It is no secret that the issue of occupied Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque is at the heart of the Palestinian cause. There is a daily struggle between Palestinian Jerusalemites and the Israeli occupation authorities. I spoke with Palestinian activist Hanadi Halawani to shed some light on this issue.
Ahmed Hweidi: Tell us about the violations committed by the Israeli occupation against the Islamic and Christian religious endowments in occupied Jerusalem.
Hanadi Halawani: First of all, let me assure you that the attacks on holy sites are very clear, whether on mosques or churches, and they have become more apparent and are happening more than before. All Jerusalemites, Muslims and Christians, are exposed to these ongoing Israeli violations.
The occupation authorities have made the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron a model for its aggressive occupation and division. The mosque is now split by time and space for Muslims and Jews to pray inside it. The Israelis plan the same thing for Al-Aqsa Mosque. Indeed, they want to destroy the mosque and build something sacred of their own there instead. They have nothing that is sacred to them, so they have to take the holy sites of the Muslims and Christians. They want to build a temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock Mosque and Jewish settlers are calling openly for around one-fifth of the area of the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa to be turned over to them for their religious rituals.
The settlers stormed into Al-Aqsa Mosque in ever more malicious ways. The Israeli occupation authorities allow them to enter even though there are Palestinians in Al-Aqsa Mosque on a daily and permanent basis. So the settlers enter from 7:00 to 10:00 in the morning and again from noon to 2 pm. When they are inside the mosque they drink wine, recite Jewish religious verses and take models shaped like pigs; they know what will provoke the Muslims. I documented this behaviour and was imprisoned because I exposed the settlers' actions with conclusive evidence.
The Israelis want to remove any kind of mercy from the mosque in the effort to please the fanatical settlers. The normalisation deals with some Arab states have emboldened the settlers and the authorities to demand whatever they want within Al-Aqsa.
Not far from Al-Aqsa, settlers have tried to burn down the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane. If caught, arsonists are always described by the authorities as having psychiatric problems. This is simply not true. Arson attacks are carried out very deliberately. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem (Alqiama Church) has been targeted by the imposition of heavy taxes on church property. The Christian clergy have complained about such measures.
AH: How does the occupation seek to change the demography of occupied Jerusalem?
HH: This is a major issue. The Israeli occupation authorities want to make sure that there are more Jews in Jerusalem than Arabs. To achieve this they expel Palestinian Arabs from their homes in Jerusalem and "deport" them to the West Bank on the flimsiest of excuses. They withdraw their Jerusalem identity and residence documents too. And some Arabs collaborate by selling homes in Jerusalem to Jews. Moreover, activists and elected parliamentarians from the Palestinian Legislative Council are arrested and expelled, Muslims as well as Christians.
Controversially, it has been recorded that Israel wants to reduce the Palestinian birth rate, and reduce the number of baby boys being born. Pregnant Palestinians have been told by the medical authorities that their foetuses are deformed and so they should have an abortion. Only with male foetuses, by the way.
Furthermore, the occupation authorities support Jewish settlers by securing homes for them in Jerusalem with room to extend, and they are given a monthly stipend to have more children. We know that they have been given hormones to make it more likely to have twins. The goal of all of this is to increase the Jewish birth rate and thus the number of Jews and settlers in the holy city.
Israeli police and soldiers, of course, also simply kill Palestinians in cold blood, especially young people. Various deceptions are put in place to justify such killings.
AH: We hear a lot about the demolition of Palestinian homes inside occupied Jerusalem. Tell us about this problem. What is the aim of the occupation in doing that?
HH: Firstly, Palestinian homes in occupied Jerusalem are old, in poor repair and threatened with demolition. The Israelis do not allow them to be repaired. Even if permits are given to do this, the cost is usually prohibitive for the average Jerusalemite. As the population rises, and families increase in size, house extensions are essential to accommodate everyone. Building permits are rarely, if ever, issued to Palestinians by Israel (and are very expensive in any case), so people build without them, often going into debt or selling jewellery to do so. Once the construction is almost completed, a demolition order will be issued and the homeowner has to choose between knocking down his home by himself or paying for the Israelis to do it. He and his family are left to live in a tent on their plot of land as best they can. They know that sooner or later they will be thrown off their land and it will be lost forever.
AH: You are banned from entering Al-Aqsa Mosque. Are you still attacked because of this?
HH: We know that the occupation authorities know everything about us, because we live under Israel's occupation. If I ever own a house, the occupation will know that and it will be demolished in an act of collective punishment, which is a war crime. They also have details about our health insurance, and because I do not own a house, the authorities put pressure on me by preventing me and my family from getting treatment. This applies to many of the Palestinians who try to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque. The objective is to force us to abandon our solidarity with this sacred Palestinian and Jerusalem cause. There are a number of activists who have cancer and chronic diseases, and they have been forced to give in because they could not pay for their treatment. Their choice was stark: back down or die.
I have been arrested by the Israelis 63 times, and they have broken into my home on many occasions. They do this when my children are trying to study for exams, and the Israelis confiscate their books. There have been occasions when I have been imprisoned for two weeks at a time and they terrorise my children and husband in order to disturb the neighbours every day and incite them to evict me from my home as I am "the cause" of the disturbances. I am also prevented from travelling to participate in conferences outside the occupied Palestinian territories and for my work. They have also prevented me from leaving my own house and from crossing into the occupied West Bank because I participate in activities in Palestinian universities that also work to expose Israeli crimes. And, of course, I have been banned from entering Al-Aqsa Mosque for eight years now, and I am also stopped from entering the Old City sometimes.
AH: How do you see the immediate future for occupied Jerusalem? What do you expect in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as far as it affects the city?
HH: I believe that the liberation of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and all of Palestine is near. Every year we see great changes and profound developments in the issue of Al-Aqsa Mosque. In 2015 we saw an uprising in Al-Aqsa and in 2017 we saw the installation of electronic gates. In 2019 we saw the Gate of Mercy uprising and its opening after it had been closed for more than 16 years. Now the situation is very dangerous in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and I believe that this year we will witness a great development. This requires all Palestinians, Arabs and free people around the world to work to end the Israeli occupation and return Palestine to its owners. We, the Palestinians, the people of Jerusalem, will give our money, our souls and everything we have to Jerusalem, and we await the help of every free person in the world.
AH: Is there a message you would like to send to people around the world?
HH: My message to everyone is that you, as free people, should support our cause. We await your moral and legal support. Many of you have also experienced occupation, injustice and persecution, and just as you have succeeded in winning your freedom, we will also succeed with your support and our steadfastness.