Jerusalem move evokes painful memories for Shatila’s refugeesHeat Profit
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Jamal Abu Ismail no longer regales newly-weds with songs of his lost homeland, sounds that once echoed through the cramped and grimy walls of Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp.
Eyes clouded with cataracts, his hands curled up by arthritis, the elderly Palestinian says he once sang with an unwavering hope that he would return to a home that is now part of Israel.
But the controversial decision last week by US president Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital confirmed the 73-year-old’s growing belief that he would not be buried there.
“I can’t sing any more,” Mr Abu Ismail says. “I have enough experience in life now to know that whatever Israel wants, it gets,” he continues. “I’m living one year to the next now. I’m incapable of doing anything, and so is the rest of the Arab world.”
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that sparked the exodus of some 700,000 Palestinians, the young Mr Abu Ismail watched as family members and others were lined up against a wall, and heard the shots that killed them. “I lost my brothers, my parents,” he sighs. “What does it matter now if we lose Jerusalem?”
First, they took Palestine from us. Now they take Jerusalem too. What will they do next, stop us from praying?
The Trump administration and its supporters argue that their Jerusalem recognition is simply an acknowledgment of reality.
Even though the international community views the city’s fate as a vital issue that can only be addressed as part of the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israeli government has long since moved its main governmental offices to Jerusalem.
But to Palestinians, and to Muslims more broadly, it was another painful humiliation in a series since the 1948 war that created Israel and the 1967 conflict in which Israel seized the eastern, mostly Arab half of Jerusalem and later annexed it.
It now claims all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while Palestinians seek to make the city’s east their capital in any future settlement.
Washington insists that Jerusalem could still be split into two capitals under a peace deal. But many elder Palestinians in Shatila fear the city they revere may be lost.
“First, they took Palestine from us. Now they take Jerusalem too. The Americans need to change their mind. What will they do next, stop us from praying?,” says Abu Khudr, 80, whose leathered face falls under the shadows in his tiny grocery shop.
The lights flicker on and off from the faulty electrical wires that hang in tangles over crumbling alleyways painted over with maps of a would-be Palestine state. Some are dotted with the spot for Jerusalem, or simply scrawled with the word “return”.
For Muslims, Jerusalem was the city that the Prophet Mohammed is said to have been flown to on a heavenly steed to pray, and from there, to speak to God in heaven.
Mohammed declared it a site of Muslim pilgrimage, a duty complicated by Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, where al-Aqsa mosque, sits atop the remains of the Temple Mount, the holiest site for Jews.
Abu Khudr says the only time he visited Jerusalem was as a baby in his mother’s arms, before fleeing their farm when he was a teenager.
The flight is something he says he remembers nearly every day, as well as the notorious massacre in 1982, when Lebanese militias, with support from the Israeli army, killed residents of Shatila and the neighbouring Sabra camp for three days in retaliation for Palestinian militant attacks.
“You couldn’t walk through the streets without stepping on dead bodies,” he recalls. “Today, we’re putting a new tragedy on top of a long list of old tragedies.”
Rayan Majdoub, 66, cannot remember her birthplace, now in Acre, Israel. Her first childhood memories were not of mandate-era Palestine, but the billowing tents of a refugee camp that have long since ossified into the cramped, concrete alleyways of Shatila and the temporary homes that have now become permanent.
A tiny woman with frail, knotted hands, she recalls how, in the early days of exile, she and fellow refugees struggled to get by.
“Whoever had food would share with the people in the next tent. We fed each other and we mourned for each other,” she says.
Now she mourns for Jerusalem. “As a Palestinian, my heart is where any Palestinian’s heart is. Their loss is my loss.”
The Jerusalem recognition weighs just as heavy om the generations born in Shatila, such as Um Wissam, 40, who asked not to be identified by her full name because she used to help Palestinian militants.
Wrapped in the black-and-white kufiya scarf, she prays that her fellow Palestinians heed calls for a new intifada, or uprising, to ensure that Mr Trump’s move does not become a prelude to a US decision preventing refugees such as her from returning under any new settlement.
“If Jerusalem is lost, it’s like the end of the world,” she says, her voice gone hoarse from days of shouting at protests. She knows it is futile, she says, “but the only thing I can do is keep shouting, even if no one is listening.”