How a Palestinian living in a house that belonged to his family since the 17th century deals with a sudden appearance of a Jewish holy site, the Small Wailing Wall, and why it’s so important for the Palestinians in Jerusalem to never have fines or debts.
38-year-old Khader ash Shehabi is a Palestinian who lives in the Old City of Jerusalem. His family’s house is so close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque that it feels like adhan is called right in the courtyard.
Fifteen years ago, the wall in his courtyard was declared the Small Wailing Wall. It’s still unofficial as the government does not recognize it as a holy site, but it’s frequented by tourists and settlers.
The Israelis believe the Wailing Wall includes all that remains from David’s and Solomon’s Temple. After Jerusalem was occupied in 1967, the Moroccan neighborhood near this wall was completely demolished to make more space. Several decades later Israeli settlers led by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner started coming here on Saturdays to pray in the courtyard in front of Palestinian houses next to the Iron Gate. Later they announced that they had found a part of the Wailing Wall and called it the Small Wailing Wall. Over time, name plates and direction signs appeared.
This is the Israeli point of view on the wall.
The Palestinians believe the wall has no connection to the Jewish Temple, but is part of the construction of the square where the two mosques, Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, are located. They see the demolition of the Moroccan neighborhood as a tragic example of how Israel forces the Arab population out of Jerusalem. It’s the fate of the Moroccan neighborhood that makes them prepare for the possibility that these quarters could be demolished at any time to build a praying site for Judaists and tourists.
But that’s a very broadly defined and debatable point of view. This is what happens to a specific Palestinian family when a wall in their courtyard becomes a holy site.
Now every Saturday many Israeli settlers come to pray right outside the windows of the ash Shehabis’ family home.
Khader has five children. His youngest daughter comes from somewhere inside the house to listen to the conversation. Palestinian children are immersed in politics even before they start to walk or talk. A Palestinian’s entire life from birth to death, from their marks at school to paying fines, is politics.
“According to the records, my ancestors have lived in this house since 1692. We have the papers for partial ownership that date back to the Ottoman period. Full ownership papers are from 1717. That’s when the house was rebuilt”, Khader says.
His ancestors served as imams in Al-Aqsa.
“My great-great-grandfather was an Al-Aqsa qadi, a judge who rules in accordance with Islamic law. It’s a confirmed fact, our historians check everything”, Khader says.
He says that as a rule at least one person in every Jerusalem family worked in Al-Aqsa – as a gardener, or in charge of water supply, light, cleaning, renovation and reconstruction. There are a lot of jobs, after all.
He explains that even his last name indicates that his family is connected to the holy site: “Every family connected to Al-Aqsa has a –bi at the end.”
His family keeps the key to the place which holds a strand of the Prophet Muhammad’s hair. It used to be opened only in the month of Ramadan.
Khader studied manuscript restoration in Italy, and now he works in the restoration lab in Al-Aqsa. That’s his main job. In the afternoon he works in the library of the oldest Muslim archive, Khalidiyyah.
His life is like an encyclopedia that contains all the hardships a Palestinian in Jerusalem faces.
Even though Khader’s family has the papers for the house that prove his permanent residency in this city and this country, he is not a citizen.
His ID is blue, which means that at every check point he is identified as a Palestinian from East Jerusalem and not a proper citizen, though there’s no mention of nationality on the ID card.
Khader had to get an Israeli passport to go study in Italy. It says he is a Jordanian citizen.
Like all the Palestinians (as distinct from Israelis), to travel to Europe he has to apply for a visa. Like all the Palestinians, he has to explain at each embassy and each European customs why his ID is Israeli and his nationality Jordanian.
Khader obtained a Jordanian passport for his kids to make it easier for them to travel. At 50 dinars (70 dollars) that’s good value for money.
This house is home to 22 families and 80 people. It has 100 small rooms.
Khader pays a tax of 9,000 shekels (over 2,300 dollars) for the building and an insurance of 400 shekels to boot, not to mention other levies and fees costing 1,000 shekels.
“If you fail to pay any of the mandatory fees, you’re in for some big trouble – they’ll take away your ID, you can lose your house, get kicked out of Jerusalem, and outside the wall,” explains Khader.
By “the wall” he means the barrier that separates the Israeli territory from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Those Palestinians who do not own property in Israel or lose it are forced to live “outside the wall.”
This old house is well-built, as they used to build in the old times, but it still requires maintenance. Getting your home renovated or fixed is a dream that almost never comes true for the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. It’s something out-of-bounds.
Khader managed to obtain a permit for renovation in 2004 and had his house fixed. He pulled it off only because his house is on the protection list of a Palestinian non-profit organization and is located in the Al-Aqsa area, and because he had no overdue payments.
“The city authorities sent in their people every day to watch what we were doing,” recalls Khader.
“I am the youngest son in my family. One of my brothers died, and three others live outside the Old City. There’s no rule for the youngest son to keep the father’s house, it just happened this way,” explains Khader.
The emerged Small Wailing Wall became a problem for his family.
“It’s hard, but we’re coping,” says he.
“We consider this wall to be part of Al-Aqsa. Jews have never prayed here before. They started to come here in 1983. We couldn’t understand why. It was a private initiative of a handful of people,” says Khader.
When asked why his family didn’t turn to the police or the courts with this problem, he explains that turning to law enforcement is something that never works for a Palestinian here, as much as it’s hard to understand to a foreigner: “The Israeli law is always against my side and always on their side. If I have a problem with the settlers and call up the police, the court will always rule in their favor.”
And yet, the left-wing journalists from the Haaretz newspaper who monitor the situation around the Muslim Quarter believe the court is taking both sides’ views into account.
Khader recalls that it was only after 2000, i.e. after the Al-Aqsa Intifada, that talks began circling in Jerusalem about finding a “piece of the Wailing Wall” aka the Small Wailing Wall.
“Two months ago they put up new signs saying that this ‘ancient Jewish site’ has been found here. The Knesset announced ash-Shehabi, which is the name of our quarter and my name, too, to be the ancient Jewish site.’ Well, we consider it an intrusion into our Muslim Quarter.”
“The Jews have long wanted to buy this place. In 1983, some guys approached my Dad and gave him a blank check to fill out any sum he’d like. My father declined. We’ll stay here, whatever it takes. They are ready to offer any price for the house. But we are not for sale,” says Khader.
He says the Israeli government does not de jure regard this place as a shrine, preferring to call it a private initiative instead. But the city authorities persuaded Palestinians to remove the scaffold, and now the area is cordoned off by police. There are private guards to protect the Jews as they pray, and Israeli tour guides even take tourists on sightseeing trips there.
And then you suddenly see a notice saying “The Small Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem, where any private notices are prohibited. Khader believes that this is the usual way to exert pressure on Palestinians, with aggressive settlers followed by the government.
“The city authorities have repeatedly suggested repairing the infrastructure, upgrading the pipes and so on. But they would’ve never done this without some hidden agenda in mind. We’ve turned them down, because they might take our home away from us or make it inaccessible,” says Khader.
He recalls a settler, who came here to pray, offered him cleaning and security services for 6,000 shekels a month. “I refused. I don’t want to help a Jew who is an unsolicited guest in my home, let alone one who wants me to leave this place.”
“This place is really busy on Friday and Saturday. People pray three times a day. It’s difficult for our women and children to move around. A Palestinian who speaks on the phone will be booed,” says Khader.
“Things happen, but we don’t take it too seriously. If they want to pray, that’s fine.”
“I don’t feel like a free person. Jerusalem is a complex place, it has a lot of confrontation between Jews and Palestinians going on, and I don’t feel safe even on my way home. I am worried for my home and my family,” says Khader.
His vision is close to what we often hear at the UN, political and peacemaking forums and what never gets to be implemented.
“I believe that Jerusalem must accept and recognize three religions. Jerusalem should be a role model for the rest of the world. But we have yet a long way to go. It’s not about who controls Jerusalem. It’s about mutual respect.”
“I respect the Jews’ right to pray. But they should also be civil for the three religions to co-exist peacefully – just like the Muslims and Christians do,” says Khader.
“Trouble hit my home just like that, because I live in a place where a conflict may flare at any time. They can tell me at any given moment that it belongs to them and cordon the street off. That’s what has happened to many others. But that’s my home!” protests Khader.
This old building with vaulted ceilings and narrow stairs and an old Jewish wall in the courtyard has become more than a matter of concern for one family. By now it is a major issue in Palestinian-Israeli talks on holy sites. The Al-Aqsa negotiations have already proved to be deadlocked. And by the looks of it, this small place is no less a bone of contention.