Toward a self-sustainable civil society in Jerusalem
Published Tuesday 22/05/2012 (updated) 23/05/2012 16:37
Palestinians attend a Nakba day rally in front of Damascus Gate in occupied
East Jerusalem's Old City on May 15, 2012. (Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)
Based in Sheikh Jarrah, Grassroots Jerusalem is an organization working with Palestinian communities to assess their education, health and infrastructure needs.
It also helps Palestinians advocate for policy changes needed at the international level to end the Israeli occupation.
Its co-director is an Israeli Jew. Micha Kurz, 30, was born and raised in Jerusalem. He grew up in what is known as West Jerusalem, but his work is focused on all Palestinian communities, east and west.
“Ten years ago when I joined the Israeli army I was a naïve, misinformed kid,” Kurz says. “I did not understand anything; I had never been in contact with the Palestinian community before that.”
Kurz had a change of heart during his time serving in the army. He left the country for six years while he thought things through, and came back after deciding he had to do something for the Palestinians. And in Jerusalem, the city he loves, Kurz decided to establish Grassroots Jerusalem.
A difficult city
“I see Jerusalem changing every year more and more to an obviously colonialist city,” he explains. “Jerusalem has been a Palestinian city for generations.”
“I do not want to live in (a) Jerusalem that is not a Palestinian city,” Kurz says. The group works tirelessly to preserve the Palestinian culture and heritage of Jerusalem.
Its work targets Palestinian community members and leaders -- grassroots structures that Israel's occupation to a large extent succeeded in weakening in Jerusalem.
The organization's declared goal is to build capacity for those communities in Jerusalem to be able to answer for their own needs.
Grassroots also targets the international community, which it believes should wake up and exert pressure to influence change in Jerusalem and end the occupation.
Jerusalem is an extremely difficult city to work in, even though international aid groups pour in a lot of money for so-called “co-existence” projects. Such projects, however, are strongly condemned by the vast majority of the Palestinian community.
As an non-profit group led by an Israeli citizen, Grassroots stumbled into initial rejections.
Last winter, a statement by the National Action Committee in Jerusalem described it as a normalization project. These accusations were based up information retrieved from a website, although Grassroots' website only launched this spring.
The organization denies these accusations and welcomed Palestinians to see and judge for themselves.
“I understand why people question, I would question too,” Kurz says. “I would say, Come over and meet me, come to the center and we can have a long talk on what I believe about Jerusalem today.”
Kurz emphasizes that Grassroots is against normalization, and that he has no tolerance for dialogue groups or co-existence projects. “This is not about peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is about justice, human rights and freedom for the Palestinian people,” he said.
“All of our activities are against the occupation,” says Muna Hasan, Grassroots project director. “We do not do any joint activities. No dialogue,” Hasan explains.
She says the sources of such rumors are understandable due to the reputation of non governmental Organizations in Palestine, but insists that Grassroots works with communities and helps them build strategies rather than imposing an outside agenda.
Grassroots sees its job as to advocate for the long-term plans that Palestinians organizations set for their communities. “The major difficulty right now is mistrust,” says Kurz. “Right now in Palestinian communities, understandably so, there is a lot of mistrust.”
The rumors about normalization could pose difficulties, he says.
BDS, right of return
Contrary to trends in so-called tolerance groups, Grassroots takes a strong line in support of the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign.
Kurz says BDS "does a very good job at uniting the Palestinian people. ... It is a campaign that brings all Palestinians under one umbrella, from the bottom up.”
Despite being located in occupied Jerusalem, when you step foot into Grassroots offices, it's hard to find Israeli products. In their events, Palestinian-made juices and biscuits are served.
Grassroots also sent an official request to the BDS campaign to add their organization to the list of BDS supporters. “It is a wonderful grassroots initiative that everyone can relate to,” he said. “We support them.”
Moreover, Grassroots stands strong for the right of return.
“The right of return is something that needs to be acknowledged the same way the Jews rights to their properties in Germany was acknowledged,” Kurz insists.
But Grassroots does not only work within the boundaries of so-called East Jerusalem. The organization insists on preserving the heritage and culture of ethnically cleansed towns such as Lifta.
One of Grassroots major projects is to map Palestinian resources in Jerusalem.
The goal is to help Palestinian communities and organizations to locate the resources they need and do a more efficient work. “We are not an umbrella organization; what we do is that we map,” Kurz says.
“Al-Quds (Jerusalem) has all it needs to become a strong, independent Palestinian city.”
Grassroots sees Jerusalem as a unit. Its goal is to reconnect its different areas that have been cut apart by the occupation’s policies. “Jerusalem without Ramallah and Bethlehem does not work,” he said.
Currently, Grassroots is working on countering the misinformation posed by the occupation’s Jerusalem municipality. The maps distributed by the municipality deliberately wipe out any Palestinian print in the city and Hebraizes names of areas and streets.
“We create maps with community members that show the true reality, al-Quds,” said Kurz. “We find out about names of streets, history, timelines and narratives and we put it on the map.”
Grassroots believes that it is important that Palestinian NGOs work towards self-sustainability.
“The world looks at the occupation as a constant emergency,” he says. “It has been an emergency for 60 years. The occupation is not an emergency.”
Kurz added that the goal is to help Palestinian groups become independent and not depend on international funds, that are more of a charity parcel rather than an asset to build capacity.
It recently opened a center in Sheikh Jarrah, Markz Al-Kul, as a platform for all Palestinian activists to use its facilities and plan their events. This center in Jerusalem will prove to be one of the most important resources for Palestinians in Jerusalem. The director is Muna Hasan, a young Palestinian from Beit Safafa in Jerusalem.
Hasan explained why she works in Grassroots Jerusalem.
“Because this project is aimed for Jerusalem,” she says. “As a Jerusalemite, I can finally get a job through which I will be able also to work closely with the Palestinian communities against the Israeli occupation and oppression.”
Despite difficulties and complexities in Jerusalem, Grassroots is moving steadfast toward achieving their set goals.
A non-profit with such an understanding of the complexity of the situation is rare. It is a great asset for Palestinians in Jerusalem, a city that demands more attention. And the main source of success for Grassroots will remain the Palestinian communities themselves.
Maath Musleh is a Palestinian blogger based in Jerusalem.