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Silencing Palestinian activists proves not so easy for Israeli authorities

Ben Lynfield
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Published: 2 June 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

BEN LYNFIELD reports on how a mobile phone that refused to break exposed persecution of East Jerusalem Palestinian activist FAKHRI ABU DIAB.

While Israel marked Jerusalem Day last month, East Jerusalem political activist Fakhri Abu Diab told Israel’s Ynet TV channel that instead of having cause to celebrate, Palestinians suffer oppression and discrimination.

As if to make his point, police tried to halt his live Hebrew-language television interview from outside the al-Aqsa mosque by grabbing his mobile phone and throwing it on the ground. Unfortunately for the officers, Abu Diab's phone didn’t break and audio of the confrontation was broadcast and shared on social media.  

Abu Diab, 61, a former accountant for the Israel Broadcasting Authority and a grandfather of 12, is a community leader for the endangered al-Bustan neighbourhood. Settler leaders would like to see it demolished so that they can expand their presence in that territory, which was illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 war.

In remarks to The Jewish Independent, Abu Diab recalled being ejected by police from the Temple Mount, then held by security forces on a street corner and warned to leave the Old City.

The Ynet interviewers voiced astonishment at the police behaviour, but Abu Diab said this was mild treatment relative to what he and other East Jerusalem residents are used to. “They don’t want the world to know that they are breaking international law,” he said. “I was making clear to Israelis that we are living under cruel rule.”

Critics of Israeli policy say the action against Abu Diab is just a hint of how Israel tries to silence dissent by neighbourhood activists throughout East Jerusalem. Abu Diab says he has been targeted with harassment since 2006, including an implied threat by police in 2018 that his home would be demolished if he continued talking to journalists and diplomats. The police deny this.

“There isn’t a single day that we do not think that our house might be demolished. I am with the families whenever there is a demolition.”

“If you are a Palestinian activist, you will be persecuted,” says Aviv Tatarsky, a senior staffer at Ir Amim, an NGO that strives to promote equality in the city. “What happened to Fakhri is not arbitrary and not a mistake. Police are very aggressive towards Palestinians and Palestinian activists. This kind of thing goes on a lot but this time it was caught on video.”

Israeli police told The Jewish Independent that they could provide “no specific details” of Abu Diab ever being involved in criminal offences. He and others say he is a strictly non-violent activist. Yet since he began campaigning in 2006 against a city plan to demolish over a hundred houses in Bustan to turn the area into a park called “King David’s garden”, he says he has faced baseless detentions, has been barred from the Old City and faced other threats.

A year ago, he gave an interview to an Arab television station from outside the al-Aqsa mosque. Police broke up the interview, handcuffed him and took him to the Kishle station near Jaffa gate. There he waited for hours, was fingerprinted, photographed and eventually told not to enter the Old City for a week, he recalled.

In response to inquiries from The Jewish Independent, a police spokesperson said: “We firmly deny any allegations of harassment or deliberate attempts to hinder his contacts with journalists or media personnel”.

The same spokesperson said that individuals who have complaints against police conduct in the past or present are advised to “report the matter to the relevant authority”. The spokesperson added that it was necessary to act against Abu Diab on Jerusalem Day because he was interfering on a path used by visitors on the Temple Mount and because of “the context of the individual Arabic word choices being used.” In fact, the interdicted interview was conducted entirely in Hebrew.

The police spokesperson conceded, however, that “in hindsight it was determined that it would have been possible to wait until the end of the interview and then distance him from the location”.

Al-Bustan is bordered and overlooked by the City of David, an archeological park and settlement run by the powerful Elad organisation. Its land is designated as “green space” and thus it is against the law to build there. Abu Diab says most of the homes were constructed after 1990 by people who lived nearby but could not build legally elsewhere because of severe municipal restrictions on permits for housing. “We are not criminals. We had no choice,” Abu Diab said.

But in the eyes of Israeli authorities and the Elad organisation, Abu Diab is an obstacle. Plans first disclosed in 2006 to raze al-Bustan were deferred as Abu Diab and others were able to lobby the media and international community.

But in recent years the King’s Garden proposal resurfaced and is very much on the agenda, according to Ir Amim. In parallel, pressure on Abu Diab appears to be intensifying.

Aerial view of East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan/al-Bustan (Emil Salman)
Aerial view of East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan/al-Bustan (Emil Salman)

In May 2019, he was questioned at the Shalem police station on Salah el-Din Street. “The investigator asked me if I receive money for meeting journalists and diplomats? I told him no, I do it to try to stop the houses from being destroyed. He responded: What you are doing can cause them to destroy your house more quickly”.

“I was worried. And I worry because I know they can destroy my life.”

He says his neighbours have it no easier. “There isn’t a single day that we do not think that our house might be demolished. I am with the families whenever there is a demolition.”

Jerusalem city council member Yonatan Yosef told The Jewish Independent Media he wants to see all of al-Bustan’s houses destroyed immediately. This would make about 1500 Palestinians homeless.

“The question is whether we are sovereign in Jerusalem or whether we are afraid the Arabs will become violent,” Yosef said. “He who is sovereign must implement decisions regardless of whether it is in the western or the eastern part of the city. I want to see King’s Garden as a tourist park. There is a detailed plan for this.”

Authorities have demolished 14 homes in al-Bustan since 2006 and caused residents to “self-demolish” 10 others, Abu Diab says.

In February, a day after Abu Diab and other residents were promised by mayor Moshe Leon that there would be no demolitions while talks were held, the municipality demolished two homes and a store, Abu Diab said. The municipality spokesman’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The municipality has claimed it is “holding conversations with the residents” regarding a plan they submitted in 2018. However, Tatarsky and Abu Diab say that the municipality is ratcheting up pressure on residents to agree to demolition of their homes. On April 30, ahead of a city hall meeting, municipality inspectors accompanied by military police handed out demolition orders for all 115 homes in al-Bustan, Abu Diab said.

The same day Abu Diab received written summons from a municipality building inspector for “investigation” of offences including “use of land without a permit”. Upon legal advice, he did not respond. Instead, he helped draft a call for international intervention.

“They want us to worry all the time about having our houses destroyed. It’s to pressure us to leave,” he said. “I can’t do anything but speak, but I do what I can.”


Jerusalem Seeks to Reactivate Demolition Orders in Palestinian Area, Backing Out of Agreement (Haaretz)


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Photo: US Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr with Fakhri Abu Diab in al-Bustan neighbourhood in November (Courtesy of US Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem Twitter).

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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