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IDEAS

I learned how to ride a bike in Sheikh Jarrah

Israel has dispossessed Palestinians, displaced us, and expelled us, but the one thing it can never take away is our memories of our lives on our land.

The author on his bike, with Sheikh Jarrah in the background, in 1998.
The author on his bike, with Sheikh Jarrah in the background, in 1998.Bashaer Kaloti

Training wheels on a bike aren’t as effective on dirt and gravel as they are on pavement. That’s a pretty good bet to make, but I learned it for sure because the dead-end street outside my childhood home in Jerusalem was only partly paved. My family lived in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and though Israel governs the city — including the occupied Palestinian side — it consistently fails to provide adequate services to Palestinian areas, such as routinely paving roads. One of the first few times I tried riding a bicycle there, the bike wobbled too much and I scraped my leg on the gravel. So my parents and I took my bike to a nearby playground, just at the edge of the neighborhood, and I eventually learned how to ride it there.

Today, that neighborhood has a hashtag — #SaveSheikhJarrah — because Israeli settlers, with the help of Israeli soldiers and the Israeli government, have been trying to steal Palestinian homes and displace Palestinians in their effort to permanently and illegally expand Israeli territory into East Jerusalem. It’s part of what Palestinians refer to as Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign, which has sparked yet another deadly chapter in Israel’s occupation of Palestine: As of this writing, Israeli forces have killed 17 Palestinians in the West Bank and over 230 Palestinians in Gaza, including at least 65 children. Ten Israelis have been killed by rockets fired by the Islamist militant group Hamas.

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The land theft that is happening in Sheikh Jarrah and across Palestine is not new; it’s what the Israeli state was founded on. In fact, back at the playground in Sheikh Jarrah, I learned how to ride a bike in the shadow of an Israeli government building that sat on my own grandfather’s land. The building houses the National Headquarters of the Israel Police — the very police force that kills and brutalizes Palestinians, illegally detains us, and routinely tramples on our rights. Till the day my grandfather died, he could not get over the fact that his land had been stolen. Anytime we passed by the building, he would point to it and say, “That’s on my land.”

Not only did Israel steal my grandfather’s land; it has also stolen Jerusalem from me. Growing up in the city, I was an undocumented resident in Israel’s eyes despite the fact that my mother’s family has lived there for generations. My mom was born and raised a mere 10-minute walk from my childhood home, but my father’s family is from Tulkarem, a small city in the West Bank. And so my dad, my siblings, and I have West Bank IDs while my mom, a Jerusalemite, has a Jerusalem ID. That meant that while my mother had a right to live in Jerusalem, the rest of us were only guests in our own home, living there because we renewed travel permits that technically allowed us only entry into Jerusalem, not a permanent stay. (Israel has been trying to revoke Jerusalem IDs from Palestinians like my mom for decades.)

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Because I still have a West Bank ID, as an adult I can never live in Jerusalem again despite it being my hometown. Under Israeli law, West Bankers aren’t allowed to drive or work in Jerusalem unless they have special permits, which are very rare and hard to get. They are also not allowed to buy or rent a home. But those rules do not apply to Jewish people, be they from Israel or anywhere else in the world. So long as someone can prove their Jewish ancestry, Israel will help them settle in Jerusalem and offer them full rights and privileges — ones that I, an indigenous Palestinian, can never get for the sole reason of my identity.

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That’s what an apartheid state looks like: a government that maintains systematic discrimination against and repression of a group of people because of their identity, while doing all it can to ensure that another, prioritized group remains in control. And Israel operates precisely this way because the survival of its identity — that of one day becoming a democratic Jewish state — is predicated on the erasure of Palestinians as a people. And that means separating them from one another within Palestine, like West Bankers and Jerusalemites, making their lives miserable or even killing them, and making them leave their land, never to return.

But what the Israeli regime that upholds this oppressive system fails to realize is that no matter how hard they try to erase Palestinians as a people, we will always remain. And while they can dispossess us, displace us, or expel us, the one thing that they can never take away from us is our memories — those of our lives, our homes, and our land — which we will carry with us forever. After all, how could I possibly forget where I learned how to ride a bike?

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Abdallah Fayyad can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.