On New Year’s Day, our very first day in Jerusalem, we went to the center of the city to get cellphones. While we were in the cellphone store, we heard the banging of drums and people chanting. My daughter asked what was happening. We went outside and saw about about 75-100 people marching down the pedestrian mall with banners and signs protesting the eviction of three Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarah whose four houses are now occupied by Jewish settlers.
Their dispossession is part of an effort by the Israeli authorities to settle Jews in the midst of Palestinian neighborhoods: Silwan, Ras el Amud, Sheikh Jarah and others. These actions, along with home demolitions, denial of residency rights, the unequal distribution of municipal services, are all designed to make it difficult for Palestinians to live in Jerusalem and encourage them to leave. The goal of these discriminatory practices is to deal with “the demographic issue,” a racist formulation term freely by liberal Jewish and Israeli groups, that there are too many Palestinians compared to Jews and that their rate of growth exceeds that of the Jewish population. These efforts to restrict the growth of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem complements the building of vast new Jewish neighborhoods around Jerusalem (Gilo, French Hill, Givat Zeev, Har Homa and others) and according privileges and benefits to Jews who make aliya, immigrate to Israel.
The protesters were marching from HaMashbir, the main department store in the center of Jerusalem, to Sheikh Jarah in East Jerusalem. I was inspired by their courage. They were well organized and their action brought the reality of the dispossession in Sheikh Jarah in East (Arab) Jerusalem into the centre of (Jewish) city. The pedestrian mall (midrochov) is always bustling with people, Israelis, and many American tourists and young people on Birthright and other such trips, having a great time in Israel, blissfully unaware of the discrimination and the ethnic privilege that allows us and them to enjoy the stores, restaurants and coffee shops of the Jewish city.
It is four weeks since this experience on our first day in Jerusalem but since then the protesters have continued their weekly protest. They are no longer allowed to march through the city as the Jerusalem police have rejected their request for a permit. Their protest, confined to an area on the outskirts of Sheikh Jarah, is legal as long as there are no speeches, as the police not only deny them a right to march through the city but also deny their application for a permit for a legal protest. The issue now is not only the forced eviction of Palestinian families but also the right to free speech.
At the weekly protest two weeks ago, the police arrested over 20 protesters, including the executive director of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, and last week they arrested some 20 protesters. Thus hundreds of Israeli police are deployed to protect settler families, who, with the full support of the State, have dispossessed three Palestinian families, creating fear and insecurity in the entire neighborhood. In addition, the police deny the Palestinian residents of the town and even Jewish Israelis a permit to hold a demonstration in the neighborhood and arrest those who assemble on the outskirts of the neighborhood in perfectly legal expression of free speech!
I, like many others, shocked by the arrests of protesters the previous week attended the protest last week. The protest was the largest so far and a few of the leaders of mainstream Zionist left: Yossi Sarid, Avrum Burg, Moshe Halberthal and others, were at the event. Jeremiah Haber wrote an interesting blog post (read the comments as well) suggesting that Sheikh Jarah may mark the rebirth of the Zionist left protest movement. A Palestinian (Israeli Arab) member of the Knesset was the only Knesset member present.
The core of the issue in Sheikh Jarah is the same as other realities that I described in my recent posts on Hebron and the illegal outpost. Israel, as a country, is a state that privileges the rights of Jews over that of non-Jews. The only real solution is to re-envision Israel as a state of all its citizens, whether within the context of a two state solution or any other political framework. As many activists here say, “Israel is a democratic state for Jews and Jewish state for Arabs”. The systematic privileging of Jews over non-Jews is something Jews and Israelis have not yet acknowledged. There is no such thing as a Jewish and democratic state. You have to choose between them and Israeli policy is the harsh application of the choice of having a Jewish state rather than a democratic state. Jewish liberals, myself included, would prefer to avoid this challenging discussion but I don’t think we can avoid it any longer.
Lastly, as Yossi Sarid points out in an article in HaAretz, the assertion of the rights of Jews to return to homes that they may have owned before 1948, opens the gates to claims by thousands of Palestinians to their homes in Katamon, where my family is now living, and in many villages and towns all over Israel. Unless the discriminatory practice is applied in this instance as well and it is only Jews who can claim land they owned before 48 and the same rules do not apply to Palestinians!
For detailed background see “Why they are really demonstrating in Sheikh Jarah” on the Ir Amim website.
If you want to read another report of the demonstration, you will find this article interesting.
This afternoon will be the next weekly demonstration in Sheikh Jarah.