Biden Was Here. Now What?

Last Saturday, as Sheikh Jarrah's orthodox Jews observed the Sabbath, an easy-going music teacher blinked his lazy blue eyes and said he intends to make a weekly walk until Israel's eviction orders are overturned.
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Every Friday, 19-year-old Uri Agnon walks with 200 other people from West Jerusalem to a Palestinian neighborhood just north of the Old City.

The Arabs who live in Sheikh Jarrah have been on notice for almost 30 years: The Israeli government wants them out. But using legal challenges--and with the support of young protestors like Agnon--most have been able to resist the lingering eviction notices, which have recently intensified.

Last Saturday, as the city's orthodox Jews observed the Sabbath, the easy-going music teacher blinked his lazy blue eyes and said he intends to make the weekly walk until the eviction orders are overturned.

"This week it was as hot as hell, and two weeks ago it was snowing," said Agnon, shaking a head full of curly, shoulder-length hair. "Doesn't matter. The occupation doesn't stop because of the cold, or because of the heat."

Last week, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden to encourage peace and reassure residents here about the U.S. stance toward Iran, the Interior Ministry announced that it planned to build 1,600 new homes in the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem--an idea that was swiftly condemned by the White House.

Since then, Jerusalem authorities have suspended their planning of the project, but daily news analysis has focused on the potential of last week's ill-timed announcement to hamper the upcoming proximity talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

For men like Faqhri Abu Diab, peace talks that may or may not happen are eclipsed by the urgency of survival.

"Saturday is the only day of the week when we have a little break, because we know that the municipality's bulldozers won't be coming to demolish any houses," Diab said of a plan to raze 88 homes in his neighborhood, including the one in which he was born 48 years ago.

As he spoke, Diab rested beneath a patchwork of tarps lashed to a crude two-by-four frame. Banners and slogans adorned the organizing center of Al-Bustan, and the father of five was at relative ease for the moment, thanks to the Jewish government's observance of the Sabbath every Saturday.

"They might come any other day of the week, but they don't work on Saturday," added Diab, who is chairman of the committee convened to resist the demolition orders.

Biden's visit came during an already trying time for Jerusalem--as officials prepared to open a rebuilt synagogue near the Temple Mount over the weekend, the government prohibited Muslim men under the age of 50 from entering the Al-Aqsa mosque. Protests sprang up in various parts of the city, and 2,500 police and soldiers were deployed on Monday into the Old City in anticipation of sharp unrest.

In that setting, the municipality's announcement of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem was the spark that lit a tinder box of diplomatic strife, leading Israeli ambassador Michael Oren to declare the current crisis the worst between Israel and the U.S. in 35 years.

Last week, Biden was quick to condemn the construction plans, and several other U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have added their voices to the chorus of disdain flowing east from Washington.

But for observers, activists and many residents here, the strong words following Biden's visit are just the latest in a string of empty threats.

"In a sense, it's the same vicious cycle that we continue to see--Israel does something, the Americans disapprove, but then emphasizes what good friends we are," said Orly Noy, who works for an organization called Ir Amim, Hebrew for "City of Nations."

Noy said American hopefulness over Barack Obama's 2008 election spilled over into the humanitarian community here that devotes itself to brokering peace on a small scale, one neighborhood at a time.

"It began as a very optimistic new phase for the peace camp in Israel. We were sure this was a new beginning and a new American approach, and I think it is, but it hasn't been expressed into real steps," said Noy. "The feeling is that Israel still does whatever it wants on the ground, and the Americans can criticize the Israeli conduct, but it doesn't really change anything, and Israel goes on with its policies."

Another non-governmental observer, Gershon Baskin, said Monday in Jerusalem that he has been frustrated with the Obama administration's lack of action on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"The past year was extremely disappointing," said Baskin, who heads the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information. The group's pamphlet prominently quotes President Obama declaring "a new day, a new era, a time of renewed hope," but Baskin said the administration's stance toward Israel has been anything but hopeful in its first 14 months.

"Rather than the Americans using the prestige and the political collateral of their newly elected, very popular president ... the first year was wasted," he said.

Baskin and Noy both work with Palestinians like Diab, whose family is in danger of becoming collateral damage in the international crossfire over who can build what, and where. The legions of activists here keep a close eye on what American presidents say--and more importantly, what they do.

Noy said the administration's actions on the conflict during its first 14 months have amounted to "a lot of good intentions, a lot of very good speeches--they are really excellent with speeches, Obama and Biden--but nothing concrete on the ground."

"Are the Americans willing to hold a stick?" asked Baskin. "Or, alternatively, give some carrots to push this process in the right way? We'll see if it goes beyond words."

For Diab, the ability of the U.S. administration to go beyond words represents the difference between homelessness and staying in the house where he was born in 1962.

"When they demolish your house, they do not destroy just the roof over your head, but they're destroying your life and your future," he said. "It has become very difficult for us to explain to our kids that we need to live peacefully with the other side.

"My kids ask me, 'What will happen if they come to demolish our house? Are they going to demolish our house? What will we do then?' I try to avoid this question as much as I can, and sometimes I lie to them," added Diab. "I don't have a real answer. I can tell you I love life just like any other person, but I would much rather let them demolish my house with me in it than see my wife and children living homeless."

Back in Sheik Jarrah, where the government is trying to force out Palestinian residents and replace them with Jewish settlers, 49-year-old Aman Qasen said she remembers when the first eviction orders arrived in 1972. A legal challenge halted the evictions at the time, but the government has recently renewed its campaign to remove the neighborhood's Arab residents.

"They are going quickly, quickly. Before, when we were in the courts, it took years, but now it takes a few days. Today we have court, and after two days we have another court--it's very, very hurry-go," said Qasen, adding that, when one of her neighbors gets a notice, the city includes a list of families who are in line to be evicted.

She said she has seen her name on the list, but avoids the thought of one day having to leave.

"I can't imagine this," she said, motioning emphatically with her hands. "I don't want to believe that, I don't want to think about it. Imagine you wake up and there is no USA. It's not humanity, to remove all this neighborhood, and for what?"

By himself, Uri Agnon said he can make the walk from West Jerusalem to Sheikh Jarrah in 20 minutes, but with 200 other protesters, it takes about an hour.

He said it's not a matter of protesting in spite of being Jewish. On the contrary, his support of residents like Qasen is precisely because he is Jewish.

"It's not only that there are horrible crimes being done--which is reason enough to come here--but it's also being done in my name," he said. "If there is something wrong going on, it's your right to fight it. But if there's something wrong going on in your name, you know, you have to fight it."