The African Community lies in the heart of the Muslim Quarter in the occupied Old City of Jerusalem next to al-Aqsa mosque.1 Today, there are approximately forty to fifty Palestinian families of African origins living on both sides of one of the access streets to the mosque. Its residents are subjected to systematic abuse and persecution by the Israeli occupation in an attempt to uproot the residents. The community’s daily perseverance, communal solidarity and strong collective identity are a source of inspirtion.
The neighbourhood was built in the 13th century during the Mamluk era.2 The apartments on both sides of the road operated as a prison compound during Ottoman rule. The prison housed revolutionaries and dissidents who challenged the Ottoman empire. Many were sentenced to life imprisonment or execution. During the 15th century, Muslim Africans began coming to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and stayed in buildings near the al-Aqsa Mosque, which would later become known as the African Quarter. African presence in Jerusalem dates back to the 7th century when African Muslims accompanied the second Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab during his conquest of Jerusalem. From the Mamluk to the Ottoman period, Africans had an important role in the city as the guardians of the Holy Sites. The background of the oldest members of the current community can be traced to the Muslim tribe al-Salamat who lived in the Arab Peninsula before traveling to Jerusalem during the 13th and 14th centuries. Others came from Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Senegal and other African countries in the 20th century in search of work and economic opportunities. Some fought in the ranks of the Egyptian-led Salvation Army to liberate Palestinian villages and towns from the Israeli occupation after the Nakba of 1948.3 The ‘Guardians of the Mosque,’ the African Palestinians in Jerusalem, have historically held the keys to the Islamic holy sites.
African community members actively participated in defending Jerusalem from the Zionist occupation during the 1948 war. One of the most remembered battles they participated in was the battle of Jabal al-Mukaber. It was led by Tareq AlIfriq, who united Palestinian and Jordanian soldiers to defend the southern neighbourhood of Jabal al-Mukaber and its surroundings.4
The African community in Jerusalem stands out for several reasons: African-Palestinians consider themselves both Palestinian and African and manage to hold both aspects of their identity. They play a prominent role in resisting the occupation and as such are persecuted and collectively punished by Israeli forces. Like fellow Palestinians, many worked extensively in agriculture, as street vendors and shop owners. Although they enjoy strong religious and economic ties with their Palestinian neighbours, African-Palestinians in Jerusalem have maintained their unique African tradition, identity and heritage. Members of the African community are proud that, following the death of Nelson Mandela - South Africa’s first black president and anti-apartheid icon, a candlelight vigil was held by African-Palestinians in the Old City to pay tribute to him.
Relationships among the African community in Jerusalem are characterised by communal solidarity. They are well-organised, unified and most community members are politically and socially active in resisting the occupation, fighting drug abuse, helping others in need, providing psychological support for released prisoners, and participating in sports and fitness events. The African Community Society, the neighbourhood’s community centre, regularly hosts political and cultural events as well as art exhibitions and social initiatives. The African Community Society also helps organise the local football (soccer) league for boys and the basketball league for girls in which teams from several Palestinian Jerusalemite neighbourhoods participate.5 All of this has made the African community an epicentre for resistance, solidarity and culture in the Old City.
Established in 1983 and initially named ‘The African Youth Club,’ the African Community Society has two core objectives: the protection of their heritage and the establishment of a better future for their community members. It is one of the most active community centres in the Old City and its activity is not limited to youth living in the Old City. Today the center connects and works with youth groups across different communities in occupied Jerusalem.
Systematic persecution and suppression
Due to their engagement in the Palestinian struggle for national liberation, members of the African community have been systematically targeted by Israel and subjected to regular human rights abuses and violations including harassment, closure policies, military raids on the neighbourhood, and restricted movement inside the Old City.
Many members of the community have been incarcerated for their political affiliation. Ali Jaddeh, was sentenced to 20 years in Israeli occupation jails when he was only 18 years old due to his activism with the left-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Jiddah spent 17 years behind bars, where he led and participated in collective hunger-strikes, before being released in a prisoner exchange deal in 1985.6 African-Palestinian women are also remarkably active in resisting the Israeli occupation and share in the persecution. They have been arbitrarily arrested and harassed. Fatima AlBarnawi is the first Palestinian female prisoner and had spent 11 years behind bars.8 In’am Colombo was imprisoned for seven months in 2013 for participating in an unarmed protest at Damascus Gate.9 Israeli occupation forces regularly break into the African community, assaulting and arresting youth who sometimes respond by throwing rocks in defense of their neighbourhood.10
Education and Employment
The high rate of incarceration and house arrests among Palestinian-African youth in Jerusalem forces many of them to drop out of school and work in low-wage manual labour. Similar to other Palestinian communities throughout occupied Jerusalem, the community is working hard to provide extra educational and employment opportunities for them in the face of overcrowded classrooms offered by the occupation municipality.
Residency and Status
Today 350 Africans are living in the African Quarter. During its rule over the Eastern part of Jerusalem between 1948-1967, Jordan did not recognise Palestinian-Africans as Jordanian citizens. As a result they cannot apply for a Palestinian passport because they live in annexed Jerusalem rather than the West Bank. The only option Africans have to obtain travel documents is to receive Israeli documents which for political reasons they typically refuse to accept.
Building and infrastructure
Considering the strategic and symbolic significance of the Muslim Quarter in the Old City, the Israeli occupation has sought to drive African-Palestinians out by refusing to grant them building permits while surrounding them with Jewish settlements. Members of the African Community living inside the Old City are forced to contend with outdated infrastructure and congested living conditions. Despite this they have successfully managed to maintain their presence in this important area of the Old City.
Residents of the African community along with other Jerusalemites also face the denial of basic services by the occupation municipality. In February 2014, water supply to the Old City, including the African community, was cut-off, leaving thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites without water.11