Demonstrations Break The Silence of an East Jerusalem Neighborhood

By Covering Religion Staff

By Maia Efrem and Mamta Badkar

Protestors gather outside Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem to oppose the eviction of Palestinian families. (Mamta Badkar/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM – On a nippy Friday afternoon early this spring, about 200 protesters gather, as they have every Friday since August 2009, to loudly voice their anger over the  Israeli government’s eviction of several Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

One demonstrator carries a sign that says “Stop the occupation” in green finger paint. Another sign reads: “Peace yes, Apartheid wall no.”

Nearby, a band of drummers and cymbalists lead a noisy song of protest over a gramophone while demonstrators pump their fists into the air, a physical echo of the music.

One protester has attended every protest since January and as a Jew, she is proud to participate in the protests every Friday. “This is a basic human injustice and it’s not just the Arabs that are against it, Israelis are against it too,” she said.

The group that gathers is predominantly secular and Jewish, although there are also a few Arabs and religious Jews, identified by their yarmulkes. The demonstrators include left-wing liberals and former ministers and members of the Knesset such as Avraham Burg, Yossi Sarid, Muhamad Bark’e and Uri Avneri.

Many local Arabs appreciate the support. “There are no problems with us and Jewish people,” said Nabil al-Kurd, 66, whose home in Sheikh Jarrah is the subject of dispute. “Jews come and protest outside. It’s the settlers. It’s not Jews against Muslims,” he said explaining where the conflict lies.

But the term “settler” has different connotations for Israelis and Arabs. For most Israelis, settlers are those who live in settlements in the occupied West Bank. But for Arabs, a settler is also an Israeli who lives in the parts of Jerusalem that were captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The international community refuses to recognize Israel’s annexation of all of Jerusalem.

“There is no relationship between us and the settlers,” said al-Kurd.

For Arabs, settlers include those moving into the old Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood as well as those living in such new Jerusalem communities as Ramat Shlomo.

The recent announcement by the Israeli government that it was preparing to build 1,600 new units in Ramat Shlomo has put a strain on Israel’s relations with its long term ally, the United States. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met the announcement with emphatic disapproval, both questioning the wisdom of such a move while the United States was trying to get peace talks going between Israelis and Palestinians.

The tensions in Sheikh Jarrah are another flash point that could derail the peace talks. The drama began in August 2009 when the Israeli high court cleared the way for the evacuation of 28 Palestinian homes in the neighborhood. Further court decrees forced 53 people from their homes in August, creating ripples that have escalated to weekly demonstrations outside the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Al-Kurd, surrendered the keys to the front section of his house, to the court on November 3, 2009. The Israeli courts gave the homes to Israelis who had competing claims to the properties.

Nabil al-Kurd has had to surrender the keys to the front section of his house to the Israeli High Court. He stands looking towards demonstrators that have gathered outside Sheikh Jarrah every Friday since August 2009. (Mamta Badkar/Journey to Jerusalem)

The eviction orders for the families in Sheikh Jarrah stem from the Sephardic Community Committee and Knesset Yisrael Association’s efforts to have the land registered to them by the Israel Lands Administration. They have since sold their claims to Nahalat Shimon International, a settler organization that plans on building 200 units for future Jewish settlers and park land on the grounds of Sheikh Jarrah.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, together with the Jordanian Ministry of Development gave Palestinian refugees these homes in 1956 with the proviso that they give up their refugee status and aid. The property rights to the land were to be transferred to the families at the end of three years, according to the UNWRA. The residents are still waiting.

According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the Jordanian government resettled Arabs in Sheikh Jarrah after Jordan annexed East Jerusalem in 1950. Jewish groups have tried to acquire land in the area for settlers since the Six Day War of 1967 when Israel regained control of East Jerusalem.

Israel’s Central Bureau of statistics estimates that the settler population in 2008 excluding East Jerusalem grew at 4.7-percent compared to the general population which increased by 1.6-percent.

Those opposed to the evictions note that the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 strictly prohibits both parties from engaging in action that might undermine future negotiations on Jerusalem. Furthermore, they note, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 446 forbids Israel from altering the Arab territories, including Jerusalem, and resettling its civilian population into territories that have been occupied since 1967. One Sheikh Jarrah resident, Suzanne Abid, 55, blames the Israeli government for expressly breaking the Oslo and U.N. conditions.

“We have four generations here. From 1973, they’ve said we have this land but they give houses to the settlers coming from outside of Israel,” she said striking her thigh repeatedly. “From the north to the south Palestine is Arab land. Not for Jewish people from Sweden, America, Poland and Germany. This is not their home.”

The hostilities between the Arab and Israeli residents of Sheikh Jarrah wax and wane. “They climbed on the roof and beat up my mother and children,” said al-Kurd of the settlers in his East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. “She still can’t raise her arm properly,” he said mimicking his mother’s restricted movements, as his grandson ran over to tell him a settler had just spit on the boy’s grandmother.

According to the International Solidarity Movement, al-Kurd was arrested briefly on April 11, when settlers in the neighborhood tried to destroy the property. Both Al-Kurd and the settlers were eventually released without any charges.

The Jewish settlers in the conflicted area have also been privy to violent attacks by Arab residents and left-wing protesters. On April 5, a Jewish settler in Sheikh Jarrah was hurt after a Arab residents threw stones at haredi Jews near the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik. The attacks come a month after 250 protesters made up of both Arabs and Jews attempted to march to the settler homes, chanting anti-occupation slogans. Eight demonstraters were arrested in the clashes between police and the resisting mob of protesters.

Haren Veni and Paula Schwabel Jewish residents of Jerusalem come to Sheikh Jarrah to show their solidarity with the Palestinian families being evicted from their homes. (Mamta Badkar/Journey to Jerusalem)

Israelis in favor of the settlers moving into Sheikh Jarrah attest to their rights to return to Jewish homes which they say belonged to them before the 1948 war, when most Jewish residents fled the area. Those pushing for Jews to reclaim the land, argue that the very essense of zionism is the Jewish people’s assertion of land that has always belonged to them. The fear that other territories, neightborhoods, and even individual homes could face the same plight as Sheikh Jarrah is playing on the minds of protesters on both sides of the fence.

With the protests well under way, Haren Veni a Jewish resident of Jerusalem takes his place to the left of the singing protesters. Wearing a sweater stamped with “Free Sheikh Jarrah,” Veni, 48, leans against a parked car and crosses his arms nodding his head in the direction of the main checkpoint. “Injustice is carried out here. There is no way to justify taking innocent people out their home,” he said, voice raised over the drumming protesters. “We cannot accept this situation of one-sided hate.”

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