Brisk winds lashed our faces as we descended from the sherut which brought us from Tel Aviv to Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, during April 2016. Starving from the two long hour journey, my partner and I were immediately drawn to the shops of roasting meat and sweets which lined the pavements, but which were oddly deserted. A group of armed Israeli soldiers stood laughing in a corner, conspicuous by their olive green attire and large rifles. They ignored us. We stared at them discreetly, willing them not to look our way.
After tucking into succulent shawarmas, we made our way to Jenin in the West Bank, where we would join our friends from Jan NatyaManch – an Indian theatre group and Palestine’s The Freedom Theatre. Over the next three weeks, we travelled across the West Bank, traversing Areas A, B and C – the divisions a legacy of the 1995 Oslo II accords.
Though it will be nearly two years since we went to Palestine, several images stand out in my memories. Near the Qalandiya checkpoint, boldly coloured graffiti depicted the exiled leader Marwan Barghouti, Palestinian people in chains, and a smiling portrait of the militant leader Leila Khaled captioned ‘Don’t forget the struggle’. In South Hebron, Israeli settler occupation and military control were revealed in their grimness and brutality. We also marvelled at Ramallah – where the streets were straight out of old Delhi and Mazgaon in Mumbai and continue to remember the flavours of sugary kenafi and strong Palestinian coffee.
But it is Jerusalem that stands out the most in my remembrances; because of its roads steeped in history, for its revered religious monuments and its bustling markets, which remind one of home. You cannot forget Jerusalem because like other parts of Palestine, it is home to the very visible ‘wall’, which fragments Palestinian territory in the most insidious ways. The wall is known by different names: security fence for the Israelis and apartheid wall to the Palestinians or just ‘the wall’.
When Donald Trump declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 and announced his intention of shifting the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, there was disbelief in many parts of the world. In one stroke, Trump knocked over the long-standing international consensus about the disputed status of the historic city.
“Shock, disappointment and defeat”, is how Mahmoud Muna, the owner of the iconic Educational Bookstore in East Jerusalem described the impact of the announcement on Palestine.
“It was like being stabbed in the back and being cheated,” he told me over Skype. Muna’s bookstore is well-known for books which represent the Palestinian worldview and emphasise Palestinian perspectives.
Following the US President’s announcement, Israeli control over Jerusalem has tightened, with increased military presence controlling the entrances to Jerusalem and between East and West Jerusalem. Muna said: “There is more frisking, searching and rising levels of violence from the soldiers. Yet, through this phase, we see daily demonstrations and acts of disobedience, which gives us hope about unity and the community coming together.”
A few hours away from Jerusalem, disobedience is also the norm in Nabhi Saleh village, West Bank. Days after Trump’s announcement, 16-year-old AhedTamimi was arrested by the Israeli army for refusing to back down to an Israeli soldier during a raid on her home. Her mother NawalTamimi and cousin Nour were also subsequently arrested.
11-year-old Janna Jihad, also a cousin of Ahed’s, and known as one of Palestine’s youngest journalists told me: “I don’t believe in Trump’s declaration. It is just a scrap of paper. Jerusalem is our eternal capital. What right did Trump have to give it away?” As we speak over the internet, I can see the wall behind Janna which has a calendar with an image of her sister AhedTamimi on it.
Even as people in Palestine reel from the developments in Jerusalem, a vote was held in the United Nations on the matter. India joined a majority of countries in voting against the United States. Muna said: “We thank India for voting for taking our side, even as we are aware of the increasing closeness between Indian and Israeli prime ministers Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu, and the arms deals between the two countries.”
Muna insists that the Jerusalem declaration and the worsening of the situation in Palestine is because of the larger failure of the international community to pressurise the governments of Israel and the United States.
Should India care about Palestine? On Twitter, the co-founder of an Indian think tank rejected the idea that developments in Jerusalem could matter to India. However, each time I think about the question, I remember the spontaneous warmth of Palestinians who opened their homes and kitchens to us, once they knew we were Indian. Immediate emotional connections were established wherever we went in Palestine, with Bollywood and Mahatma Gandhi brought up most frequently in conversations.
The connections go beyond Bollywood and Gandhi. While we may have distanced ourselves from the experience of colonisation, it is still an everyday reality for Palestine.
However, as the governments of India and Israel draw closer and Modi welcomes Netanyahu India’s embracing of an apartheid state is causing it to be on the wrong side of history.