The Beduin host on the Mount of Olives

Hospitality to strangers was the tradition in his family for 14 centuries. Now Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa says his way of life is threatened as the city has plans to demolish part of his home.

Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Atop a winding road rising 100 meters up to the east from Jerusalem’s Old City, Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa, 69, flicks his keffiyeh out of his face as he greets the young people wandering around his A-Tur home.
“Hello! Who are you? How did you hear about me?” he asks in English, laughing.
On this summer morning, the modest kitchen, bedrooms and studies are dotted with travelers in their 20s from Japan, the US, Denmark and France, and Hawa doesn’t know most of them.
“I’m Chris, from Florida,” says a curlyhaired Jewish 21-year-old, pausing in playing guitar on the lower bunk-bed. “I heard about you from Aya in Beit Shemesh, who said I should stay with a really cool guy named Ibrahim.”
A Japanese student says he got Ibrahim’s address in Jordan.
“Welcome,” Hawa says on his way out, leaning on the door, which has a sign quoting the Talmud: “Let your house be open wide, for character and righteousness are the foundations of the city.”
Hawa’s family, for 14 centuries in this Mount of Olives neighborhood, passed down the belief that hospitality and welcoming the stranger was a way of life, he says. From his childhood until now, thousands of strangers have found his door unlocked, and beds, showers, breakfast, coffee and tea, hugs and advice free. His only rules are: no drugs, alcohol, violence, weapons, making a mess, or wearing shorts outside.
A Beduin Muslim, Hawa’s values have also led him to befriend Jewish communities, including rabbis, and communities of other faiths, as he has become active in coexistence activities, including the Jerusalem Peacemakers and The Abrahamic Reunion. After meeting so many religious and political leaders, he was appointed the city of Jerusalem’s official representative at city hall for the Muslim communities last year.
In 1995, as word of his open house circulated, Hawa decided to build a second home on another section of family property.
He and his wife would live on the top floor, with his six children and spouses, 25 grandchildren, and the three mute siblings his mother adopted when they became orphaned as children, on the lower floors.
The other two grown children, with their five children, live in the US.
When Hawa got a permit to build, he says, it stipulated four apartments for the plot. Then, as the family grew and Hawa retired, his income reduced to a pension, he decided to keep building floors upward to house his huge clan, without another NIS 100,000 permit.
His extension, which the city charges is illegal, has landed him NIS 2.5 million in fines. If he doesn’t pay, the city may demolish the house.
HAWA WELCOMES everyone as equals, he says; rabbis around the country welcome him as an equal, and even city hall welcomes him as a representative of Jerusalem. But on his own family’s historic property, he feels constantly unwelcome, afraid of losing of what he calls his birthright.
The fear is not uncommon in east Jerusalem since the 1967 war, when the city annexed more than 70,000 dunams from 28 Arab neighborhoods to the pre- ’67 municipal boundaries. In the 1970s, the master plans for zoning, planning and building the newly enlarged city focused particularly on how to preserve a Jewish majority while meeting the needs of the growing Arab minority. The reaction to the plan, ratified since then, has included repeated charges that the former concern is being prioritized at the expense of the latter.
“From the beginning, the Israeli authorities wanted to preserve the Jewish majority in Jerusalem; all master plans were to take demography into consideration. This was a political instruction from the Interior Ministry... to plan Arab neighborhoods according to this basic political instruction to preserve the ratio of Jews and Arabs, which at the time was 26 percent Arab to 74% Jewish,” says tour guide Amir Cheshin, who was former mayor Teddy Kollek’s adviser on Arab affairs.
“If you planned a Jewish neighborhood, you would plan for at least 120%-150% occupation of the land, but for Arabs it was based on 35%-50% occupation of the land, from the 1970s,” Cheshin said. “In practice this means that a dunam plan for Jews might be [up to] 2,000 square meters, but for Arabs only 500 sq. m. This created a building problem for the Arab population in east Jerusalem; it didn’t suit [their planning] needs.”
Over the last decade, Meretz city council members, UN human rights reports and nonprofit Israeli organizations – the Association for Civil rights in Israel (ACRI), Bimkom, B’Tselem, Ir Amim, the Committee Against Home Demolitions and Rabbis for Human Rights – have also charged that the planning, zoning and building rules and practices in Jerusalem, as well as the distribution of municipal services, favor Jewish communities and neglect Arab east Jerusalem. Though a new Jerusalem master plan is not yet approved, ACRI and Bimkom have already submitted objections to the draft.
Meretz city councillor Meir Margalit, who recently received the east Jerusalem portfolio, explains: “You cannot get a license to build without infrastructure – roads, water, sewage, electricity – and without proving land ownership with documents from the national land registry.
But in most of east Jerusalem [Arabs] don’t have proper infrastructure... in the bestcase scenario, 36 percent of the Jerusalem population is getting 9%-10% of the municipal budget... and [Arab properties] aren’t registered [in the national land registry].”
The other complication is economic, he says: “[A permit] can cost NIS 100,000 [or more] in fees, and that is before you pay the engineer, architect, salvage excavations, so in many cases the fees are more expensive than the building. Though the permit prices are the same for east and west Jerusalem in theory, in Jewish neighborhoods in west Jerusalem the cost of a permit for a four-floor building is, say, shared by eight families, and in east Jerusalem the cost is paid by only one family.”
The opposing point of view, as represented by Likud city councillor and lawyer Yair Gabbay – who also sits on Jerusalem’s district planning and building committee – charges that such accusations are “rubbish.”
“You can take the committee’s approval record and see that one-third of all the plans submitted and approved are in [Arab] east Jerusalem,” he said. “I never vote on matters according to identity of nationality or religion of the guy who submitted the plan.”
The poverty is not responsible for illegal building, he adds. “I have a lot of friends who don’t have money to buy an apartment in west Jerusalem, but they don’t build [on public property illegally].”
AS THIS debate continues, Hawa spent the day with The Jerusalem Post, describing life on the Mountain of Olives through his own eyes.
What is your family’s relationship to this neighborhood?
I was born here on December 24, 1942, next door, in a house that my grandfather’s grandfather built 250 years ago. The family has been here for 1,400 years.
Today there are 40,000 [descendants] – 27,000 live on this mountain. I know most of them. They say that the Mount of Olives was always one of the welcoming places in Jerusalem. At one time [here it] was always green, there were a lot of wells, so all the kings, leaders, prophets and businesspeople came...
There were always men waiting with donkeys and horses near the well at Wadi Hod – near what is today Ma’aleh Adumim – to give water and rest and welcome [to the travelers]. In our Beduin culture, when there are guests, you are not allowed for three days to ask their name; they should rest and we should feed them, and after, we ask what they need from the city and try to help them... Many members of the family did not study in school and cannot read or write, but taught us the holy language of love and peace and welcoming.
What were your days like as a child in A-Tur?
We were farmers, and since I was four or five I woke every morning at 3 to take care of the cows. I cleaned their stall, washed, fed and milked them and built a fire. We had to boil the milk, and then we would bring it to the 133 nuns and 15 priests in the Russian church. Besides my mother tongue [Arabic], I learned Russian...
We didn’t have radio or TV, and at night we were sitting with candles, and my parents and all the young people in the family – 80, 90, 100 years old [he laughs] told us stories to help us sleep. My grandfather died at 140; they wrote about him in National Geographic on April 19, 1959 [he shows a copy]; my grandmother lived to be 116. We lived five generations in two rooms. During the day there were 15 mattresses stacked. Guests slept in the garden.
It was a very beautiful childhood, with a lot of respect for everyone.
What I learned is that we are all one, we all came through holy mothers to this world and God never put a sign on our face [to mark our religion]; instead God gave us eyes to see one another. My father loved to give; he was also a stone-cutter and he delivered headstones to all the Jewish communities. We had a white donkey, and tourists were always taking pictures, and I was always giving people rides and bringing them home to give them tea and sometimes a pillow and a bed. My family gave me the energy to do that kind of holy job, and I never thought to make it into a business.
How did you later make a living?
I was a car mechanic for Egged [the national bus carrier, which does not serve most east Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods] and later worked for [telecommunications company] Bezeq. I retired in 1999; I asked for an early retirement – all my children were grown and married, and I wanted to see the world.
Who are all these people in your house?
I don’t know. People hear about me all over the world – Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Jordan; each is a different story.
[He asks a young woman in the kitchen who she is and how she heard of him.Hannah from Washington, DC, says she was volunteering on a kibbutz near Beersheba and heard about Ibrahim; one by one all the volunteers came. “We’re poor,” she says. “Here there is free food and an awesome dude who wants to help everyone.”]
Are you and your other family members in east Jerusalem citizens of Israel?
No. What do I care about citizenship? I don’t care and nobody ever tried to give it to me. What country do I belong to? I live in the land of God, where we are all guests.
How does it affect you, living in a place that Israel considers part of its state, but not having citizenship?
Israel gave me an ID card [as a resident] and Israeli travel documents, but I am not recognized as Israeli in them. They say I was born in Israel, though I was born in 1942, when there was no Israel. It also says I am a citizen of Jordan, and Jordan is not happy about that, because I’m not Jordanian and I don’t live in Jordan. [Laughs.] I am not Jordanian or Israeli. I am nothing.
What am I missing? I am not allowed to vote. And if I leave home to study anywhere in the world and don’t show up in Jerusalem for one year, I’m not allowed to come back again. I have two children in America; they studied in North Carolina, and after three years I find out that my own children, born here, cannot come back – they have lost their residency.
What does a typical day look like?
I wake, drink coffee, and fix breakfast for all the guests. After, I like to go into town and sit in front of the Damascus Gate and look over the city to see that no one will take it away. [Laughs.] The Damascus Gate is a really special place to meet people, and I love talking to everyone, to the young people – 17, 18, 19 – about the situation and the future.
What do you tell them?
This city has lived through the Crusaders and the Turkish and British and Jordanians and Israelis; we don’t know what we are doing, but we all always feel occupied and this is always heavy on our shoulders.
We need more freedom, more rights; look how we live today... In our belief, to study a language is something holy... All these stories about Arabic and Hebrew and Arabs and Jews, all the stories of two people, it is all separating us. We are stubborn, we don’t want to give anything up, and at the same time we are slaves to this... the separation wall between us is not the wall that the government built from concrete and metal... the separation between you and me – be careful, this is dangerous. The walls will only fall when more people are connected. All the [holy] books say to love your neighbor as your brother and as yourself. How can you love your neighbor if you never visit with him, never talk to him?
You have this property that you say has been in your family for generations, but that it is difficult to build on it. What is going on?
You see that highway out there? [He points from his roof.] Around 1990, it just cut through my house. My family has lost a lot of land. The land that is left I am not allowed to build on, and if you can afford the cost of the permit, then you can’t afford to build. Nobody has enough money to pay half a million shekels to buy a permit. With all the visitors and my name growing around the world, my house was always full. My wife got sick – diabetes – my son Ahmed in New Orleans gave us money to help us build a house on the roof so she could be with family and they could take care of her.
We got a permit to build four apartments, but I have 30 grandchildren, so I built more apartments, four of them, unfinished. I have been to court many times. I built on my own house – why do I owe them money? I don’t feel good about this; I am worried and I don’t sleep, and last month I had a stroke. What they are asking is not easy for me.
What is next in the case?
I offered a deal and told them I would be so happy to give these apartments to the municipality to use as a school or orphanage for 10 years, and then they can give me a permit. We don’t have an answer.
Three weeks ago, I met 44 mayors from countries around the world. In front of these leaders, priests and ambassadors from Europe, I [told Mayor] Nir Barkat: The city is crying because we don’t have enough schools, roads... they are always destroying homes... I invited him to visit.
It is good and smart that people read newspapers, but it is not the same as seeing with your own eyes. He said he will come.
Does it feel like a contradiction that city hall invites you to be a VIP and at the same time sues you for millions of shekels?
No, this is not their job to protect me, and I don’t want to get special treatment.
What I want is for everyone to have freedom and rights, enough food, and schools for their children.
What was the most touching moment in your travels?
Everywhere I go, I find out the world is so small. The first time I traveled was on my “honeymoon” with my wife – we had 10 kids at home – we acted like 14-year-old kids; I put her on my shoulders and said, “Let’s go.” In Manhattan, [our host] said, “Be careful.” I felt scared; I had my handbag on my belt, and we were eating and a guy jumps on me and starts hugging me.
“Ibrahim, welcome to the US!” I did not have good English at this time, and I was like, who are you? All I could remember was my friend saying, “Be careful.”
But this guy told me... that he was once in my home in Jerusalem. It was amazing; I realized that everywhere I go, someone is waiting for me.
What have you learned that has most amazed you?
One time, a bulldozer came to destroy a shop of cement and tiles owned by my son and my cousin; these things happen a lot, and the police come to guard the bulldozer. The kids were angry and wanted to throw stones... this army officer was shouting and I was afraid. I pushed the kids away and I went to the police and gave them water. I am against all violent demonstrations, and if our children throw stones, the police don’t like to, but they must follow the orders of their government, and they will shoot tear gas or bullets.
One of the soldiers had tears in his eyes.
He said, “Hello, Ibrahim, I met you at the wedding of the daughter of Rabbi Froman [of Tekoa], and you were dancing with us – I am sorry for what we are doing to your people.” I told him, “I know you are doing your job, and God bless you.”
I’m a small guy, but I believe God gave me a golden key to reach the world.