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 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.