Remembering the Destruction of Jerusalem's Moroccan Quarter

Published June 17th, 2020 - 10:22 GMT
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The Moroccan Quarter (Library of Congress)
The Israeli government is currently planning to annex large swathes of the West Bank, formally incorporating it into Israeli sovereignty. The move, which has been decried by Israel’s Arab neighbors and the international community, has the tentative blessing of the U.S. 

As of yet, it is unknown how many Palestinians will fall into new Israeli territory, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced they would not be given Israeli citizenship. 

Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine has formed a continuous timeline of tragedy punctuated by episodes of particularly dramatic displacement: the Nakba, the Six Day War, and now annexation of parts of the West Bank. 

A common thread linking these tragedies has been the expropriation of Palestinian land and the forced exodus of its people. Often, this process has been accelerated by Israeli authorities taking advantages of short windows of opportunity to seize land in moments of discord. 

In fact, Netanyahu’s annexation plan closely mirrors the destruction of the ancient Moroccan Quarter in Old City, Jerusalem during the 1967 War, also known as the Six Day War. 

 

What was once a dense, diverse neighborhood built by the Western Wall is now an expansive public square; room for tourists and religious individuals to congregate near the holy site. The Quarter was torn down to make room for religious pilgrimages, and to allow them to walk to the Western Wall without needing to go through a predominantly Arab neighborhood. 

The razing of the Moroccan Quarter is little-known today, but the process that led to its obliteration and the quiet legacy it leaves behind is a microcosm of what annexation will bring.

The razing of the Moroccan Quarter is little-known today, but the process that led to its obliteration and the quiet legacy it leaves behind is a microcosm of what annexation will bring. Not only will people be deprived of their homes and livelihoods, but the cultural memory of Palestine as a place will continue to be paved over. 

 

Razing Ancient History


A picture of the old Moroccan Quarter beside the Western Wall (Library of Congress)

 

The evening of June 10, 1967 was a quiet one compared to the six days prior for the Arab families of Jerusalem’s Moroccan Quarter.

After a war broke out between Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Syria on June 5, fighting began near the Old City between Israeli paratroopers and Jordanian forces.

By June 7 Israeli forces under the command of Moshe Dayan had entered the Old City, walked through the narrow alleyways of the Moroccan Quarter to arrive at the Western Wall, and gazed upon it for the first time in their lives.

The Quarter itself was built in the 12th century by the Ayyubid dynasty and later maintained by the Mamluks. At the time of the war, it contained 135 homes, three mosques, and about 650 people; half of whom could trace their lineage back to the Maghreb region of North Africa. Its building hugged the Western Wall with only a thin passage in between. 

The whole of the Moroccan Quarter was going to be demolished under the orders of Teddy Kollek

“Pilgrimage or oppression in former lands brought many to Jerusalem,” historian Thomas Abowd writes on the Quarter. 

“Over the course of several centuries, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Arabs from Palestine and elsewhere also took up residence in this quarter.”


Israeli paratroopers stand by the Western Wall after its capture (Photograph by David Rubinger, Government Press Office)

Its history mattered little to Israeli paratroopers and political leaders; its primary significance was that it stood in the way of the Jewish Quarter and the Wall. It had to go. 

By the night of June 10, it was clear the war had ended with a decisive Israeli victory: not only had they captured the Old City and the rest of the West Bank, they had seized the entirety of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and captured much of the Golan Heights from Syria.

Before the dust had settled, residents of the Moroccan Quarter heard an announcement: they had two hours to leave their homes or risk being bulldozed.

Before the dust had settled, residents of the Moroccan Quarter heard an announcement: they had two hours to leave their homes or risk being bulldozed. The whole of the Moroccan Quarter was going to be demolished under the orders of Teddy Kollek, the Mayor of Jerusalem at the time. He would later be celebrated as “the greatest builder of Jerusalem since Herod.” 

Mohammed Mawalid, who lived in the Quarter at the time, remembers that his family had no time to pack any belongings before fleeting. “My wife, Halima, carried maqluba she had cooked with us,” he said. 

“It was the only thing we were able to take.”

A team of contractors armed with bulldozers showed up and began plowing through the 700 year-old buildings. Rasmiya Abu Aghayl, an Arab woman in her 50s, was the only one who did not vacate her home in time. She was crushed under the weight of her house falling on her, and died on the scene.

After the buildings had been toppled and the Jewish Quarter could be seen from the Wall, Israeli soldiers celebrated. Residents scattered with what little they could carry out to different neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Many eventually left the country or ended up in refugee camps.

“It was an outburst of messianic proportions,” Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli official said of the destruction. 

“There was no way that the Jewish people could have expressed their feelings towards the Western Wall” as long as the Moroccan Quarter stood.

 

“My wife, Halima, carried maqluba she had cooked with us."

 

Shortly after the buildings were destroyed, more bulldozers came to clear the area, which was quickly paved over to allow thousands of religious tourists to gather at the Wall.

The space, now emptied, was officially re-named the Western Wall Plaza.


Israeli forces relax against the Western Wall (Israeli Defense Ministry)

 

Razing the Moroccan Quarter was an opportunistic move, one that took advantage of the fact that a power vacuum left in the wake of Jordan’s retreat from the Old City gave Israeli leaders the ability to act without legal constraints.

If they had waited a few more weeks after the war, Palestinians residing in the Quarter would have been able to appeal their cases before courts or provincial authorities, slowing down the process considerably. 

The worst-case scenario would have been decades of legal battles with individual home-owners, causing newfound international outrage with each home’s demolition.

“In retrospect, it was a smart act,” argued Amir Cheshin, who was one of Teddy Kollek’s advisers in the 1980s. 

“Otherwise, the Kotel [Western Wall] would have remained a miserable alley. If they didn’t do it [then], they wouldn’t have been able to do it later.”


The Western Wall Plaza, where the Moroccan Quarter once stood (AFP/FILE)


Muhammed Abdel-Haq, another former resident of the Quarter, remembers gathering possessions from under the debris. 

“My wife and child would return to the site of our home and wait for the Israeli bulldozers to clear the rubble somewhat so that we might retrieve clothes and other belongings which we did not have time to take with us,” he said.

They were never able to recover anything.

Israeli authorities justified razing the Moroccan Quarter as a purely logistical concern. It was merely a collection of “small slum houses,” Kollek proclaimed. Israel’s Ambassador to the UN at the time, Yosef Tekoah, argued the area was an eye-sore, which “no modern civilized government or municipal administration would have tolerated.” 


Modern Parallels 


Israeli soldiers point their weapons at a Palestinian family (AFP/FILE)

 

Thomas Abowd wrote that the Moroccan Quarter’s destruction followed an ongoing pattern: “Appropriating the built form in Palestinian owned areas of the city has most often meant seizing Arab structures, homes, and neighborhoods, emptying them of their Arab inhabitants, and substituting new histories, new communities, and new meanings in place of old.”

The latest annexation plans by Israel follows this closely, and takes advantage precisely of those short political vacuums which accelerate Palestinian dispossession. The plan comes after the unexpected election of Donald Trump, who has proven an unconditional ally to Israel’s expansionist aims. 

The plan comes after the unexpected election of Donald Trump, who has proven an unconditional ally to Israel’s expansionist aims. 

Moreover, as Netanyahu’s legitimacy comes increasingly into question, annexation represents a critical means by which he can secure electoral support no matter the outcomes of corruption investigations. But Netanyahu knows that if Trump loses the election to Joe Biden in November, the U.S. will likely backtrack its support of annexation. 

There is thus only a few short months where he can cement the steps to incorporate parts of the West Bank into Israel.

 

“They celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem as they view it. But we remember the disasters.”

 

In 1967, eliminating the Moroccan Quarter tangibly gave Israel a few more meters of wall space to pray near as well as more breathing room for congregants in the new plaza. According to one estimate, “the section of the Wall dedicated to prayers was extended southwards to double its original length from 28 to 60 meters, while the original facing open area of some four meters grew to 40 meters.” 

The expanding zone of Israeli control can be measured in square meters over the livelihoods it claims, with each move a logistical calculation of how many Palestinians must be cleared, neutralized or pacified before Israel is able to realize its authority.

Approximately 50,000 Palestinians currently live in the West Bank side of the Jordan Valley, which is reportedly the focus of the looming annexation. 

“They celebrate and we cry,“ Mohammed Mawalid explains of the Moroccan Quarter’s demise.

“They celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem as they view it. But we remember the disasters.”


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