Print this page

A Case of Stolen Heritage in a Colonized Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, as in other former Palestinian urban areas, the appropriation of Arab homes has been integral to Israeli desires to consolidate its rule in and over the entire city. A powerful component of efforts to reconstitute the city as the "eternal capital" of the Jewish People has been keeping Palestinians made refugees in 1948 eternally dislocated and exiled. Yet, though documentation of the forced removals of 1948 have become better known, little research has focused on the dynamics of loss and flight in Palestinian urban centers during the birth of the Israeli state.
Over the course of 1948, roughly 750,000 Palestinians were removed by force or fled in fear from their lands in. Nearly 70,000 of these exiles resided in Jerusalem and its environs. 30,000 were driven from urban neighborhoods within the former Jerusalem municipal boundaries while another 40,000 fled from the 39 villages of the Jerusalem area.1 Designs of the zionist leadership to "cleanse" the land of its non-Jewish population became demographic realities. Refugees who fled the Jerusalem region and elsewhere have been prevented from returning and remain exiles fiftytwo years on.

What a true transformation of Palestine's landscape necessitated-and what the establishment of an exclusivist Jewish State entailed-was thatthe refugees' return be foreclosed. It was not simply enough to drive them out, they had to be kept out. Failing this, Israeli planners argued, an Arab "time bomb" would arise in their midst, progressively diluting the Jewishness of the Jewish state.2 Two Israeli policies initiated concurrently in the state's early years were undertaken to preclude the refugees from exercising their internationally recognized right of return.

The first was the full or partial destruction of over 400 Arab villages between 1948 and 1952. The second policy was actualized primarily in urban areas such as Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem where over 100,000 Palestinians resided before their expulsion. Here, in the very homes of Palestinian exiles, Israeli Jews were housed. These homes were swiftly seized by the new Israeli state, which used what it referred to as the "Absentee Property Regulations of 1948" to confiscate these properties and the movable property left within these structures. These provisions were codified as the "Absentee Property Law of 1950" and allowed all property belonging to an "absentee" to be transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property.

 Through this swift bureaucratic move, Israel "reclaimed" and reconstituted tens of thousands of Arab properties and hundreds of thousands of dunums of land. Palestinian families, believing that they were leaving their homes for a few weeks at most, found themselves unable to return to their former neighborhoods in the months following Israel's declaration of statehood. Israeli sources have documented these practices of appropriation and contended that the housing of Israelis within these homes began to be carried out within weeks of Israel's conquest of Jerusalem's west side. Such cases of settlement were not so much devised to correct for a lack of housing for new immigrants but rather as a political strategy designed to preclude a diplomatically engineered return of the displaced.

The Lost Baramki House
Documented instances of Palestinian family structures being stolen and transformed in the last fifty years by the nascent Israeli state abound. Though Palestinian homes were most often changed into living spaces for Israeli Jews, there are many instances of such structures being re-configured as restaurants, museums, artists' studios, discos, mental health institutions, and even shelters for animals. One such expropriated Palestinian home in Jerusalem is owned by the Baramki family. This family home was built in the early 1930s, in theformer "mixed" Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Sa'ad Said, a few hundred meters north of Jerusalem'swalled Old City. During the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948, this neighborhood and the structures that comprised it were split between Jordanian held-east and Israeli-held west sides of Jerusalem.

The Baramkis like hundreds of other Jerusalem families took flight during the fateful Spring of 1948. They had resided in the neighborhood of Sa'ad Said since 1929, having moved there from within the Old City walls as part of the early phase of middle and upper class home construction outside the Old City in the early 1900's. The house was designed by A. Baramki, a renowned architect trained in Greece. Like the many other grand structures he designed for Palestine's elite, the home in Sa'ad Said featured a distinctive, hybrid use of Corinthian columns and Arab-style arche sand verandas. Baramki also experimented with interplay of red and white stones in the same arch or façade and which became one of his stylistic trademarks.

The Baramki house, as it happened, came to rest precisely on the edge of the emerging frontier between East and West Jerusalem. This arbitrarily defined boundary, drawn in a perfunctory manner by Israeli and Jordanian generals in 1948, actually ran along the outer edge of the property's eastern edge. Mammoth, well fortified, and strategically positioned in relation to the emerging border and the Mandelbaum Gate--this imposing three-story, stone structure was appropriated by zionist forces soon after its Arab residents fled. In 1948, the Israeli military transformed the commandeered property into an army post.

The home's doors were reinforced and arched windows were filled in with concrete so that only an opening, narrow enough to accommodate a gun and the gaze of a marksman, remained. Weapons where placed behind the structure's thick limestone walls and aimed across a No Man's Land of mines and barbed wire at Jordanian adversaries only meters away. Israeli soldiers were positioned behind turrets and were meant to stem what the new Jewish State referred to as "Arab infiltration" across the border (i.e usually attempts by Palestinian refugees to return across the frontier to their homes. With very few exceptions, neither Jew nor Arab were permitted to cross over to the other side of the city, an arrangement which held from May, 1948 until June, 1967.

Memories of Waiting
Unlike nearly all other Palestinian refugees exiled in 1948, the Baramki's had the double-edged privilege of glancing at their home from atop certain locales on the hilly terrain of Jerusalem's east side. Risking sniper fire, family members would occasionally visit locales contiguous to the borderlands in an  effort to peer at their home and assess its condition. One family member, at the time a young man having just returned from his studies in Beirut, remembers ascending seven floors of steps to the top of the East Jerusalem YMCA on the edge of the frontier with his architect father. From this vantage point they would gaze down at their property across the divided landscape.

Peering across the frontier at his home's bullet-ridden and crumbling facade throughout the years of the divided city, the architect's son, then a man in his thirties, remembers the overwhelming powerlessness he felt. "By the mid 1960's it became clear to me that if we were ever going to reclaim the property at all, it would not be in my father's time." Though from the heights of the YMCA he and his family could stand within 100 meters of their home, it was as though their memories and their property resided on different sides of a political abyss.

June 1967: "Liberation" or Conquest?
The years of the so-called "divided city" were to end suddenly and with little notice. During six days in June 1967, Israeli forces conquered Jordanianheld East Jerusalem in lightening fashion. Within weeks of taking the east side, the victors brought down the wall, which had for 19 years seperated Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees who had waited to return to their homes in the city's West side, quickly made their way back to their former neighborhoods. The great irony was that conquest in 1967 had seemingly opened up possibilities to return and reclaim properties conquered in 1948.

Initially, there existed a pervasive belief--or at least hope--among the displaced that they would be able to reclaim their homes. Upon return to their former neighborhoods, displaced Palestinians often discovered that though their former residences were discernable from the street, the structure had often been altered in different ways. Streets, squares, and locales had been renamed; signs were now in Hebrew. Old, formerly empty lots and locales had been "filled in" with an often ugly architecture of concrete, built for utility.Though land deeds and British Mandate era keys were kept and produced by Palestinian refugees in Israeli courts, these homes now had different doors, requiring Israeli-issue keys. This now, declared Israeli governing authorities, was"state land" and--by Israeli Law--was earmarked for  Israeli-Jewish use only. In no case were properties simply handed over to their Palestinian owners. The presence of the Israelis who now resided in these homes had taken on a permanence that no doubtseemed to the new inhabitants quite natural.

The Baramkis, too, crossed over the old frontier with their keys and deeds. They made the short walk through the former no-man's-land to a property foreclosed to them for nearly twenty years. Yet they were forbidden access by military authorities still stationed amidst the home's remains. The Israeli State and courts refused to hand over the badly damaged property claiming--alternately--that it was still needed for purposes of Israeli "security," that it was in need of repair, and finally that ownership of the property was legally "murky" since a new Israeli grid of legality had been imposed on Jerusalem. Israeli authorities told the Baramki Family to "wait until there is peace."

Reconfiguring Jerusalem
Jerusalem's boundaries were re drawn unilaterally by Israel in June 1967, inflating the area the Jewish state defined as Jerusalem by a factor of five. The intention and guiding principle of the Israeli occupation in re-drawing the city's municipal boundaries was, according to Sarah Kaminkar, to take in as much Palestinian land as possible within the Israeli State, while including within those newly constituted borders the fewest number of Palestinians.3 In some cases, hundreds of acres of a particular Arab village's land became incorporated within the Israeli defined borders of the city, while the Arab owners of that land were left on the other side of the new municipal divide. The land of the villages of Beit Iksa and Beit Hanina, for example, became the site of the sprawling Jewish settlement of Ramot, while these villagers were left outside of Israeli-defined Jerusalem.

The constitution of a radically "gerrymandered" city border, weaving around dense Arab population concentrations, underscores dominant Israeli desires for a segregated and highly policed Jerusalem. This strategy should be seen as representing a continuation of a policy to rid the Israeli polity of much of its non-Jewish population. Whereas in 1948, thousands of Arabs were removed by fear or force from Jerusalem, in 1967 they were often further excluded by the clever re-drawing of boundaries. It was the policy of the Israeli authorities to do away with the dividing walls and army emplacements that were established along the divided frontier from 1948 until 1967. One Israeli military emplacement, however, was kept intact: The Baramki family home/Tourjeman Post. Former Israeli deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, recounts that this one site, resting on the edge of the former divide, was retained "for posterity." The property had become known to Israelis as "the former Tourjaman Army Post" or the"Tourjaman Building."

One Baramki family member described the lengths the Palestinian owner and architect of the home went through to win back his property after the wall dividing Jerusalem was brought down in 1967. He also relates the humiliation that accompanied efforts to contest the mechanisms of exclusion enshrined in Israel's Absentee Property Law: You know, this question of being defined "absent" or "absentee" by the Israeli Government is unbelievable. Imagine, my father at the time [1967], a 70 year-old person going to the Israelis and telling them that "here I am now and I want my property" and them telling him that you are an "absentee." And he would tell them "how am I absent? I am present!" He could not understand how he was absent and present at the same time. The Israeli Government never did permit the owner and architect of the home to step foot in his house after 1948, and the elder Baramki died an exile.

Domination on Display: The "Tourjeman Post Museum"
Members of the Baramki family were finally permitted to enter the house in the 1980's, but the circumstances were as odd as they were painful. As was the case with hundreds of other Palestinian homes, the Israeli Custodian for Absentee Property turned the family house over to the Israeli Government for "public purposes." In the early 1980's, the home underwent another transformation. Without notice or the permission of the owners, the Israeli Municipality silently reconstituted the dilapidated, former army garrison into the "Tourjeman Post Museum," a monument meant to celebrate Israel's "re-unification of Jerusalem." The structure's interior and exterior were designed to relate a narrative of life in the city before Israeli forces "unified" the "divided" city. Museum brochures and the plaque on the front door refer to the structure as:

"Dedicated to the Theme: Jerusalem - A Divided City Reunited."
The devastated home's exterior was left in its damaged state-"for posterity"-while a donation froman American family helped the Israeli Municipality reconfigure the interior. In maintaining the exterior and facade in the condition it had been between 1948 and 1967, the aesthetics of the structure were designed to relate a narrative of life and longing in the city before 1967. It seems to have been the intention of the municipality to project the former home as having served as an essential component in the defense of the nascent and beleaguered Israeli state; a place of military glory and "purity of arms." Histories of the structure, which were neither Israeli nor military, have been simply silenced.

Descendents of the home's original owner recall feeling outraged and violated when word reached them that the property was being further transformed into an Israeli museum. As one family member relates:

There was an article about the house in the Jerusalem Post right after it became a museum and it was written that I, the former owner, refused to come to the opening celebrations. Well, I had not even been told that the house would become a museum--not that I would have attended the opening. But they [The Israeli Municipality] did not even have the decency to inform us that they were turning our home into this museum. Observing the structure's remade interior, Baramki describes how those responsible for this museum had "mutilated" the structure. "The home on the inside," he explains, "they destroyed like the outside." What had served as bedrooms on the top floor had now been transformed into a dimly lit, spartan, and spacious gallery, housing an exhibit of images, artifacts, and items of material culture.

Remnants of the home's history as military emplacement are plentiful. Guns and weapons used during the 1948 and 1967 war are exhibited in the gallery. The reinforced turrets on the top floor were left as they had been. Images displayed in the gallery are drawn both from the years the city was physically divided as well as from the moments of fighting that engulfed the city in June 1967. Pervasive representations include those of triumphant Israeli soldiers, parading through the newly pacified streets of East Jerusalem, Israeli forces storming and "liberating" the Old City.

In a document produced by the Israeli government press office and distributed at the museum, it is mentioned that:
In weighing ostensibly competing claims to the city, it must be recalled that the Jewish people bases its claims to Jerusalem on a link which dates back millennia and to King David, and that there is no legal basis for the "historical" Palestinian claim that Jerusalem was their capital. Moreover, though the Palestinians may have a strong emotional attachment to Jerusalem, it does not necessarily follow that Jerusalem should become the capital of any Palestinian political entity.

A supposed site of defense and liberation is one which bolstered efforts meant to deny Palestinian exiles the right to return to their emptied neighborhoods. What has "reunification" meant for those communities in the city whose interface with Israeli military rule is antithetical to that "liberation"? Why do the experiences of longing refer only to those on one side of the boundary, to the dominant community? Why is no mention made of the thousands of Palestinians who once resided in West Jerusalem and who still wait for their right to return? As visitors near the end of the exhibit, all are invited to gaze out from the narrow slits in the filledin, third-story windows, which served as turrets and where once Israeli soldiers peered out across a formally divided city. From this location, one can view the East Jerusalem landscape and envision the former terrain as Israel's "defenders." From these heights one looks out over what appears to be a seamless, unified, and serene landscape. From this site, Israeli collective memory and the myths, which inform and mold it become "historical truth."

The Baramki home is emblematic of other places, sites, and locales stolen from Jerusalem's Palestinian population. The interface between a native presence and Israeli colonizing power has resulted in the creation of a fortressed urban center, which excludes Palestinians not only from the realm of rights and justice but as well from their very histories and heritage. Serving first as an instrument of military conquest, policing the borders between Israelis and Palestinians, this structure now serves an ideological function meant to solidify the realities of Israeli rule, to legitimize zionism's claim of exclusive rule in the city, and to silence the Arab character of Jerusalem.

1-See Jerusalem 1948 (Available from BADIL, see BADIL Resources on page 35).
2-See Tom Segev’s 1949: The First Israelis which covers the eraly debates among Israeli politicians and planners concerning the “danger” such a return of Palestinian refugees would bring to the character of the Jewish State.
3-Interview with Sarah Kaminker, July 1997.