Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital crosses ‘a red line’

When Abraham Phelan opened his restaurant in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines he called it Little Jerusalem, writes Victoria White

Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital crosses ‘a red line’

I began to wonder if he was claiming back a bit of the homeland which has been taken from him and his fellow Palestinians when he named it. I wanted to hear his story.

Abraham was born in 1953 in a small village in the hills with a view towards Jerusalem. Though he and his family were kicked off their land half a century ago during the Six-Day War, his memories of home are overwhelming.

“We were farmers. Mostly we grew plums and we had horses, donkeys, mules. It was absolutely stunning, one of the most beautiful places in the world. There were 400 people in the village but we used to count the sheep and goats, making about 2,000. There was one bus which served the old city and it came down the valley in the morning, beep, beep, like a little train.”

On rare occasions, such as the annual purchase of a pair of shoes, he would mount that bus with his family and go to “the old city.” “Ah, the smells… Falafel, sweets… A magic day.. Then the Al-Aqsa Mosque… The people who lived in the city spoke a few languages and didn’t actually label you Muslim or Christian or Jew. Jewish Palestinians were as loyal to the land as us.”

The love with which he speaks of that land is moving and also tragic when you consider he may never go back except — if he gets his wish — to be buried.

“Our valley was called in Arabic, ‘The Beautiful Eye’, and ‘eye’ for us is the same word as ‘spring’. There was a huge carob tree and you could sit under the tree and eat the carob and drink water from the spring with the goats around you. This is the land walked by Jesus and Moses and you could feel the dignity of the land… the respect of the people for the land. We respected the land so much we treated it as something holy.”

His family had worked the land for countless generations. He remembers his father and grandfather talking about clearing the large rocks from the higher ground and putting in terraces to grow six varieties of plum. At harvest time the village families formed meitheals to harvest each other’s fruit, then graded the fruit and packed it in wooden boxes for export.

Sitting drinking coffee on a rainy morning in his second restaurant, the Silk Road Café in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle, Abraham described this “beautiful life” as if it were yesterday when in truth he hasn’t see his home village since 1967.

“I remember my house like a house you see in a Disney film with all kinds of fruit trees around it, orange, lemon, plum… The smell in the spring was unreal… The colours in the autumn… The sound of the chickens in the morning, the dogs barking, the smell of the horses…”

Some of the family’s land was lost at the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. Then, in 1967, the Israeli state came to claim the land and the family was scattered.

“I remember it like it happened today. We were playing outside and then we felt something was going to happen. We could see a movement on the hills. Then we could hear aeroplanes. Then, within a split second, they were attacking our village.

"At first we ran to our grandfather’s house because he had big stables. Then we ended up running down the Yellow Valley to the caves which are mentioned in the Bible and we hid.” His father stayed behind to try to defend the village while his mother and five children walked towards Jericho and sheltered in a mosque, then an abandoned house.

As they travelled, tragedy struck: “My brother who was walking with us, he was 17 so he looked like an adult. The Israeli tank passed. They pointed a gun at him… I remember it like now… and they fired 20 or 30 bullets at him. In front of us.”

The family moved the wounded boy to a deserted house where, after a night of agony, he died.

Abraham says the road was covered in bodies which were inflating with their own gases in the heat and adds, “It stays with you forever when you see things like that.” He recalls nearly drowning in the Jordan River on his way to the relative safety of a refugee camp. From Jordan, the family could only visit their own land on temporary visas, “like tourists”.

Palestinians found it hard to prove land was theirs because they weren’t given back the deeds. The Israeli state gave settlers the right to stay put if they’d been on land for two years and requisitioned any land not occupied by Palestinian owners for three years.

Members of the family still attempt to maintain Abraham’s family farm, now planted with less labour-intensive olive trees, but he says 90% of what they had is gone.

Abraham moved to Crete where he opened a restaurant and met his Irish wife, whose surname he takes. She persuaded him to visit Ireland for a week and 30 years later, he’s still here. He’s the father of six children and runs the Silk Road Cookery School as well as the Silk Road Café and Little Jerusalem. Conjuring up the smells of the exotic, multicultural Jerusalem of his childhood is clearly therapy for him.

He says at times he just goes numb. He shuts off the internet to stop the news coming.

“God help the people living there all the time, I can’t even watch the news for five minutes. I say to my kids, ‘Aren’t we blessed in this country?’”

But he can never forget his homeland, lacerated for “oil, money, power” by the world’s powers who, he says, “use religion to get what they want”. The UN is spineless, the EU watches as if it’s happening on a movie screen.

“It’s like as if someone is being raped on the street and you do nothing. We were raped of our land and our dignity and called terrorists. We were farmers.”

Abraham accepts the two-state solution for Palestine and bears absolutely no animosity towards Jews who he describes as “our cousins” but adds, “We will never accept that Jerusalem is theirs.” He says that Trump’s declaration of whole city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, “a red line has been crossed. It’s going to cause a history of turmoil.”

He applauds Ireland’s interventions on behalf of Palestine. But this Irishwoman fears we’re going to play a silent part in the international conspiracy to defeat the Palestinians and that’s why I’ve told Abraham’s story.

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