Protests in an East Jerusalem neighborhood are reviving the Israeli left
Setting up a stall amid the weekly throng of Israeli demonstrators, a line of enterprising young Palestinians sell hot coffee and fresh-pressed juice to the thirsty crowds in the long afternoon heat. They add to what has become a vibrant weekly event with a samba band and clowns captivating young children—and sometimes older demonstrators, too. This is a standard Friday afternoon in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem and the focus of an emergent protest movement that brings hundreds of demonstrators into the streets, endorsements from Israeli liberal luminaries, and endless column inches. Sheikh Jarrah is a flashpoint, a political emblem, and the campaign there is credited with dragging the marginalized Israeli left wing out of an almost decade-long deep freeze.
“I think this is something worth protesting for,” says 26-year-old Uri, who travelled to a recent demonstration at Sheikh Jarrah from kibbutz Nir Eliyahu, near Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. “There is this particular situation in Sheikh Jarrah, where people are being evicted from their homes. But it is a symbol, too, of the struggle against the occupation and the criminal racism here in Jerusalem.”
Uri and other demonstrators—many of whom requested their last names not be used—are in Sheikh Jarrah to protest the eviction of Palestinian families. The neighborhood—home to some 2,700 Palestinians, many from the families of 1948 refugees housed here in 1956 by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency and the Jordanian government—sits just north of the Old City. It was annexed by Israel in 1967, a move the international community does not recognize. Despite decades of neglect, though, Sheikh Jarrah has not lost its elegant charm, with such historic landmarks as Orient House and the American Colony Hotel.
In August 2009, 53 Palestinians, including 20 children, were forced out of their homes by Israeli authorities, who handed over the seized property to Jewish settlers devoted to Shimon HaTzadik, whose tomb is nearby. The settlers had obtained a court order declaring the land belonged to Jews prior to 1948.
Many similar property cases are pending. In November 2008, the Jerusalem District Court decided that a Palestinian family named al-Kurdi lived on property that historically belonged to the Sephardic Community Committee, and the court evicted the family. The al-Kurdis now live in a tent opposite their former home, which they had inhabited for 52 years. Another 28 Palestinian families—400 people in total—are at risk of forced eviction as more cases work through the Israeli legal system.
Together, these cases look like a concerted campaign to create a Jewish settlement in this Palestinian neighborhood, which settler organizations have stated as their aim, announcing plans to build a 200-unit apartment block in the area. Palestinian residents face tensions in their own homes as new Jewish neighbors—and their supporters—routinely provoke and harass them. Incidents logged by protestors range from taunting and insulting Palestinians to physical attack. In December of last year, campaigners say, a Jewish settler at Sheikh Jarrah was caught on film slamming a rock into a Palestinian’s head. In another incident a month earlier, a group of Jewish settlers bearing a water hose stormed a Palestinian home and flooded it.
Demonstrations against this campaign of intimidation began quietly. “After the evictions, around August, we noticed that some of the settlers and people going to pray at the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik were harassing Palestinians—every day, but in particular on Fridays,” says Maya Wind, one of the first Israelis to get involved with demonstrations in the area. “We thought it would be helpful to just turn up at those hours, to offer some protection.” At first, a few dozen people showed up. They brought friends. Eventually, the protest crowds swelled to around 100, mostly Israeli and international demonstrators. Then the police intervened.
“They started to arrest us in a very violent manner,” says Wind, who is 20 and lives in Jerusalem. Those arrests, including of the head of Israel’s Association for Civil Rights, were heavily reported in Israeli media. Wind says many more people came to the demonstration to defend freedom of speech and democracy. At one point, in March, an estimated 5,000 demonstrators turned up.
This progression of events formed the green shoots of an Israeli left-wing movement that has been struggling to find its voice since the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008. The acts of Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah spurred this small, marginalized, and increasingly despairing population back out onto the streets. As Yuval, a 26-year-old student from Jerusalem and regular at the weekly protests says: “Another Hebron is flowering next to my home.”
The protests in Sheikh Jarrah are organized at weekly meetings between roughly equal numbers of Israeli activists and local Palestinian residents. “We are building a relationship based on trust and working together,” says Sara Benninga, 27, who lives in Jerusalem and has been involved in this campaign for a year. “Both sides are very careful and very sensitive to the needs of the other—we know the history of the conflict in Israel and we know that these relationships can end very easily.”
Observers say that the torch-bearers of this protest are a new, young generation of Israelis. “Without the driving force of young, local people in their early 20s, these demonstrations could not have happened,” says Didi Remez, an Israeli communications consultant specializing in non-profits and human rights organizations, who also runs the news-analysis blog Coteret. But if the movement is galvanized by young hearts, it is also being endorsed by older minds—and one of those, the novelist David Grossman, recently spoke at one of the weekly protests to urge an increased opposition to the Israelis’ occupation in all its manifestations.
“What’s happening here is only the tip of the iceberg,” he told the crowd in Sheikh Jarrah. “It’s only one example of what has been happening in the Occupied Territories for more than 40 years. I think that we are all beginning to grasp—even those who maybe don’t really want to—how 43 years ago, by turning a blind eye, by actively or passively cooperating, we actually cultivated a kind of carnivorous plant that is slowly devouring us, consuming every good part within us, making the country we live in a place that is not good to live in. Not good not only if you are an Arab citizen of Israel, and certainly if you are a Palestinian resident of the Territories—not good also for every Jewish Israeli person who wants to live here, who cherishes some hope to be in a place where humans are respected as humans, where your rights are treated as a given, where humanity, morality, and civil rights are not dirty words, not something from the bleeding-heart left.”
Indeed, though the demolition of Palestinian homes is an ugly routine in East Jerusalem, the evictions at Sheikh Jarrah are a new twist, representing the first time the court has wound back to 1948, honoring land deeds claimed to originate before the establishment of the Israeli state. That has clanged warning bells for some Israelis.
“Where do you draw the line?” asks a Sheikh Jarrah demonstrator, Michael Rahat, 55, a teacher from Jerusalem. “If a Jew is allowed to throw an Arab out of a home he claims belonged once to Jews, why can’t you evict Jews from homes in Baka and Talbieh”—that once belonged to Palestinians—“and house Palestinian refugees there?”
For the many Jerusalemites who are a part of these protests, a keen sense of worsening local politics is informing their attendance. Yael, a 21-year-old student from Jerusalem and a regular at the demonstration says: “This is about the future of Jerusalem, and the future of Israel and Palestine.” Her protest is against the practice, she says, of “trying to build facts on this street, on the ground—without negotiation or anything, to make as many neighborhoods Jewish so that most of Jerusalem will stay in our hands.”
The chants and placards on the streets of Sheikh Jarrah insist that Jerusalem is a Palestinian city no less than it is Israeli, which is a direct affront to the “eternal and undivided capital” ideology. But while Palestinians are equal partners in organizing the campaign, they do not have an equal presence at the mostly Jewish-Israeli demonstrations. Sara Benninga offers an explanation. “There is a big difference between being an Arab and a Jew in terms of how you get treated by the police and court,” she says. She claims that Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah have been arrested purely on the basis of a nod and a pointed finger from Jewish settlers in the area. In mid-March, one of the Palestinian campaigners, Saleh Diab, was detained for nine days and then released—the judge reprimanded police, finding no evidence for the assault charges mounted against him. In such a climate, Palestinians who take to the streets risk being targeted by police. Hassan, a Palestinian watching a recent protest at Sheikh Jarrah from the sidelines, said: “We would like to be demonstrating with them, but this is not for us, not for Arabs. We are not supposed to be there.”
In the face of U.S. pressure to freeze settlement activity as a means to ease a return to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the Netanyahu government has constantly asserted an exception for Jerusalem. In December 2009, Israel announced plans to build nearly 700 new homes in East Jerusalem, and last March, during one of Vice President Joe Biden’s visits, unveiled further plans to build 1,600 more housing units.
Elie Wiesel has declared Jerusalem to be above politics. In a full-page ad that appeared in major U.S. newspapers, he wrote that Jerusalem “belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain.” He then added that anyone, Muslim, Christian or Jewish, should be permitted to build freely anywhere in Jerusalem and proposed an indefinite postponement to negotiations over the city. The response from Israel challenged what was viewed as a rosy-eyed and removed appreciation of the Israeli brand. “For more than a generation now the earthly city we call home has been crumbling under the weight of its own idealization,” read the letter signed by 100 Israeli peace activist, many of them engaged in the protests at Sheikh Jarrah.
“As true Jerusalemites,” the letter continues, “we cannot stand by and watch our beloved city, parts of which are utterly neglected, being used as a springboard for crafty politicians and sentimental populists who claim Jerusalem is above politics and negotiation.”
Rachel Shabi, the author of We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands, is based in Jerusalem.
Michael Oren, Israel’s U.S. ambassador, says Washington will always need his country as an ally