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Wake-up Time in Jerusalem
The court-sanctioned eviction of Palestinian families from their Jerusalem homes has sparked a new protest movement
ARON EZRAHI DOESN’T usually go to protests. The 69year-old bespectacled political scientist prefers to analyze them from his office at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, in northern Jerusalem. But in January Ezrahi and his wife, Ruth HaCohen, joined hundreds of activists in slouchy jeans and trendy shirts who crowd a strip of sidewalk each Friday in Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood north of the Old City. “I am worried about the future of this city,” Ezrahi says. “Both [my wife and I] always pass through Sheikh Jarrah on the way to the university on Mount Scopus where we teach and on the way back... we feel a special responsibility for what goes on around us.” The protest in Sheikh Jarrah began in November, when 23 people gathered to oppose the eviction of three Palestinian families from their homes. But that first small demonstration, with activists from Israel’s radical and nonZionist left, has ballooned into a regular, 300500 person weekly presence. Media stunts like dressing up as the blue-skinned characters from “Avatar” or in Santa Claus costumes have drawn more attention. Heavy-handed police response only served to galvanize moderates to show their support. The demonstrations focus on three homes near the tomb of Simeon the Just (Shimon Hatzadik in Hebrew), a Jewish priest during the Second Temple Period. In the 1950s, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency
ATTENTION, JERUSALEMITES: A left-wing activist dressed as a character from the movie ‘Avatar’ draws attention to the weekly protests against Jewish settlement activity in the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah
(UNRWA) built the homes on property then controlled by Jordan. The Palestinians say they took the houses in lieu of refugee benefits and that they were told they owned the houses, even though they had no deeds. In August and November 2009, Israeli police evicted the Ghawi, Hanoun and Al-Kurd families from the homes they had occupied for 50 years, and Jewish settlers moved in immediately. The settlers claim that Jews bought the property in the late 1870s to be near the tomb. Palestinians claim the deeds are forged, but the Israeli courts have ruled that the evictions are legal. The evacuated families are now living in makeshift tents on the sidewalks across from their former homes. In early February, the Jerusalem Municipality announced plans to confiscate a building lot owned by Palestinians and convert it into a parking lot for worshipers at the tomb.
Sheikh Jarrah is not the first or only East Jerusalem neighborhood into which Jewish settlers have moved. But its highly publicized story raises questions about the far-reaching implications of Israel allowing Jews to exercise a “right of return” to properties they lost in the 1948 war, while denying Palestinians the right to reclaim the substantial property they lost in West Jerusalem or elsewhere in Israel. And the feeling that reckless government policy is threatening to turn the city into the flashpoint of the Arab-Israeli conflict is driving this small but growing protest in the capital and may have the potential to revive Israel’s dormant left.
ERUSALEMITE MAYA WIND, 20, heard about the evictions while organizing Palestinian activists in East Jerusalem for Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli NGO. Wind is a conscientious objector, who did
THE JERUSALEM REPORT MARCH 15, 2010
time in a military prison. Dressed in a knee-length black sweaterjacket on a chilly winter Tuesday, her long blonde hair in a messy ponytail, Wind chats with the Palestinian evictees, who know her by name. She spends every weekday and some nights with the al-Kurds. At first Wind sat with them in their homes and passed out flyers to protest their impending eviction. She organized night volunteers to guard against settlers, who, she claims, throw stones at the al-Kurds, flooded their home with a hose, and rattle their windows at night “This highlights one of the most blatant lies in Israeli PR, which is that everything Israel does is for security, and the violation of Palestinian rights is a necessary evil, because we have to protect our people,” she says. As the protests grew and became more regular, the police moved in hard. Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld tells The Jerusalem Report that some 140 protesters have been arrested thus far; organizers put the figure at 90. The police accused the protesters
of gathering without a permit and disturbing the peace, and have pressed charges against 26 of them, Rosenfeld says. The first arrests put the protest on the media map. “I’d been involved in writing about the events ever since things started in the summer,” says Didi Remez, 40, the former spokesman of Peace Now and currently a senior partner in the Ben-Or Consulting firm, whose clients include Physicians for Human Rights – Israel and Amnesty International. “But I’ve been on the firing line since police started arresting the youngsters… [The police] are trying to break these kids, and they are so brave,” he says. “The very least I could do is back them up.” Remez is one of the more vocal protesters. In a black leather jacket and sunglasses, he shouts, “Fascism won’t pass!” and calls for the police to arrest him while holding his fingers in the peace sign. He has been detained twice. Remez claims the police tied his plastic handcuffs so tightly that no blood could flow to his fingers, and that the police kneed a fellow arrested prisoner in the testicles. Spokesman Rosenfeld says no complaints have been filed. In mid-January, police arrested Hagai ElAd, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Even more Israelis turned out the next week, including Ezrahi. Activists coordinated buses from Tel Aviv and carpools from Beer Sheva. “I couldn’t stand by when I saw that the police, instead of preserving the freedom of expression within the framework of law and order, tried to stifle the freedom of expression in the name of order,” says Ezrahi. Avrum Burg, former head of the Jewish Agency, arrived the same week. Writer David Grossman appeared the next, along with former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid. In a column published in the daily Haaretz, Sarid wrote, “After I heard the version of the police, I concluded that the police and we, ‘the anarchists,’ were at two different demonstrations,” Sarid writes. “But for the police’s disproportionate use of force and its false arrests, as a means of punishment and score-settling... the demonstration was calm and orderly.” Rosenfeld justified the arrests. “For three or four weeks, the demonstrations turned violent,” Rosenfeld says. “Police were attacked, stones were thrown... One Israeli also was attacked ...and he was injured in the head.” As the weekly protests continued, ACRI appealed to the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court for the right to assemble each Friday afternoon.
In January, the court clearly ruled that the protesters did not require a permit and that the gatherings are legal. The atmosphere grew so heated that the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee held a hearing on police conduct in early February, during which Deputy Inspector General Bruno Stein of the Zion police precinct in Jerusalem testified that the protesters “create clashes and provocations.” MK Arieh Bibi (Kadima) called the protesters “a fifth column in the state of Israel. They stir up trouble and obstruction in order to provoke.” MK Haim Oron (Meretz) responded that “the real aggression is the entrance to homes in Arab neighborhoods...” Since the last court ruling, police have arrested fewer protesters; they continue to disperse the Friday gatherings, although with much more restraint. The eccentric young people who attend the protests have also drawn public attention. Demonstrators hand out noisemakers and rap on drums. Some weeks, they come dressed as clowns in IDF uniform. Activist Ilya Ginsburg, 26, came from Beit Shemesh, a town about 40 minutes away, with his own handcuffs and unsuccessfully asked the police to arrest him.
CCORDING TO IR AMIM, A Jerusalem organization that promotes coexistence in the capital, the settlement in Sheikh Jarrah is destabilizing the city. “Sheikh Jarrah is one part of a chain of strategically chosen spots in which extreme right-wing organizations establish settlements to prevent any future political agreements,” says Ir Amim spokeswoman Orly Noy. “If you surround the holy basin with a ring of Jewish settlements, then you detach Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.” Adds Ezrahi, a longtime Jerusalem resident: “This is a city renowned for the beauty of the diversity of communities, churches, synagogues, mosques and neighborhoods. The issue is whether we can tear apart the moral and political fabric of the city, which is based on coexistence, by trying to disintegrate one neighborhood and allow another one to take over.” But Shmuel Eliyahu, 25, comes to support the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah. He has little sympathy for the al-Kurds. “There’s a law in Israel,” he says “The law decided the houses belong to Israeli citizens.” Remez says he fears Sheikh Jarrah will turn into Hebron, the West Bank city with a Jewish settlement in its heart, “so [that] even if a deal is cut, they’re putting the most fundamentalist
THE JERUSALEM REPORT MARCH 15, 2010
families, who are also extremely violent, in a middle-class Palestinian neighborhood.” Indeed, at the last protest of January, two far-right supporters of the Jewish settlement in Hebron, Itamar Ben-Gvir, parliamentary assistant to MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union party) and an avowed follower of the assassinated extremist, Meir Kahane, and Baruch Marzel, also a follower of Kahane, held a short counterdemonstration. Some activists insist that the settlers’actions are short-sighted and, ultimately, destructive to Israel. Noy says that throwing out Palestinians based on pre-1948 claims could encourage Arabs to reclaim property Israel took over after the War of Independence. “If we open ownership cases before 1948, then this is opening the door for the Palestinian right of return,” Noy says ominously. At a protest in January, the protesters hold signs that read “An Occupied City Is Not Holy” and “Sheikh Jarrah Is Palestine.” Palestinian boys circulate with plastic shot glasses of black coffee. Across the street, a row of journalists stands with enormous camera lenses; behind them huddle police in black and blue uniforms. Palestinian children climb up fences in the area to watch the action, or ride bicycles among the protesters. Older Arab families stand in the back, far away from the police. At the January protest, Nabil al-Kurd, 66, and his family stand near their former home, beyond barricades the police erected to keep the demonstrators away from the controversial building. He says he is sick and would rather keep his distance. His sister Maysa al-Kurd attends nearly every demonstration but keeps a low profile for fear of being arrested. “I feel like there are good people, even among the Jews. Not all the Jews are bad. The settlers are bad,” al-Kurd says. Although Israel does not allow any activity by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Jerusalem, it is well-known that the PA maintains contacts with local Palestinian activists. Asked why the PA has not made any effort to resettle the evacuees, a source close to the PA, speaking with The Report under conditions of anonymity, says, “The most important reason is that the settlers are acting immorally and illegally. We will have to learn to share this city. The Jews can’t evict us from our neighborhoods and we can’t evict the Jews from their neighborhoods. Why isn’t Israel willing to understand this?” The second reason, he acknowledges, is more instrumental. “If Israel insists on creating media opportunities for the Palestinians, by brutally evicting families that have lived in their homes for decades and by destabilizing the city, all for the sake of a few settlerextremists, then why shouldn’t we make the best use of the opportunity that we can?” ly built Palestinian homes in Silwan, south of the Old City, to make way for a massive tourist site and park. Jewish residential projects are also planned for other Arab neighborhoods. “There are many struggles that could be picked with regard to the deteriorating situation, but somehow the Sheikh Jarrah story is particularly appalling,” says ACRI director El-Ad. The combination of the Palestinians’ misery with the Israeli battle over freedom of speech makes Sheikh Jarrah especially potent, he says. But Yair Sheleg, a journalist and researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank, says the protests will probably “blow over.” “The problem is that really on a jurisdictional level, you can’t do much to prevent it… Either the buildings [that the settlers take over] are bought from the Palestinians or they were owned by Jews before 1948,” Sheleg says. “Both ways, it’s very legal to settle there… Unless there is a diplomatic agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, I don’t see how the Israeli government or courts can prevent it.” He adds, “The whole political arena is tired,” Sheleg says. “When there was a feeling that the Palestinians wanted very much to compromise and to have a peace deal, the left in Israel had power to press upon the government. But as it is now, the feeling is that the Palestinians don’t want to do anything, either.” Ezrahi counters that the protest could end what he sees as a grave injustice. “I have been very impressed with the intensity of the demonstrators who gather there in their hundreds, and I hope their hundreds will turn into thousands,” he says. He continues, “[Sheikh Jarrah] redefines what it means to be a patriot. It has nothing to do for me with the left, because I believe also right-wingers who live in Jerusalem, if they could anticipate the bloodshed that will surely ensue from continuing this policy, would also join us in large numbers.” Noy says any protest in Jerusalem is impressive. “Jerusalem is gradually becoming more and more explosive and it’s increasingly becoming the center of the conflict,” she says. “I think the left understands now that the struggle against the occupation is not only in the West Bank, but that East Jerusalem is becoming a major factor in our ability to advance any sort of political solution.”
HE DEMONSTRATIONS RELY heavily on the Internet for rounding up supporters and distributing video and photo accounts of each week. Remez tracks news about Sheikh Jarrah on a website. Wind e-mails updates about arrested protesters and upcoming events. Some 300 short films about Sheikh Jarrah have been posted on YouTube. The protests, says Remez, use “social media but also act like social media. Decisions are made by natural consensus.”
‘The issue is whether we can tear apart the moral and political fabric of the city… by trying to disintegrate one neighborhood and allow another one to take over’
– political scientist Yaron Ezrahi
In addition to the weekly rally, the organizers organize Saturday night vigils outside the Russian Compound prison in Jerusalem, where they wait for detained protesters to be released. In January, the Israeli-Arab rapper trio DAM performed in Sheikh Jarrah. In February, 500 people came to a “Save Jarrah” dance party fundraiser with Hebrew and Arabic music in a West Jerusalem bar. Wind says she is helping to organize a rave party. Sheikh Jarrah is only one site among several in East Jerusalem where Jewish settlers have staked claim to land. In the same neighborhood, American bingo tycoon Irving Moskowitz plans to build 20 apartments on the site of the Shepherd Hotel. The municipality also has plans, currently in limbo, to demolish more than 80 illegal-
THE JERUSALEM REPORT MARCH 15, 2010
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