Muhammad Totah is one of three Palestinian legislators staging a sit-in to protest their ordered expulsion from East Jerusalem
This piece originally appeared at Electronic Intifada.
On 9 July, as Israeli Border Police officers brutalized demonstrators at the weekly protest in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem, forcing them away from a street where several homes had been seized by radical right-wing Jewish settlers, I visited the Jerusalem International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters just a few hundred meters away.
Though the din of protest chants and police megaphones could not be heard from the ICRC center, the three Palestinian legislators who had staged a sit-in there for more than a week to protest their forced expulsion from Jerusalem insisted that their plight was the same as the families forced from their homes down the street.
“All the Israeli steps in East Jerusalem are designed to evacuate Jerusalem of its Palestinian heritage,” remarked Muhammad Totah, an elected Palestinian Legislative Council member who has been ordered to permanently leave Jerusalem by the Israeli government. “Whether it’s through home demolition, taking homes or deporting us, the goal is the same.”
According to the Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, the three legislators are guilty of a vaguely defined “breach of trust,” ostensibly for their membership in a foreign government. The charge leveled against them recalls nothing more than the campaign platform of the far-right Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which demanded the mass expulsion of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel. For this reason, the Israel-based legal advocacy group Adalah described the Israeli government’s actions as “characteristic of dark and totalitarian regimes” (“Motion for Injunction filed to Israeli Supreme Court to Stop Imminent Deportation Process of Palestinian Legislative Council Members from Jerusalem,” 15 June 2010).
The lawmakers’ problems began in 2006 when they ran for the Palestinian Legislative Council in the West Bank as members of the Change and Reform list, an offshoot of Hamas. Though the Israeli government allowed the men to campaign for office and vote for the Chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council, as soon as they were elected, Israel warned them to resign from office or face the cancellation of their status as residents of Jerusalem.
When they failed to heed the Israeli government’s demand, in June 2006, the men were arrested and sentenced to two to four years in prison. Two days after they were released, the Israeli police confiscated their identification cards and ordered them to leave Jerusalem for another part of the West Bank.
As a result of the expulsion orders, the first of their kind since 1967, the three lawmakers are virtual hostages in the city their families have lived in for generations — if they leave the Red Cross center they will be immediately arrested. Their colleague, Muhammad Abu Tir, is already in an Israeli jail cell. Despite having been separated from their families for years, they remain steadfast in their rejection of the government’s orders, fearing that their expulsion will open the door for mass deportations of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, along with the rest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula, which was returned to Egypt in a peace deal a decade later. No country recognizes Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and the UN Security Council has declared repeatedly that Israel’s occupation of all the territories it seized in 1967 is governed by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, a treaty Israel was compelled to sign which specifically forbids an occupying power from expelling civilians from the territory it occupies. Thus the legislators’ expulsion has been issued in explicit violation of binding international law.
Totah told me that the Israeli interior ministry has a list of 315 members of Palestinian civil society in East Jerusalem — academics, lawmakers, activists — whom it plans to expel in the near future on charges of disloyalty to the Jewish state. “They are trying to legalize the Nakba,” Totah remarked, using the Arabic word Palestinians use to describe their mass expulsion from their homeland in 1948.
I talked with the 42-year-old Totah for a half hour in the leafy courtyard of the ICRC headquarters. He was visibly tired, having spent the past two days in meetings with British parliamentarians, the head of Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church and left-wing Israeli groups ranging from Anarchists Against The Wall to Gush Shalom. While a wiry young boy rushed around the yard, serving us a seemingly endless stream of Turkish coffee shots, Totah described to me his experience as a prisoner in his hometown: