On 3 May 2023, I visited the African Palestinian community in the old city . I was stopped by an Israeli soldier at an illegal Israeli checkpoint at the entrance of ‘Ala Edin street, which is where much of the Afro-Palestinian community resides. This was not the first time I had been stopped at this checkpoint, which is distinct because it is followed almost immediately by another, just 200 metres away leading to one of the gates of Al Aqsa - Bab Al Nazir or the Bab Al Majlis gate . These two checkpoints have effectively created a barrier around the African quarter, where officers frequently interrogate and humiliate anyone passing by, questioning their religion and their right to be in Jerusalem. These officers also issue orders that prohibit people from entering the Al Aqsa mosque and the African quarter itself.
The African community in Jerusalem traces its origin to the Muslim annual pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Al Hajj. The pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) is one of the five pillars of Islam and it is recommended to continue to Jerusalem following the Hajj for a final prayer, in a practice known as “taqdees al Hajj”, which translates to the “sanctification of the pilgrimage.” Performing the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is known as “Hajj Maqdesi”, wherein the word Maqdesi is derived from the word “Quds”, which means “Holy” and is the Arabic name for Jerusalem. In Islam, a prayer in Jerusalem is worth a thousand prayers, in part because Jerusalem is the religion’s third holiest city after Mecca and Medina. The city was the first direction of prayer (qibla) and the place to which the prophet Muhammad travelled from Mecca to make the celestial ascent. Since the 12th century, many African Muslims who participated in Al Hajj, would subsequently visit the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Over the years, some African pilgrims permanently settled in Palestine, marrying local Palestinian women and having interracial Afro-Palestinian families.
“In our community, we refer to each other as cousins, even though we are not all blood related. The Afro-Palestinian Community Society (ACS) has played a vital role in strengthening our presence here as Palestinians in the Old City,” says Mousa Qous . The ACS organises cultural and art events which empower and rehabilitate the youth and work in close solidarity with women. “I recall a visit from an African American lady who emphasised the importance of solidarity because African youth in the United States are also in prisons, just like Afro-Palestinians in Israeli prisons,” Mousa continues. According to Mousa, the ACS refuses to accept financial aid from foreign agencies that require the organisation to contradict its values which are rooted in Palestinians’ right to freedom and liberation.
Habs al Ribat and Children, 2012
During my conversation with Mousa, the Israeli police raided one of the houses in the community to arrest a twenty-year-old named Issa. When they did not find the Issa they were looking for, they instead arrested his seventeen-year-old brother Nasri, who had already been arrested at the age of fourteen. Due to its situation near one of the entrances to Al Aqsa mosque, the Afro-Palestinian quarter is always in confrontation with the occupation and settler violence. “Our neighbourhood is the wall of resistance, and our houses are targets for house raids and arrests of young people and children. This confrontation will continue as long as there is an occupation,” says Mousa. When settlers are escorted by armed Israeli police to break into the Al Aqsa compound in a bid to provoke residents and worshippers––especially during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan––the community tends to experience outbreaks of violence, arrests, detention, and sometimes even killings.
Mousa’s father came from Chad. At that time, he had French travel documents because Chad was colonised by the French. Mousa had contacted the French embassy in Jerusalem to ask for a passport, but his application was refused. Unfortunately, Afro-Palestinian Jerusalemites do not hold a temporary Jordanian passport like other members of the Palestinian community in Jerusalem because Jordan refuses to issue passports for them. This leaves Afro-Palestinian Jerusalemites with nothing but an Israeli travel document, which only allows them to visit countries that have ties with the Israeli occupation.
Ali Jiddah and Mohmmed Hassan Bulalla, 2012
Ribat al Mansoori and Ribat al Bussari are the two contemporary enclaves that are home to the Afro-Palestinian community. Prior to the British colonisation of Palestine, both enclaves were originally built to house pilgrims in the city before Ottoman forces evicted the Afro-Palestinian community and eventually converted the compounds into two prisons. The two penitentiaries were respectively known as the blood prison and the hanging prison and were sites where local activists were detained and executed for participating in the revolt.
According to Mousa, the British forces closed the prisons in Ribat al Mansoori and Ribat al Bussari after they occupied Jerusalem in 1917. The Islamic Waqf, an endowment fund, later leased the buildings back to the Afro-Palestinian community, via the mediation of the Mufti scholar Amin al Husseini. In an attempt to assassinate al Husseini, the British colonial officials killed Othman Altakruri, a member of the Afro community. These events highlight the role of the Afro-Palestinians in the broader Palestinian freedom movement and ongoing struggle. Africans also joined the Arab Salvation Army and fought alongside Palestinians against the Zionist militias and the British army, emphasising their key roles in the Jerusalem battles of the 1948 Nakba. Notably, Muhammad Tariq al-Afriqi, a Nigerian born commander, led the battalion that prevented the fall of Jabal al-Mukabber in Jerusalem. Ali Jidda, a former Palestinian resistance fighter of Chadian descent, was also involved with the popular front for the liberation of Palestine and spent 17 years in Israeli prisons before he was released in a 1985 prisoner exchange. Fatima Benawi, born to a Nigerian father and a Palestinian mother, became the first female Palestinian prisoner in Israeli prisons and served 10 years of her 30-year sentence thanks to another prisoner exchange. The ACS also features a picture of Osama Jidda, the first martyr of the second intifada, who was shot and killed by Israeli forces while on his way to donate blood at al-Maqased hospital on the Mount of Olives.
Steps to the Noble Sanctuary, 2012
Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, including Afro-Palestinians, have been forcibly displaced. Mousa also recalled that in Jerusalem, the community consisted of around 3,000 individuals before 1948; however, there are now only 350 to 400 people remaining. He noted that “many within [the Afro-Palestinian] community refused to live under Israeli occupation and chose to leave, walking to Jordan and parts of the West Bank and Gaza, as they could not see a life under Israeli occupation.” However, Mousa emphasises that the Afro-Palestinian community’s relationship to Palestine is just like any other Palestinian’s, which is to say that while their mothers are Palestinian, they would still hold on to certain cultural practices from their African heritage. For example, the traditional dish of Aside, made with semolina and served with mloukhiya , a green leafy meal made of mallow or okra, is still prepared for special celebrations and holidays, with only two individuals remaining who know how to cook it.
Mohammad al Ferawi is an Afro-Palestinian from the old city of Jerusalem. When he was a 12th grader during school exams he was accused of throwing stones at Israeli police and as a result he spent eight years in Israeli prisons. In June 2022 at age of 25, Ferawi was released. However, his community’s joy did not last long when, two days later, Israeli intelligence forces re-arrested and expelled Ferawi from Jerusalem for a week because he celebrated his release from prison, which defied Israeli orders to refrain from celebrating. In an interview, Ferawi stated that the occupation was provoked by the celebration, which took place in the old city of Jerusalem and centred around women of the Afro-Palestinian community dressed in the traditional Palestinian thobe, showing the solidarity and cohesion of the community, and representing a broader Palestinian identity. Ferawi dreamt that he would study sports journalism before his imprisonment, but the occupation targets children from the age of 12 and stymies their opportunities to study. Ferawi’s experience is not unique. Though it is a war crime to imprison children, the Israeli occupation does not distinguish between a child and an adult and frequently imprisons children.
Ferawi's trial experience is also indicative of the broader challenges facing the Afro-Palestinian community and the wider Palestinian struggle. In 2016, Ferawi was tried in a courtroom scene that could have been from a play. “The prosecutors called us ‘gangsterim,’ a loose play on the English word, gangster.” Ferawi was later imprisoned for eight years without evidence. Equating the conditions in his neighbourhood to a disturbing reality TV show, Ferawi shares that despite there being six surveillance cameras in the neighbourhood, no footage was brought to trial.
Zakia and Tamam Kanambo, 2012
Following the verdict, Ferawi was first transferred to Hasharon prison for young people, then on to the Gilboa and Shatta prisons. According to him, the whole process was shocking, but it was particularly difficult at the beginning, especially for someone who was expecting that his life is going to go smoothly. But Ferawi gradually got over it, explaining with resignation that, “prison is just a phase of a Palestinian’s life". After the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Shalit in 2006, the occupation prevented the prisoners from completing their studies, but Ferawi was able to study social studies, not because he wanted to, but because it was the one subject for study on the table.
Ferawi sums up his sentiment with the observation that prison in Palestine is a revolutionary tool at distinct odds with the occupation’s intention to wield it as a punishment. Indeed, during Ferawi’s imprisonment, occupation interrogators used to tell him “what do you have in this Palestinian struggle you’re a ‘Kushi’” (the Hebrew term for nigger). Instead, prison has instead been surprisingly central and essential to the Afro-Palestinian people. Much like the African decolonial struggle, in which a class of ‘prison graduates’ emerged in some countries and later formed the first post-independence generation of leaders, for some Palestinians prison embeds a shared sense of both grievance and hope for the future.
After Ferawi survived prison as a child, he contended upon his release with racist laws in the region. Following the implementation of a law in February 2023 by the Israeli Minister of National Security, Ferawi was fined 108’000 Israeli New Shekels (around $30,000 USD) because the occupation claimed that he received support during his imprisonment. Like many Palestinians who have been discriminated against and wrongly incarcerated by the Israeli state, Ferawi poignantly notes that while his body was imprisoned, they failed to imprison his mind and soul, or to lock his dreams away. Despite the ongoing harassment, Ferawi aspires to pursue higher education and attain a postgraduate degree. Similarly, even though Ferawi’s mother is a Christian Palestinian from Lydia and his Muslim father is darker skinned Sudanese, he never considered his parents’ background to be an obstacle. The Israeli state’s persecution, on the other hand, certainly was. Ferawi added that “[The] Israeli occupation attempts to prohibit any expression of happiness in the community,” because happiness generates resilience and longing into the space.
Guardians of the Mosque, 2012
While Ferawi’s past reflects the Afro-Palestinian experience, it is also shared with other Palestinians living in different parts of Palestine who face fragmentation under apartheid and occupation. For example, Jericho, a city 28 kilometres east of Jerusalem previously known for its agriculture, tourism and for being the oldest and lowest town in the world, lost its significance due to closures and annexation. As a result, many of its residents, particularly young people, have sought employment in Israeli settlements or illegal factories where they receive minimal wages and no labour rights.
For Hassan, an Afro-Palestinian from Jericho with a culinary arts certificate, these struggles have been compounded by the hypocrisies of Israel’s claims to be a refuge for African migrants. Like many Palestinians in Jericho, Hassan could not find a decent job in his hometown, so he resorted to working in Tel Aviv without a permit for meagre pay and zero protections. Working permits are rarely issued, and the Israeli authorities often decline applications under the guise of "security reasons”, as a form of collective punishment for Palestinians. Hassan later moved to Tel Aviv to work at a restaurant in 2017 but returned to Jericho after an Israeli sniper murdered his younger brother Mohammad by shooting him in the chest at an Israeli checkpoint south of Jericho in May 2021.
In an interview with Hassan, he said that leaving Jericho and the community was tough because in Tel Aviv he had to hide his Afro-Palestinian identity. At that time, it was double the effort because of Israel’s war on African refugees. Hassan’s experience challenges Israel’s humanitarian narrative which frames the country as an anti-racist saviour of African migrants. Hassan remembers “all the rallies on the streets against the African asylum seekers. It looked like a nightmare for me because I’m both Palestinian and black.” Israel practises horrific discrimination on African refugees. This includes deportations in part fuelled by racist rage within Israeli society, with some lawmakers even insisting that African refugees were subhuman insects that must be expelled or exterminated. Not long after these racist statements were made, Babkiri Adham Undvo, a Sudanese asylum seeker, was beaten to death by two young Israelis in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tiqwa. The killers crushed his face so badly that his brother was unable to recognise him.
Mohammed Jidah and his son Ali Jidah, 2012
Nor is this experience unique to Israel’s Black Muslim population. Ethiopian Jews are arguably the most poorly treated members of Israeli society. Two decades ago, it first emerged that, following a government directive, Israeli medical services were secretly destroying all blood donated by Israelis of Ethiopian origin. In a move that echoes the broader experimentation on Black bodies by European colonial powers and by the US state upon the African American community, Ethiopian Jewish women have been required to receive injections of Depo Provera, a birth-control drug, as a condition for migrating into Israel.
The Afro-Palestinian story is deeply intertwined with and integral to the broader Palestinian struggle. However, as Kwame Ture, who was also known as Stokely Carmichael , aptly argued, measuring someone's political stance towards anti-Zionism is crucial in assessing their support for African interests. As emphasised by the broader Black liberation struggle that Ture and many others were part of: any form of oppression or exploitation of a human population poses a threat to humanity as a whole. The Afro-Palestinian experience affirms this; its dehumanising attempts to subjugate people inevitably bring only war, destruction, plunder, and a devastation that threatens all human beings.