Perhaps the most popular image of the opening of the school year in Israeli media last week was that of a smiling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a grinning first grader on his lap during the premier’s visit to a school in the Arab town of Tamra.
Contrast that to the coverage of the opening of the school year in east Jerusalem by Al Jazeera al Quds where smiles were nowhere to be seen.
Pupils have to cross Kalandiya checkpoint to get to school, “which means danger and suffering,’’ the Arabic language, state-of-the-art website site, which specializes in Jerusalem coverage, reported.
Some pupils are unable to complete high school because they have to work to support their impoverished families; there is a shortage of classrooms; and Israel censors history and even Arabic-language textbooks before they are used by Palestinians in municipality schools, it said.
Launched in April, Al Jazeera al Quds, which is affiliated with Al Jazeera, the Qatari satellite station that is the most popular channel in the Arab world, may have the most intensive coverage of Jerusalem of any international media.
On Sunday, a day when it seemed not much was happening in the city, the website featured four new articles about east Jerusalem – a mix of features and news – the part of the city Palestinians consider to be occupied and view as their future capital.
With the website’s launch, Jerusalem is often covered by Al Jazeera more than any other story, including the civil war in Syria.
In the back-to-school coverage, it stated that municipality schools in east Jerusalem use Palestinian Authority textbooks that have been altered to remove content that reflects Palestinian nationalism or other topics deemed inappropriate by Israeli officials.
The website provided examples, such as a third-grade Arabic-language book that had a Palestinian flag deleted from an oral expression exercise and a ninth-grade history book it said had an entire lesson on “the Palestinian issue’’ removed.
The same story cited a recent Haaretz report that Israeli authorities were making funding for badly needed renovations to east Jerusalem schools conditional upon the willingness of educators to adopt the Israeli curriculum in place of the Palestinian one.
The education coverage concluded with a call on readers to support the Palestinian cause.
“The battle of education in Jerusalem is not the battle of Jerusalemites alone. Indeed, it is the battle of the Palestinian people and the Arab and Islamic nations and all countries and people who raise the slogan of human rights and international law.’’ Much of the site’s coverage appears aimed at emphasizing the value of sumud, or steadfastness, in the face of Israeli actions.
A recent item quoted a juice vendor in Jerusalem’s Old City, Anis Abu Sharkh, whom it reported has been offered work by Israeli intelligence “but he refused these offers and adhered to his profession of selling juice regardless of its low material yield.”
Likewise, a feature on Muslims with roots in Africa who live in the Old City stressed that the community, which it estimated at 350 people “succeeded in assimilating into Jerusalem society. Their language is Arabic with Jerusalem dialect and they share the details of Jerusalem daily life, foremost the suffering of living under occupation.’’ It added that one member of the community had spent 18 years in prison after being accused of participating in an “operation’’ by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, something it said was “but a small measure of the price the African community has paid for its steadfastness in the occupied city.
Its situation is the same as its original sons.’’ By far, the most coverage is devoted to al-Aksa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, which is revered as the first qibla, or direction, to which Muslims turn in prayer and the departure point for the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey to heaven.
The intensive coverage focuses not only on perceived Israeli violations of the site but also alleged silence, indifference or even “collusion’’ with Israel by Arab regimes, notably Egypt.
On August 21, the 47th anniversary of the arson at al-Aksa by Denis Michael Rohan, an Australian citizen, a clip on the website taken from Al Jazeera’s television coverage said the fire was set by “an Israeli settler who committed his crime and left it to successive governments to continue the Judaization of Jerusalem.’’ The clip showed pictures of al-Aksa burning and remarks to journalists by Ekrima Sabri, the former mufti of Jerusalem and now head of the Supreme Islamic Committee, in which he stated that “despite the passage of 47 years, the fire is still burning in various ways.’’ On Sunday, the site led with a story quoting statistics asserting that more than 10,000 Israelis “raided’’ al-Aksa this year by entering its compound, which is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.
According to the site, April had the highest number of “raiders” with 1,908, while there were 1,898 in August.
The site’s coverage reflects a real concern among Palestinians that Israel is transforming Jerusalem at their expense and that Arab existence in Jerusalem is in danger.
Many Palestinians are convinced Israel intends to do to al-Aksa what it did to the Cave of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, after the Six Day War – namely divide the site and allow Jewish prayer there.
The site’s opinion section recently featured three articles: “Judaization of the geographic names and archeological sites in the city of Jerusalem,’’ “Israeli excavations beneath Jerusalem and al-Aksa’’ and “Flames consume blessed al-Aksa Mosque.’’ The first piece chronicles what it claims were Israeli attempts to erase the Arab and Islamic character of the city, beginning with the eradication by bulldozers of the Mughrabi residential quarter on the last day of the Six Day War in order to make room for an expanded plaza for Jewish prayer at the Western Wall. One hundred thirty six buildings, including three mosques, were destroyed, according to the Palestinian tally, with some of the demolished structures more than seven centuries old.
Not all of the coverage is that serious, however. A recent post was devoted to an 18-year-old Jerusalemite, Mustafa Gharouz, who specializes in photographing insects. A video clip showed him walking against the distant backdrop of the Dome of the Rock and explaining how he does it.
“You need to get close to see the details,’’ he said. “It’s hard because their movement is quick. It takes a lot of time and patience and takes many times until you get the picture you want.’’ Huge enlargements of the spiders and ladybugs he has photographed have been featured in an exhibit in the Old City.
“Al Jazeera is trying to give a view of people who are not normally covered,’’ said a veteran Palestinian journalist who spoke with The Jerusalem Post on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “There is a huge market in the Arab world for this because people care about Jerusalem and Palestinians historically have been reflected in the Arab world as being treated unjustly by Israel and America.
People in the Arab world identify with the victim.’’ The journalist added a criticism about the site, saying: “There is no attempt to see the other side or to talk to people who want to build bridges.’’ The coverage is often emotional.
On Monday, the site posted a report about an 18-year-old Palestinian girl, Yara Sharabati, who it said has seen her father Ayman, who is serving a life sentence in Gilboa Prison, only twice in her life.
The first time, according to the site, was when she was six, and the second a few days ago when prison guards allowed her to see her father, embrace him and have a picture taken with him.
“In those moments, I felt as if I was soaring in the sky because the tenderness of my father penetrated my heart,” she told Al Jazeera al Quds.
“The scene remains suspended in my mind ever since I said goodbye to him. My dad is a detainee behind bars, and I felt so close to him that I, too, was like a hostage but without bars.
“Growing up, I felt he was missing when my classmates would mention their dads,’’ she continued.
“Despite this pain, I never felt such freedom as during my three minutes with dad,’’ she said, adding that she stares at her picture with him “dozens of times every day without getting bored.’’ It is only toward the end of the article that it is mentioned that her father was given the life sentence “after being accused of killing two settlers’’ at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate in 1998.