Dossier 22: Under Siege in Jerusalem: Three Women Caught Between Two Cultures

Publication Author: 
David Sharrock
January 2000
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“Wanted: Flat for three twenty-something Palestinian women to rent; Must be in Jewish west Jerusalem and free from religious bigots and bombers”.

That would be an honest advertisement if Manal Diab, Sonia and Wafa Khoury wanted to be open about their recent travails on the top floor of No. 16 Iddo the Prophet Street. But perhaps their notoriety has already ruined all prospect of finding another place to live in Jerusalem?

Notoriety must be the wrong word, but how else can you account for three bombs outside their door in less than 12 months living on the fringes of what is supposed to be the trendy yuppiefied district of Musrara, with its fine views of the gilded Dome of the Rock?

Defying the conventions of both sides of this divided city, Manal, Sonia and Wafa rented the flat last summer. It seemed ideal, close to the Old City where Manal works as a Hebrew language teacher and close to the centre for its shopping and nightlife.

The only problem - and it didn't seem one when they signed the contract - was their neighbours. The narrow street runs between a mostly working-class Sephardic-Moroccan neighbourhood and the ultra-Othodox Mea Shearim. Two tribes, little in common with one another except perhaps a hatred of Arabs. Even ones who dress in the latest stretch-Lycra fashions and who could easily pass for Israelis themselves. Which Manal, Sonia and Wafa all are - except that they are Israeli Arabs.

It's a term that Manal doesn't like - the map on the living room wall of Palestine showing all the villages which have been erased by Israel since 1948 clearly demonstrates where loyalties lie - but she and her friends are all passport-bearing Israelis, born within the 1967 Green Line separating the Jewish state from the Occupied Territories.

In any case, right now questions of identity are the least of their worries. Their ordeal began with swastikas daubed on their door and stones hurled at them by Jewish seminary students from the local yeshiva. But now somebody is trying to kill them - or at best intimidate them out of their home - and the police don't seem to be getting anywhere with their investigation.

The third bomb went off on the night of Israel's big 50th birthday party. It was 12.40 am and because the city had been ablaze with fire-works all evening Manal wasn't sure what the loud explosion meant. "I went from my bedroom into the living room, and it was on fire; I couldn't call the police because the phone was in that room, so I began screaming for help from my bedroom window. And no one moved. They just watched me. I kept shouting at them to call the police and eventually they did, but it was unbelievable how long they took".

The entrance to the flat is now charred and evil smelling for the third time. Two previous small bombs exploded outside the door in October and December. The second prompted some attention because a police explosives expert was injured trying to defuse it. Jerusalem's rightwing mayor, Ehud Olmert, even came to visit and get his photograph taken.

"Olmert asked me "Why don't you go and live in the Arab part of the city?" So I told him "Fine, but fix everything there first, the buses, the potholed roads, the electricity supply". We are all very busy, career women who work late, and it's difficult getting back to the Arab districts where there are no real services, " says Manal.

There is another problem too. Career women who want to look cool and sexy, share a flat and generally run their lives the way they want to without any interference don't go down a storm in east Jerusalem. The women briefly shared a flat in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Hanina, where they were harassed by men for flouting Arab tradition and dressing like Western women. The city's western quarters are more to their taste, even though only a few seriously wealthy Palestinians choose to live there. Perhaps this also account for the indifference of the Palestinian media to the bombings, which seems to have ignored the plight of Manal, Sonia and Wafa. An ad hoc "Committee to Save the Women" was formed by well-wishers, and a Haifa-based feminist group dispatched a visiting American PhD candidate in modern Jewish history to move in with the women as a volunteer security guard.

But, Manal wryly notes, all the initial enthusiastic offers of help evaporated like so much Jerusalem snow. "Somebody promised to pay our municipal tax, which we can't afford because we lost so many days work over this, but it never happened. We are alone with our suffering; it's the Palestinian fate".

The police put up a video camera to monitor the flat entrance, but it disappeared a few weeks before the last bombing and, oddly, a spokesman thought it was still there. "The last thing I said that night before I went to sleep was "They will bomb us for sure tonight because it's Independence Day". I'm scared, but they won't break me. This is giving me more strength", says Manal. "The people who did this are weak who can't fight in a fair way.

"I just want to talk with them, to say to them "You want me to leave? Then come and sit with me and convince me". I believe that I have the right to live wherever I want in this land, which is everyone's land to share, even if it's not my country".

After the second bomb the women started looking for another flat to rent. Not because they were scared, but because their landlord asked them to. He has given them their notice, and when the 12-month contract expires at the end of this month they must move out.

"It is going to be difficult to find a new place to live in, because so many people have heard about us now and it makes me very angry because it's as if this is all our fault", said Manal. Not surprisingly, they have found nothing so far. "We went to look at another apartment in French Hill (one of east Jerusalem's oldest Jewish settlements, nowadays home to any liberal university professors and diplomats) and the landlord seemed terrified of us all the time he was showing us round.

"It makes me so mad. I want to shout at people "Why are you scared of some 26-year-old women who are just trying to build their careers. Why?"

During our talk a visiting New Yorker popped by to offer her condolences. "I read about it and was so appalled I had to come over and apologise for our so-called brethren," said Hanna Berman. "I'm modern Orthodox myself, and I think this is outrageous. It's like the blacks in the fifties in the States or the Nazis. If we do nothing then we too are responsible". She stalked off into the night promising to give the local rabbi an earful.

Nomi Bar-Yaacov, an Israeli human rights lawyer, says the attacks are symptomatic of the growing intolerance of Israel's religious community. "It's getting worse. If a Jewish woman wore a miniskirt in the same area she would face the same problem. I have personally been told that my Jewish blood is worthy of spilling. The combination of being Palestinian and secular merely doubles the problem for these women".

Manal grew up in the Galilee, Sonia and Wafa in Nazareth. Living in predominantly Arab regions of Israel, they never experienced discrimination until they moved to Jerusalem to study, work and get on. More than 90 per cent of Israeli Arabs live in segregated all-Arab towns and villages. In April severe rioting broke out in one village after the army demolished an illegally built home, raising the spectre of a new intifada, but this time one made in Israel among its disaffected Arab population. Opposition politicians urged the government to do more to improve relations.

For Manal, Sonia and Wafa it may be too late. They are thinking of emigrating. "I'm Palestinian and I identify with the Palestinian cause, but as a modern woman I can't live with Arabs," says Sonia. "They are chauvinist, only like blondes and have totally different mindsets to ours." But she couldn't see herself falling in love with and marrying a Jewish man either, unless he was staunchly anti-Zionist.

Until the lease runs out they have somewhere to live, even if the door and walls are blackened by fire. "We won't be here much longer, and we don't know where we'll be next, but I'm still waiting for them to come and bomb me again," says Manal.

Source: Guardian Weekly, June 7, 1998, features, page 23.

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