A story unknown: Israel’s ‘Afro-Palestinians’


Having come to the area as pilgrims & servants from Africa during the British Mandate, now the descendants of those Muslims who migrated to Jerusalem claim to be ‘more Palestinian than the Palestinians.’

By The Associated Press


In the shadow of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City lies the “African Quarter” -home to a little-known community of nearly 50 Arab families of African descent.

Descended from Muslim pilgrims from a variety of African countries, they now consider themselves Palestinians, despite widespread poverty and occasional discrimination. Several have even participated in terror attacks against Israel.

Afro-Palestinians claim Palestinian ancestry after 3 generations in the Middle East - Photo- AP

Afro-Palestinians claim Palestinian ancestry after 3 generations in the Middle East – Photo: AP

“We regard ourselves to be Afro-Palestinian,” said community leader Ali Jiddah.

He is now a well-known tour guide in the Old City, offering what he calls an “alternative” perspective on the conflict with Israel.

Afro-Palestinians reside in various cities, with large communities in Jerusalem, Gaza and Jericho.

Some are the descendants of slaves or soldiers brought in during Ottoman times. The forefathers of Jerusalem’s African Quarter are mostly Muslim pilgrims from Chad, Sudan, Nigeria and Senegal who settled there or got stuck during periods of war.

“My father came from Chad, from the Salamat tribe,” said Mousa Qous, 55, director of the African Community Society, a grassroots center that serves black Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Standing under posters of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela, he said his father came to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage in 1959 and “then decided to stay to fight (against Israel) in the 1967 war.”

Others came with The Arab Salvation Army, an army of volunteers that fought on the Arab side against Israel in 1948.

“We are originally Nubians from Aswan,” in southern Egypt, said 30 year-old Hanan Bersi.

Some still have their ancestors’ identification documents, like Ibrahim Firawi, whose grandfather came from Sudan.

“We have documents and letters, and even tried to contact the Sudanese Embassy in Jordan to help connect us with family in Sudan,” he said.

Showing off his father’s old passport, he said he has not been able to track down any of his relatives.

Israel before 1948 was a crossroads for different cultures, and many Palestinians trace back their roots to a range of non-Arab groups, from Kurds to Indians and Afghans. Afro-Palestinians were denied Jordanian citizenship after the Six Day War as they were not seen as Palestinians.

Israel has treated members of the group like other Palestinians with varying degrees of rights depending on whether they live in east Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza.

But even after decades in the region, fitting in has not always been easy. As newcomers, many faced discrimination because of their skin color.

“Our parents were foreigners. They were more sensitive as foreigners, and people would tell them that they were foreigners, that their color was such and such,” said Hawa Balalawi, a shop owner whose father was from Chad.

Most of Jerusalem’s Afro-Palestinian residents live in old buildings that were originally built in the 10th century for the city’s poor. Made later into prisons by the Ottomans, the buildings were handed over to the Old City’s Islamic trusteeship during the British Mandate, which rented them to members of the African community because many served as guards or servants at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Despite these decades long roots in the area, some Palestinians still refer to them with a local derogatory term, “abeed,” Arabic for “slaves,” and to their neighborhood as “habs al-abeed” or the “slaves’ prison.”

“We fought the usage of this term and mentality for many years,” Quos said. “Less people use it now.” But he said racism can still surface, in marriage proposals, for example.

“Sometimes when a black Palestinian wants to marry a white Palestinian woman, some members of her family might object,” he said. “It’s not a phenomenon, and recently, there have been more inter-marriages.”

Jiddah, the tour guide, blamed ignorance for any type of racism among Palestinians, and points out that he has experienced similar racism from Israelis.

“We Afro-Palestinians are dually oppressed, as Palestinians and because of our color the Israelis call us “kushis” — a derogatory word for blacks.


Afro-Palestinians in terror attacks against Israelis 

Jiddah is a former terrorist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who spent 17 years in Israeli prison for taking part in a 1968 bombing that wounded nine Israelis

Afro-Palestinians at a wedding in Ramallah - Photo- AP

Afro-Palestinians at a wedding in Ramallah – Photo- AP

He says that the involvement of Afro-Palestinians in the struggle against has elevated their status in the eyes of their fellow countrymen.

“The respect we get from Palestinians is because of our role in the national struggle,” said Jiddah, who sits daily at a cafe near the Old City’s Damascus Gate sipping Turkish coffee, chain smoking and waving hello to constant passers-by.

“More Catholic than the Pope? We are more Palestinian than Palestinians,” he said.

The first female Palestinian arrested on terror charges was Fatima Bernawi in 1968, of Nigerian ancestry. She was imprisoned for a failed bombing attempt on a cinema in 1967.

After an interim peace accord in 1993, Bernawi returned to serve as a senior Palestinian police official, and now lives in Jordan.

Speaking to Filasteen TV in 2015 after being awarded for failed bombing attempt by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Bernawi said “This is not a failure because it generated fear throughout the world. Every woman who carries a bag needs to be checked before she enters the supermarket, any place, cinemas and pharmacies.”

Qous, the director of the Jerusalem center, spent five years in prison for terrorist activities during the first Palestinian intifada in the early 1990s. Like Jiddah, he is a former member of the PFLP who claims to have put his militant days behind him.

A third generation of Afro-Palestinians is now growing up within the walls of the African Quarter, more integrated and confident about their place.

Ahmad Jibril, 17, who fashions a haircut reminiscent of a young Bobby Brown and recently was put under house arrest for taking part in protests, says he has no ambiguity about his national identity.

“I am Palestinian, it shouldn’t matter if I’m white or black,” he said.


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