~ From Katya Reed
Just last week CNN called Sheikh Jarrah “Jerusalem’s ground zero”. On Friday I joined 300 Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals to protest the ongoing evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, and the takeover of this East Jerusalem neighborhood by Jewish settlers.
Sheikh Jarrah, which lies just outside the Old City, has attracted global outrage as settler organizations have made legal claims to the property allegedly owned by Jewish individuals or associations prior to 1948. As noted by UN-OCHA in their damning fact sheet on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, “Israeli courts have ruled in favor of such claims while failing to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees to reclaim lost land and property.” UN-OCHA estimates that the implementation of the Israeli government’s comprehensive settlement plans for Sheikh Jarrah will place “475 Palestinians at risk of forced eviction, dispossession, and displacement”. Like all settlements in occupied territory, the Sheikh Jarrah settlement is a violation of international law.
The stand-off during Friday’s demonstration was electric in its intensity. 300 protesters were on one side of the street and on the other side, a dozen settlers and several dozen police and medical personnel fanned out across the entrance to the homes under eviction orders. The Jerusalem magistrate court had dealt a blow to the police the day before, ruling that public demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah were legal so long as they didn’t disturb the public order or disrupt traffic. Despite a vow from the police to squash protests despite the court order, this time no one was arrested.
The whole scene created an arresting visual effect peopled by the three clear categories of uniformly dressed settlers, police, and medical personnel on one side of the street, while the hundreds of protesters on the other side drew a stunningly diverse crowd. Kippa-wearing men mingled among Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah residents while a young activists’ drumming circle led Hebrew University professors to join in protest chants. Meretz MK Ilan Gilon showed up, while last week MK Mohammed Barakeh and former Knesset members Avraham Burg, Uri Avnery, and Yossi Sarid attended. Bernard Avishai reported on his blog that Oslo negotiator and head of the Peres Center Dr. Ron Pundak joined the protest along with the highly acclaimed Israeli author David Grossman.
EVICTEE: “THEY WOULDN’T EVEN LET HIM TAKE HIS SHOES”
Nasser Gawi, also at the protest, was a member of one of the first families to be evicted from Sheikh Jarrah. He now lives in a tent outside of his former home, which he fears could be destroyed at any moment by settlers or the police. He told me the protests are very important to him because they showed that Israelis and people from all over the world supported him and his family and their neighbors. ”The protests are a first step in the 1,000 kilometers we have to go towards an Israeli state on one side and on the other a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
He described what happened on August 2, 2009 when he was evicted along with 52 other refugees – 20 of them children – from Sheikh Jarrah following a court ruling. These families had been forced out of their homes in 1948 and given homes in Sheikh Jarrah by the UN and Jordan.
“They broke the windows and blew up our door. They destroyed our furniture and they beat my children.” Gawi explained the soldiers invaded their home at 5:30 A.M., and kicked his children in their beds and ordered them to leave. ”One of my sons wanted to take his shoes before he left. They wouldn’t even let him take his shoes.”
ISRAELI PROTESTER: “IT REMINDED ME OF STORIES OF JEWISH FAMILIES EVACUATED IN VIENNA”
I asked one Israeli protester, Eva Ferrero, why she came to the protests. ”It makes it known what they are trying to do in silence,” Ferrero responded. Ferrero comes regularly to the Sheikh Jarrah protests and visits the families who were evicted.
“The first time I was here I was shocked,” Ferrero explained. ”When the daughter of one of the families who was evicted told me what happened, it reminded me of stories of Jewish families who were evacuated in Vienna and other places in Europe. It goes really deep what they’re doing here.”
Israeli author David Grossman, who had lost his son in the final hours of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon war, told the crowd what brought him to the protest:
“Sometimes, it’s not possible to sit and be silent. Settlers and the political right aided by the government, the legal system, and economic powers abuse the Palestinians in 1,001 different ways.”
“IT STARTS IN BIL’IN AND ENDS UP HERE”
I also spoke with Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, at the protest. He talked about how the Sheikh Jarrah protests had also become an expression of dissent against a series of court decisions that have failed to be implemented by the government.
“It starts in Bil’in and ends up here,” Baskin said, referring to the 2007 decision by the Israeli Supreme Court to move the path of the wall in the village of Bil’in. Despite the court’s ruling to alter the wall’s path so that Bil’in would recoup up to half of the land annexed since 2004 , the decision has yet to be implemented. He explained that this trend for Israeli authorities to ignore court decisions has continued in Sheikh Jarrah. In Sheikh Jarrah, Baskin explained, the police have continued to use force to break up this demonstration while the court has continued to rule that the protests have been legal.
“The biggest threat to Israeli democracy today is when executive authorities no longer honor the decisions made by the court,” Baskin said.
“THEY TOLD ME TO GO TO SAUDI ARABIA, OR JORDAN”
Nasser Gawi emphasized that the settlement plans for Sheikh Jarrah not only devastated the evicted families but also erased the Palestinian presence that linked the community to the Old City.
Even the Israeli police who forced Gawi out of his home made the broader context of the Sheikh Jarrah evictions quite clear. When the police invaded, Gawi asked the police officers where he could possibly go now that his home was being taken for settlers. ”They told me I should go to Saudi Arabia or Jordan, or another Arab country,” Gawi said.
Another evictee reported Israeli police barged in his home demanding, “get up, this is Israel here, not Palestine.”
The Israeli human rights organization Ir Amim’s latest report on “Why are they really demonstrating in Sheikh Jarrah?” presents a hard-hitting analysis of how the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah continue the long-standing Israeli settlement enterprise to relentlessly provoke further violence:
“Despite their declared obligation to a process of political negotiations, in reality, the governments of Israel in the last decades, together with the settler organizations, have gained control over properties in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods, transforming them into settler enclaves that enjoy outrageous building rights and exist in the midst of ongoing confrontation with their environment and with the rule of law.
The report goes on to emphasize how the evictions obstruct any prospects for a future peace deal.
“Sheikh Jarrah is another link in the process that is transforming East Jerusalem to an arena where extremist organizations do as they please: taking control of properties indubious ways, administering private police with government funding, and engaging inendless confrontation with the Palestinian population. All this is done with direct and indirect government support, while placing obstacles in the way of the prospects of achieving a resolution in Jerusalem and the region as a whole.”