JERUSALEM – Aida Rishek has spent years worrying if Israeli authorities would come to suddenly evict her and her seven children from their home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.
As Jewish settlers have succeeded in taking over more and more homes in the neighborhood, men’s health local and international activists have mobilized. Thousands of petitions have been written about Silwan, weekly protests have become among the largest in recent memory and tens of thousands have come to visit protest tents set up by Aida and her fellow neighbors.
But this morning Aida and the other neighborhood residents mobilizing alongside her got their most prominent visitors yet: former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former Irish President Mary Robinson and Indian activist Ela Bhatt.
“Through your visit, we feel that we are still human beings,” the 40-year-old told them. “Particularly since the Israeli occupation government has treated us so badly.”
The delegation is part of a group called “The Elders”, a collection of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to use their collective influence “to support peace-building and help address major causes of human suffering.”
Sitting on humble plastic chairs arranged in a circle by Palestinian activists, Carter, Robinson and Bhatt listened to the stories of Silwan organizers at their protest tent.
Moussa Odeh, a 10-year-old boy in Silwan, told The Elders that he has been detained four times by undercover Israeli police while on the neighborhood streets. Troops beat him, ripped his shirt and put him in plastic handcuffs, he claimed, telling them of a recent incident.
The Elders’ visit to Silwan is a major symbolic victory for East Jerusalem activists, who have been working for decades to raise awareness of the tens of thousands of Palestinians whose families have lived in the city for generations butwhich Israeli authorities consider to be living in illegally constructed homes.
“All of us have been emotionally involved in the plight of you and other Palestinians,” said former President Carter, posing for pictures with Aida’s 9-year-old son. “The suffering here under occupation and the deprivations of people in Gaza are evidence of the improper policies of the government of Israel.”
“We don’t have any authority, as you know, but we have a voice. We will be meeting with the mayor and also with the speaker of the Knesset. We will be sure that they understand also the problems that you have described to us.”
Sitting on the eastern slope of Jabal al-Mukaber right outside the Old City of Jerusalem, Silwan is a predominantly Arab neighborhood of some 50,000 which has been the target of far-right Jewish organizations seeking to establish a Jewish presence in East Jerusalem since the entire city was captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Settler organizations like Elad and the Ateret Cohanim organization exploit the effective inability of Palestinian residents of the city to get Israeli building permits as justification to get properties declared illegal and take them over.
“As a human rights person, I have been very affected by this visit,” said Robinson. “We are hearing the human stories here in East Jerusalem, of people being evicted from their homes. It is a most fundamental human rights issue, and we will try both here on this mission in Jerusalem, but also when we go from here … to get your voices out, so people can hear your story.”
Photo credit: TheElders (flickr)