On the rare occasions that the Israeli authorities afford me a permit to visit Jerusalem, my mother always insists that I bring her a stack of “ka’ak al-Quds” (ka’ak of Jerusalem).
Ka’ak is an ovular bread coated in a generous layer of sesame seeds. It is widely available across Palestine and also in Ramallah, where we live. But for most Palestinians, Jerusalem’s ka’ak is a unique delicacy. Like my mother, I also ask friends who get a chance to visit Jerusalem to bring me batches of ka’ak al-Quds – not only because it tastes particularly good, but because it carries with it a part of Jerusalem’s cultural history.
On February 19, Israeli police raided and shut down a 60-year-old Palestinian bakery and arrested its young owner, Nasser Abu Sneina. Anyone who roamed the quarters of the Old City have likely passed by this old bakery and enjoyed the warm aroma of baking bread emanating from it. It is near the Bab Hutta neighbourhood, which was a central location during the 2017 Palestinian protests against Israeli surveillance measures.
The Israeli authorities claimed that the bakery was shut down because it failed to adhere to the required health standards. Many Palestinians, however, say the bakery was targeted simply because it distributed bread to worshippers heading to al-Aqsa Mosque.
Jerusalem’s ka’ak and the bakeries that sell it are – in part – symbols of the city’s Palestinian identity. A Palestinian bakery distributing ka’ak to worshippers on the way to the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a threat to the Israeli authorities because it is an overt demonstration of Palestinian solidarity. It shows that Palestinians are not only still at the heart of the city but are also willing to empower each other in the face of Israeli oppression.
They remind the world, and the Israelis, that Jerusalem is a Palestinian city.
This is the real reason why Abu Sneina’s bakery, and many other establishments like it, have been forced into closure by the Israeli authorities.
More than 50 shops were forced to close down in Jerusalem in recent years as a result of financial pressures and the constant restrictions on movement that make running a business challenging.
The closure of this bakery was only the latest chapter in the larger, systematic assault on Palestinian presence in Jerusalem generally and in the Old City specifically. Israel is trying to force all Palestinians out using several methods, from making their day-to-day lives unbearable with the ubiquitous presence of armed soldiers to allowing the settlers overtake the city, quarter by quarter.
Palestinians in Jerusalem are living with the constant threat of humiliating body searches, home evictions, withdrawal of residency, or assault from either Israeli settlers or Israeli forces – be it police or army.
Especially in the Old City, on top of the occupation’s overt aggressions such as arbitrary arrests, superfluous prosecutions, movement restrictions and unjust closures of businesses, Palestinians are being forced to navigate a bureaucracy designed solely to give legal backing to the attempts to kick them out.
The Israeli authorities require Palestinian establishments to acquire a wide range of permits and papers to remain in business. For many Palestinian business owners, however, it is both too expensive and difficult to obtain these documents.
The unreasonable pressures put on Palestinians residing in Jerusalem sometimes reach such levels that they are forced to do things that people elsewhere in the world would find hard to believe.
Just last month, for example, a Palestinian man living in Jerusalem demolished his own home following an order by the Israeli municipality. He took the matter into his own hands because he wanted to avoid the exorbitant costs that he would face if he allowed the municipality itself to carry out the demolition.
Israel is going to great lengths to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem because of the significance the city holds for the Palestinian struggle – it not only has religious value, but it is the historical, cultural and political epicentre of Palestinian life.
US President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and move his country’s embassy there provided some significant political backing to Israeli claims that the city belongs to them.
Nevertheless, Israel knows that it can not declare Jerusalem a solely “Israeli city” while Palestinians continue to live there and keep the city’s Palestinian identity alive. From the spice and sweet shops scattered around the Old City, to the old cassette shop that has been open since 1973, to the sound of Palestinian children chuckling in the alleyways, Jerusalem is still very much a Palestinian city.
This is why the Israeli authorities are targeting bakeries like the one owned by Abu Sneina.
We Palestinians, are not being pushed out of our ancestral lands and cities through demolitions, settlements, arbitrary revoking of residence permits or bullets only. We are also being pushed out by a systematic effort to make it impossible for us to exercise our own ways of living in our own country. Israel is trying to erase Palestinian culture and identity from the streets, bazaars, bakeries and restaurants.
This has been going on for a very long time. Ein Kerem, for example, was once a Palestinian village in Jerusalem. Today, it is – mostly – home to upper-class Israelis. Walking through it feels like walking through an Israeli settlement, not a Palestinian village.
Of course, Israel knows it cannot erase all of Jerusalem’s history and tradition. So sometimes it tries to appropriate aspects of Palestinian culture as its own.
This is why falafel are now being sold as Israel’s national snack, even though the dish is older than the state. And this is why across the world restaurants have “Israeli shakshuka” and “Israeli tabbouleh” on their menus.
For outside observers, the labelling of an old Palestinian dish as “Israeli” or the closing down of a bakery for “health and safety” reasons may seem like trivial issues.
However, for us Palestinians, these actions are not separate from home demolitions, displacements, illegal detentions, and curfews. They just represent a different part of the occupation – these are attempts to erase our culture, our way of life, from our cities and streets alongside our physical bodies.