French Hill and Isaweea

Breaking news (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Breaking news
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
 There has been a new development in the difficult history of French Hill and Isaweea. A trench has been dug, and its dirt piled between the field separating the neighborhoods, alongside a French Hill street that abuts the field, and has suffered more than its share of the difficulties.

We have lived alongside of Isaweea for 22 years, but not on the closest street. We have never gone past the gas station that is on this side of the unmarked line that divides us from them on the one paved road going into the village. We have never entered the 100 meter wide field separating us, which begins 100 meters from our home.

Arab friends warn me not to risk an adventure. They also say that most village residents are Bedouin, who moved there a generation or more ago, and that many Arabs will not therefore allow their children to marry with those of Isaweea.

There are signs of the Bedouin heritage in the goats and sheep that graze in the field, sometimes come through French Hill seeking other greenery, accompanied by shepherds, and mark the sidewalks with their passing. There are also horses, sometimes ridden bareback on French Hill sidewalks, by young men from the village.

According to the Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook, the population of Isaweea was 13,269 in 2010, and that of French Hill 8,660.

Over the years we have waited in line in the French Hill post office and bank with residents of Isaweea, shopped alongside them in the French Hill supermarket, dealt with residents of the village as employees of the gas station, and exchanged words of greeting and occasional conversations with people from the village we have met while walking around French Hill.

We also happened on the attack of a young woman on a French Hill sidewalk, scared off the attacker with our shouts, saw him run in the direction of Isaweea, and stayed with the traumatized victim until the police came. On another occasion, we arrived at the scene of an attack that had just occurred. Other neighbors were milling about and saying with great assurance that it was someone  from Isaweea.

Often we pass children from the village who smile and say "Shalom," but young boys have also sneered the Arabic for "whore" while looking at Varda.

Various groups of men and boys from Isaweea play football in the school yard that abuts our apartment. Occasionally they have come with great politeness to our front door to ask for the ball they misdirected onto our balcony. We also found a fist-size rock that had been thrown through an open window. Our building has been vandalized  and school employees have found "Fuck the Jews" sprayed onto the school wall.

Israel''s Post Office established a branch office in the village, then closed it when it was destroyed, seemingly by angry residents who saw it as a sign of Israeli dominance. Most of the roads we see are unpaved, and many of the buildings have been erected by residents who work in construction.  Our own loss due to the construction is that some of the taller buildings blocked our view of the Dead Sea. Authorities generally do not bother with enforcing building codes. Planners have not published what is necessary for the people of Isaweea to obtain the permits required for construction. Some structures have been targeted as special nuisances, and torn down alongside a cadre of police meant to dissuade any troublemakers.

The Palestine Authority works to assure that few Arabs of East Jerusalem exercise their rights to vote in municipal elections. This reduces whatever incentive the municipality has to pave streets, create playgrounds, collect trash or otherwise improve services in Arab neighborhoods, and allows the PA to assert discrimination, inequality, and the justification of a Palestinian state with its capital in al Quds. 

We know of two incidents of Jews making a wrong turn into the village, and narrowly escaping attempted lynching. There was a fire bombing on the French Hill street that is closest to the village. One resident is featured in an Internet account published in the web site popular with religious settlers in the West Bank, Arutz 7, sent to me several times, providing her description of the unpleasantness, and saying that she is afraid to leave her home
There have been several attempts to fire bomb the gas station between us and Isaweea. The fire department sends Arab crews to deal with fires in and near the village to lessen the chances that personnel will be stoned. There are often tough, well-armed Border Police at the gas station, especially in the evening. We are used to the noise of a police helicopter above the village, at night using its powerful spotlight to look for someone. When the police go into the village, it is in a force powerful enough to protect their personnel.

French Hill''s neighborhood committee has upped its complaints to the municipality about house break ins, car thefts, vandalism and violence, with the result that the police have increased their patrols, and say they are posting some of their young men at sensitive spots, dressed like Arabs. 

Most recently the municipality has dug a trench and put piles of dirt between Isaweea and a nearby street with an especially high incidence of complaints. The barrier will not seal the village, but make it more difficult for the bad intentioned to reach what had been an easy target.

Palestinians have accused the Israelis of "imprisoning" the people of Isaweea. The village mukhtar (head man) complains that the trench will only acerbate tensions. He asserts that Isaweea existed before French Hill, and that the Jewish neighborhood was built on village land. 

There are old pictures showing a few simple structures in now what is Isaweea and nothing where there is now French Hill. The vast majority of Isaweea''s current residents and their multi-story apartment buildings came after the construction of French HilIl and other Jewish neighborhoods, attracted by the economic activity associated with the Jews.

Many French Hill residents would volunteer Isaweea as an Arab neighborhood to be surrendered to the Palestinians, with or without a final status agreement coming out of the current discussions. However, topography as well as Netanyahu''s commitment "not to divide Jerusalem" argue against the possibility. Isaweea is built on a ridge that extends eastward from the main north-south ridge of the Judean mountains which holds French Hill and the rest of Jerusalem. It would require major earth moving and road construction to link the village with other parts of the West Bank, without going through French Hill or nearby Jewish areas.
Isaweea and French Hill represent in their small size what Israel and its neighbors experience. 

Most of the time, all is well, or least acceptable. 

There is argument among the Jews about the situation. A right of center, religious and intensely Zionist friend takes issue with the woman who claims she is afraid to leave her house. My friend generally walks the neighborhood later than I at night, and has found little reason to be concerned. Another friend, who deals in real estate, is annoyed that the article about the woman has affected her business. 

There is movement into French Hill, of Arabs as well as ultra-Orthodox families, both of which threaten the demographic balance that has been one of the neighborhood''s charms. Some friends regret the arrival of Arabs. Some are more concerned that the neighborhood will tilt toward the ultra-Orthodox.

When tensions burst forth into violence or property damage, it is common in French Hill to blame Isaweea. Yet there are accusations from both sides. The unmarked line between the neighborhoods is a border of civilizations. Religion and ethnicity each have their cultures, and these have a history of antagonism along with the likelihood of much shared DNA between people who now identify as Arabs and Jews.  Trenches and police patrols distinguish the stronger from the weaker, and most likely lessen the danger for the stronger. It is Arab pedestrians and cars driven by Arabs most likely to be stopped and their documents examined. 

Such protections of the strong add to the anger of the weaker, and lead some of the stronger to say that they are not enough.