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Segregation, Stressors, and Social Resilience

The Collective Psychological Mechanisms Associated with Living in East Jerusalem

By Elise Aghazarian

For the past decades, developments in East Jerusalem have affected the available space and thus impacted the sense of resilience of its Palestinian inhabitants. While mainstream news frequently covers human rights violations in Jerusalem and presents grieving Palestinian crowds, I would like to highlight selected events and circumstances that have influenced the deeper collective psychology of East Jerusalemites.Following East Jerusalem’s occupation in 1967, successive Israeli decision-makers have adopted segregation policies that attempt to curb, shrink, and contain Palestinian existence in Jerusalem. Thus, Palestinian East Jerusalemites have been confronted by a spatial crisis that greatly affects their sociocultural conditions and resilience mechanisms.To get a glimpse of the context, let us first look at urban mobility in the late 1990s. Hundreds of Palestinian Jerusalemites who had purchased or rented houses in the northern suburbs of Jerusalem (such as Al-Ram, Dahyeh, and Bethany) began to leave their relatively spacious and newly built houses, moving closer to Jerusalem’s city center and finding homes in the Old City, Shuafat Refugee Camp, Sheikh Jarrah, and other areas. This mobility and concentration in Al-Quds came as a reaction to ID card revocations that affected Palestinians who were living in the West Bank or in areas of Jerusalem that had recently become classified as “West Bank.” Many Jerusalemites had to move to tiny and costly rooms around the city center or lose their Jerusalem IDs. In fact, these moves were the opposite of what Israel had intended, as it had hoped to drive Palestinians out. But they chose to return to their home city instead, no matter what the cost. The trend intensified after the eruption of the second Intifada and the construction of the separation wall. East Jerusalemites were confronted by emotions of anxiety and fear of displacement and family division. They had to cope with the challenge of limited space through different survival tactics.

East Jerusalemites have been surviving the segregation policy and social surveillance using various tactics. They have been continuously seeking and creating spaces that provide a temporary sense of freedom.

In reaction to the crisis of limited and jammed housing, some people started to build additions to their houses (that frequently were eventually destroyed by Israel), which added the element of fear of house demolition and the associated high fines. The problems were exacerbated when armed right-wing Zionist settlers systematically seized houses of East Jerusalemites in these overpopulated areas.

After the eruption of the second Intifada in 2000, many people who lived in Jerusalem, like my father, faced difficulties in reaching their workplaces in the West Bank due to checkpoints, road closures, and tear gas used by Israeli forces to prevent Palestinians from moving from one place to another. Similarly, those who worked in West Jerusalem were frequently confronted with unstable work conditions, especially in times of political escalation (even though there were other times when work in West Jerusalem was possible). These unstable working conditions added heavy financial and emotional burdens to families living in Al-Quds.

Apart from their small, damp living spaces and crowded classrooms, East Jerusalemites tend to spend their time in public space. These areas, however, are not always safe. In places such as the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, Essawiya, Sheikh Jarrah, and Shuafat Refugee Camp, clashes with the Israeli police, soldiers, and settlers erupt from time to time. Parents are frequently humiliated and treated aggressively in front of their children, especially at checkpoints, where interrogation and arrests are common. Many Palestinian Jerusalemite parents have repeatedly reflected sentiments of losing their grip over reality and over their homes and children.

Photo by Sophie Shiber.

As a consequence of these daily stressors, the fight, flight, or freeze mode has been visible in a variety of behaviors among children and adults, for example, attitudes of insecurity, anxiety, depression, escapism, aggression, desire for revenge, self-blame, submission and internalization of the Israeli narrative, pragmatism, general indifference and apathy, resistance, and more.

Sentiments towards Israel are not black and white. Israel is an occupying force that represses East Jerusalemites in many ways, using collective punishment, the expulsion of people from their homes/neighborhoods, arrest and various forms of blackmail, and policies and laws based on the premise of ethnic cleansing. On the other hand, many East Jerusalemites appreciate the social and symbolic privileges associated with living in Jerusalem, and they sometimes enjoy a sense of escape and social freedom, increased job opportunities, high standards of medical services, and the experience of connection to friendly colleagues and doctors in the Israeli areas.

The identity dilemma is another stress factor for East Jerusalemites. Israel classifies East Jerusalemites as Jordanian residents who at the same time hold Israeli ID cards. Holding an Israeli ID allows Palestinians living in Jerusalem to move across the country and gain access to the sea, to holy places, and to more developed health services. This is a privileged position compared to that of Palestinians living in the areas inside the separation wall who are deprived of this. At the same time, it is associated with daily anxieties related to ID card inspection, systematic discrimination, and revocation threats. On an emotional level, some East Jerusalemite adolescents face different forms of identity complex. This varies based on background, timing, and political and religious sentiments.

Photo by Ahed Izhiman.

In addition to the stressors related to the political situation, place and identity, traditional social conceptions on gender, relationships, and social surveillance are not infrequently in conflict with the increased desire to break away into more social freedom. In some cases, people rebel and deviate from traditional social roles in different ways, in others, they cling closely to them as a safe reference. This has been also influenced by non-Palestinian media outlets – including some that are conservative – which promote various visions of religion, gender, and relationships. Unfortunately, East Jerusalemites are at times portrayed in a manner that tends to underplay the sociopolitical conditions and fails to mention the efforts they are making to strengthen and revive their resilience.

As they challenge the realities of constrained space, limited resources, mobility restrictions, and feelings of despair and insecurity, Palestinians in Al-Quds have not ceased to develop innovative social and cultural enterprises and initiatives, resisting in various ways. Palestinian popular theater, musical festivals and evenings, art exhibitions, book launches, events related to political prisoners, women’s initiatives, and public dabkeh dance performances are channels of public expression, solidarity, and resistance to militarization, Israelization, and social and military repression.

East Jerusalemites have also initiated general entrepreneurial activities in East Jerusalem and in different parts of the country over the last couple of years. Women continue to engage in entrepreneurship and leadership roles, confronting multiple socioeconomic hurdles.

Grassroots independent youth initiatives have also reflected nonviolent resistance and collective solidarity. One example is the mobilization to save the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood from settlers in May 2021. The advocacy campaigns have precipitated collective resistance in solidarity across the country and gained international attention related to the struggle of East Jerusalemites and Palestinians as a whole. Another example is the mobilization for access to Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan and to the Holy Sepulcher at Easter. The violence and restrictions by the Israeli police have led to public protests against occupation.

Around 20 years ago, many people had hoped to live side by side with a more tolerant Israel. With the rise of the extreme right-wing camp in Israel that is adopting racist laws and policies, the situation is turning into more of an existential battle. East Jerusalemites are using a variety of individual and collective tactics to survive.

Palestinians experience a sense of collective grief over spaces that hold great symbolic value.

In the late 1990s, many East Jerusalemites spoke English or tried to pass as tourists to avoid interrogation or judgment while strolling, shopping, studying, or working in the western part of their city that at the time was perceived as access-restricted and destined for Israelis and foreigners only. This has been changing recently, as members of the younger Palestinian generation speak Hebrew and better understand Israeli society. They are also more daring in defending their rights and expressing their Palestinian identity and inter-generational trauma more assertively and collectively.

Public space and cultural processions to celebrate religious and other holidays in Jerusalem have great symbolic significance. Israel evokes Palestinian anger and raises their consciousness when the army attacks what people consider as holy or familiar spaces or practices. The occupation forces have frequently sought to replace Palestinian symbols with an Israeli narrative (for example, the City of David in Silwan). Many East Jerusalemites feel that they are dealing with the situation bare-handed, and are continuously seeking collective solidarity in their defense of social space. But in efforts to deal with exclusivist policies, Palestinians in Al-Quds are asserting their identity through symbols. Thus, as East Jerusalemites have lost trust and feel threatened by displacement, they have re-inscribed their identity on space, emphasizing national and religious symbols, as can be observed, for example, in some parts of the Christian Quarter (e.g., the lighting of the Christmas tree celebration or the addition of more crosses in public). Confronted with threats of deportation and attacks by settlers, many Palestinians feel that they are in survival mode, facing an ambiguous future amid the silence of the world.

Over the past years, radical Israeli and/or Jewish American mobs have attacked Muslim and Christian properties. Examples include the attack on the Church of the Flagellation in February 2023 and the spitting attacks and hate graffiti in the Armenian Quarter in January 2023. In addition, over the last two years, Israeli police have beaten up or otherwise prevented Jerusalemite Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the Holy Light ceremony that takes place on Easter weekend. Similarly, Muslim worshippers have repeatedly been targeted in Al-Aqsa Mosque during the month of Ramadan. Moreover, Israeli business and settlement organizations are eagerly seeking to take properties from East Jerusalemites as part of the colonial appropriation policy (for example, the Armenian Quarter 99-year lease that has led to local protests).

Some occupation measures have a range of effects. Because attacks on journalists are common, Jerusalemites are driven to conditions that range from the fear of speaking up to an even stronger urge to express themselves and come out with expressions of political, cultural, and spiritual identity resilience. It was therefore not surprising to witness a relatively large Jerusalemite participation during the funeral processions of East-Jerusalemite Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot by the Israeli army in 2022 and is perceived by Palestinians as a martyr and symbolic icon.

The collective trauma of Palestinian East Jerusalemites is growing deeper as more and more boundaries and red lines are trespassed and violated. The repression and collective feeling of loss is driving East Jerusalemites into survival mode. In their own way, Palestinians are confronting the ethnic cleansing policy by counter resistance, re-inscribing their identity and reclaiming various areas of Jerusalem as part of their own Palestinian Jerusalem. It is not known how long Israel will go on with its exclusivist policies, but one thing is for sure: the Palestinian collective consciousness is in deep grief and yet even more insistent on its survival.

  • Elise Aghazarian is a writer and sociologist from the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. Holding a bachelor’s degree from Birzeit University and a master of arts in social sciences from the University of Amsterdam, she specializes in topics related to social psychology, social politics, and the Arabic language. She has taught sociology at Palestinian universities and worked in academic and media translation to Arabic. She currently teaches at the University of Amsterdam Language Institute (UvA talen); consults on projects related to Arabic language, society, and culture; and works part-time on a project on Oriental Christianity at the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies at Radboud University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

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