The al-Husseini family is one of the handful of aristocratic Jerusalemite families, and perhaps the most respected one (its members certainly think so). For centuries the family has filled at least one of the three most important positions in the town: those of Grand Mufti, mayor and the notable in charge of the Islamic shrines. Shepherd was built by Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti who led the Arab Rebellion in the 1930s and became the Arab the Hebrew community most loved to hate.
I spent hours in conversation with the two ladies, learnt a lot from them and grew very attached to the place. It was a sad day for me when it was closed.
I don’t know how this property fell into the hands of the American millionaire, the Bingo king whose declared intention is to set up Jewish settlements all over the Arab town. Now he wants to build a housing project in the grounds of the Shepherd.
But that’s enough of him. My business is with Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s aim is to Judaize Jerusalem. This week he boasted that in his last term in office, ten years ago, he had set up the fortified Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa.
To Har Homa – whose real name is Jebel Abu Ghneim – I also have a sentimental attachment. I spent many days and nights in the struggle to prevent the creation of the monstrous housing project that looms there now.
The leader in this struggle was another Husseini – the unforgettable Feisal. I held him in high esteem. I don’t hesitate to say that I loved him. He was a nobleman in the real sense of the word: a scion of nobility but modest in his manners, generous and approachable, a man of peace but fearless in his confrontations with the occupation troops, a real Palestinian patriot, moderate in his opinions, wise and courageous. He was the son of Abd-al-Kader al-Husseini, the leader of the Arab fighters in the Jerusalem district in the 1948 war, who was killed in the battle for the “Castel” near the city. I had no part in that battle, but I passed by a few hours later in a relief convoy for the besieged Jewish part of Jerusalem. Like most of my comrades, I respected him as an honorable enemy.
The site of Har Homa, for those who have already forgotten, used to be a unique place of beauty between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a rounded hill covered with a dense wood. The destroyers of Jerusalem – that brutal coalition of real estate sharks, fanatical Zionists, American millionaires and religious mystics – had decided to eliminate that last spot of beauty in order to build a dense, fortified and particularly ugly Jewish settlement. Under the leadership of Feisal and Ta’amri, the former husband of a Jordanian princess, a tent camp was set up. When the bulldozers started to cut down the trees and level the top of the hill, we held dozens of demonstrations and vigils. In one of them I suffered a hemorrhage and would have ended my life there and then, if a Palestinian ambulance had not succeeded in reaching me in that road-less stone desert and got me to the hospital in time. So I have a sentimental attachment to the place.
The shepherd provocation is a part of the tireless effort to “Judaize” Jerusalem. In simple words: to carry out ethnic cleansing. This campaign has been going on for 42 years already, from the first day of the occupation of East Jerusalem, but the timing of this particular operation results from tactical considerations.
Netanyahu is facing heavy American pressure to freeze the settlements in the West Bank. He is quite unable to do so, as long as he remains at the head of the coalition he himself chose, which consists of Rightists, religious zealots, settlers and outright fascists. He has offered several “compromises”, all based on various fraudulent ploys, but the Americans have learnt the lessons of the past and did not fall into any of his traps.
His Siamese twin, Ehud Barak, is busy leaking to the media “news” about a grandiose operation: at any moment, with one stroke, like Alexander and the Gordian knot, the dozens of settlement “outposts” that have been set up since 2001 with secret government support will be uprooted. But except for the media people themselves, hardly anyone believes that this will really happen. Certainly not the settlers, judging by their knowing smiles.
So what to do in order to avoid having to dismantle the outposts? Netanyahu, the King of Spin, has a solution: a new provocation to draw attention away from the last one. The Shepherd hotel is now diverting the world’s attention away from the hills of “Judea and Samaria”. When you have a toothache, you forget about your bellyache.
What, he says, the Goyim want to stop us building in Jerusalem, our Holy City?! Our eternal capital, which has been reunited for all eternity?! What Chutzpah! Will they prohibit Jews from building in New York?! Will they forbid Englishmen to build in London?!
Netanyahu really hit his stride when he declared that any Arab can live in West Jerusalem, so why should a Jew not build a home in East Jerusalem?
Clear and to the point – and absolutely false. When Netanyahu says things like that, it is hard to know whether he is spreading lies consciously (though they can easily be exposed), or if he believes his falsehoods himself. Thus, for example, he claimed to remember the British soldiers in front of his home when he was a child – when the last British soldier left the country a year before he was born.
The truth is that with extremely rare exceptions, no Arab can acquire an apartment in West Jerusalem, not to mention building a house there – though large sections of the Western part of the city consist of former Arab neighborhoods, whose inhabitants fled or were driven out during the 1948 war. The former owners of the houses in these quarters (including Talbiya, Katamon, Dir Yassin), who found refuge in East Jerusalem, were not allowed to return to their homes when Jerusalem was “united” in 1967, neither were they paid compensation (as I proposed in the Knesset).
But Netanyahu does not care so much whether people believe him or not. This week, like every other week since he returned to power, he was fully occupied with survival. In order to survive, the coalition must remain intact. To achieve this, he must show that he does not “fold” under American pressure. No better place to prove this than Jerusalem.
About Jerusalem, as official spokesmen never tire of telling us, about Jerusalem there is a national consensus. From wall to wall. From left to extreme right.
However, this myth is long dead. No such consensus exists. Right now, most Israelis are ready to return the Arab quarters of East Jerusalem to Palestinian rule in return for real peace. I know of no Jewish mother who is ready to sacrifice her son in a war for the Shepherd hotel.
I beg to contradict yet another myth that is being propagated relentlessly by our media: that a national consensus against President Obama is forming.
As we say in classical Hebrew: No bears and no forest. Or more colloquially: No birds and no shoes.
Many Israelis, very many, hope that Barack Obama will do for them what seems impossible without him: bring them peace. They have despaired of our political system, of both the coalition and the opposition, of both Right and Left. They are convinced that only an outside force can realize this hope.
If indeed Obama does clash with Netanyahu over his refusal to freeze the settlements in the West Bank and his insistence on continuing to build in East Jerusalem, it is for Obama’s victory that many Israelis will be praying. They know that in this battle, it is not Netanyahu but Obama who represents the true interests of Israel.
The question is whether Obama has the power to follow through, as no preceding president since Dwight Eisenhower has done.
Netanyahu does not believe so. His American partners – the defeated Republicans, the Neocons who are now in hiding, the almost-silent Evangelical preachers – this defeated camp is hoping to recover its fortunes by encouraging the Jewish lobby and the Israeli government to provoke Obama. Netanyahu, who has mobilized Congress against the White House in the past, believes that he can do it once again.
Our newspapers are gleefully reporting, with charts and graphs to bear them out, that Obama’s standing in America is sinking. It is not hard to divine that most of this information emanates from Avigdor Lieberman’s Foreign Office, the same source that is feeding the American media with reports of the growing opposition of the Israeli public against Obama. Soon the American media will show Israeli protesters waving posters with Obama in SS uniform, as happened with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin before him.
The battle is not about 20 outposts, nor about 20 apartments in the grounds of the Shepherd hotel. Every house in every West Bank settlement serves one supreme purpose: to destroy any possibility for peace. Every Israeli house in East Jerusalem serves the same sublime aim. The opponents of peace know that no Arab leader will ever sign a peace agreement that does not designate East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, and no Arab leader will ever sign a peace agreement that does not assign all of the West Bank to the State of Palestine.
A historic responsibility rests on the shoulders of Barack Obama: not to fold, not to give in, not to “compromise”. To insist on the total freeze of the settlements, as a first and necessary step towards peace. For his sake, and for ours too.
As an Israeli, I feel like calling out to him: Yes, You Can!
– Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.