A non-violent demonstration grapples with civil disobedience

“The fact that you found yourself a victim of police violence does not mean that you were doing anything wrong. You were doing something right. You might have broken the law, but you were doing so to fight against a deeply entrenched and institutionalized wrong.”

By Eitan Grossman

A non-violent demonstration grapples with civil disobedience
Settler passes by demonstrators against Maaleh Zeitim settlement in ras el-Amud (photo: Activestills.org)

A little more than a week ago (25.5.2011 and 27.5.2011), the Solidarity movement held two non-violent demonstrations in Ras el-Amud to protest the inauguration of a settlement, Maaleh Zeitim, in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhood. Both were joint Israeli-Palestinian actions. The first demonstration took place during the inauguration ceremony itself, in which numerous politicians endorsed the new settlement. It culminated in the arrest of two prominent Solidarity women activists and a commitment to continue the struggle.

The second demonstration got a little ugly: the settlers, police and security guards used unusual violence – including tasers – against demonstrators, who in turn tried to hinder access to the settlement by staging a sit-in in the driveway that leads to the settlement’s parking lot. Six demonstrators were arrested, and a number needed medical treatment. During the entire event, which was documented with videos, stills, and written testimonies, settlers watched from the rooftop terrace, shouted obscenities, and threw various objects at the demonstrators.

Since the second demonstration, I’ve talked with quite a few fellow demonstrators, some of whom expressed a feeling of discomfort with how things went down. Some asked ‘Why did we block the access to the settlement’s parking area?’ or ‘Why did we sit down in the driveway?’ I’d like to propose some possible responses to these questions, by trying to draw a clear connection between the reasons for the demonstrations and the means of direct action that were chosen.

First of all, it’s important to recall why we demonstrated in Ras el-Amud. Maaleh Zeitim is the largest settlement in any neighborhood of Palestinian Jerusalem, with more than a hundred occupied housing units. On the other side of the highway, another settlement is planned and has been approved. This new settlement, to be called Maaleh David, will be connected to Maaleh Zeitim by a bridge, which will create, in effect, a mega-settlement in the heart of Ras el-Amud. The settlers have harassed the residents of the neighborhood, and are currently waging a protracted war of attrition against the Hamdallah family. The new settlement has the full support of the municipality of Jerusalem, its mayor Nir Barkat, and the government, as witnessed by the presence of many members of Knesset and government ministers at the dedication ceremony on 25.5.2011. The speakers at this ceremony were very clear about the goals of the settlements in Ras el-Amud: to create a continuous Jewish settlement in Palestinian Jerusalem and to destroy any possibility of ‘dividing Jerusalem.’ This is, unsurprisingly, the agenda of the settlers themselves. In other words, the explicit goal of the settlement is to prevent Palestinians from living in their homes in peace and security, as well as to obstruct any form of Palestinian national self-determination in which Jerusalem would be the national capital.

The presence of such a settlement in Ras el-Amud has many additional implications, but I would like to focus on one that seems especially relevant to Friday’s protest: the destruction of Palestinian public space.

This process began in the takeover of land in the heart of a Palestinian neighbourhood. In Ras el-Amud, the land was purchased by Irving Moskowitz from Jewish associations who owned it prior to 1948 and were able to reclaim it, taking advantage of a legal system which is inherently discriminatory: none of those East Jerusalem residents who fled their homes inside Israel during the Nakba are allowed to reclaim them in a similar way.

Public space has always been a scarce commodity in the dense Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem.  Ras el-Amud lost a neighborhood to Maaleh Zeitim. The local cultural center lost its soccer field and part of its yard to the settlement.

The streets of Ras el-Amud are now flooded with police forces, armed security guards and settlers. A local resident told Solidarity activists that he avoids approaching the settlement for fear of being harassed. All of these measures are needed for the settlers to maintain the illusion of a ‘normal’ life, the life of privileges to which Jewish settlers have grown accustomed. This ‘normalcy’ is bought only at the expense of Palestinians.

All these reasons led us to stage the first demonstration and then, following further invitation from local Palestinian activists, the second demonstration. Both demonstrations clearly followed Solidarity’s principles: joint Israeli-Palestinian action, holding the action in the place where the injustice occurs and non-violence. The demonstrations were attended by both Israelis and Palestinians, the latter group including local residents as well as activists from other parts of Palestinian Jerusalem. ‘Solidarity’ held the demonstration with the full cooperation of the local popular committees. The demonstrations were non-violent. Demonstrators didn’t hit anyone, push anyone, or anything like that. They certainly didn’t attempt to run anyone over, or bash them over the head with a baton, or use an electric shocker on them.  They hindered the traffic in and out of the settlement with a sit-in – a sit-in, for crying out loud.

Friday’s demonstration began much like other demonstrations. We held up signs, we chanted slogans, nothing out of the ordinary. At this point, the settlers went in and out of the settlement freely. At least a dozen settlers went to throw out their garbage, passed through the demonstrators, and none were hassled by any protester at any stage. It was only after the violence and the unwarranted arrests started that demonstrators began to hinder traffic in and out of Maaleh Zeitim. This non-violent means of protest led to further brutality from the settlers, the police, and the security guards.

Importantly, this act of non-violent resistance had the immediate effect of exposing the extent to which the police is itself politicized, to which it serves the settlers. The police don’t recognize the possibility of non-violent struggle, as we see all the time in the West Bank and in Jerusalem. It responds to non-violent protest with violence. The brutality of the police, coupled with its clear refusal to protect demonstrators from the violence of the settlers, gives yet another glimpse of the reality of the occupation, as well as the galloping fascism that is engulfing our society.  Also well-documented from last week’s demonstration is the clear discrimination made by the police between Jews and Palestinians: Jews got pushed, beaten, and even tasered, but for the Palestinians in the crowd, whether as demonstrators or as bystanders, the batons came out. Jewish and international reporters were largely left alone, while Palestinian reporters were treated with extreme aggressiveness.

So why do people feel uncomfortable with what happened?  I don’t have a certain answer, but here are a few possible ones. Some demonstrators might have been troubled by the experience of confronting individual settlers and, perhaps for the first time facing their hatred and violence not via newspaper or blog articles, not even in videos – but in real life.

It may be the time we start taking the settlers words at face value. As they often remind us, Jews who demonstrate solidarity with Palestinians are ‘anti-Semitic,’ ‘not Jews,’ and as we were told in Sheikh Jarrah last week by a prominent figure in the settlers’ movement, we should be ‘dealt with as traitors,’ lamenting the fact that in Israel this means jail rather than being sent to Gaza, as he would have it.

However, I believe that for most, the hardest part was understanding the role played by the police. The activists who come to protest the injustices against Palestinians are law-abiding citizens. More importantly, they have a deep respect for the principles upon which the law is founded – or should be founded: equality and freedom. In fact, they show up regularly – and recently, with ever-increasing frequency – to fight against racism and oppression, against the regime of privileges, and for full civil equality. They also expect the police to share – and defend – the same liberal values for which they fight.

I think that the chain of reasoning goes something like this: if the police used violence against me, I must have been doing something wrong, I must have violated these cherished principles of equality and freedom that the police should be protecting.

This assumption was clearly refuted by the events in Ras el-Amud. Rather than protecting the demonstrators from the settlers, as one may reasonably expect, the police choose to openly side with the settlers and take orders from them. This was presented in a forceful way by a recent article by Solidarity activist Yael Kenan:

A protester suddenly identified one of the Border Policeman who went to high school with him and called out to him “hey bro.” The policewoman sneered at us and said “Do you really think he’s your brother?” Yes, I told her. We’re all brothers, we’re all one people and look what’s happening here. “You’re not my brothers” she blurted out nonchalantly, without giving it a second thought. You’re not my brothers. “And the settlers?” I asked her. “They’re my blood brothers, in my veins,” she answered in a sentence so simple, frightening, intimidating, clarifying the picture completely. You’re not my brothers. So simple and so terrible (http://www.en.justjlm.org/483).

That the police sided with the settlers is reflected not only in the words and actions of individual police officers. the police are so accustomed to taking orders from the settlers that they were apparently unable to consider the possibility of saying to the settlers, ‘Okay, wait a few minutes, there’s a demonstration going on here, park in the street.’ The fact that parking in the street is not an option only highlights how alien they are in Palestinian Jerusalem.

Thus, the fact that you found yourself a victim of police violence does not mean that you were doing anything wrong. You were doing something right. You might have broken the law, but you were doing so to fight against a deeply entrenched and institutionalized wrong. In breaking the law, you were fighting for what you believe the law should protect. If you felt that last week’s demonstration was extreme, it’s because the reality in which we live is extreme. It’s a reality in which being Palestinian or expressing solidarity with Palestinians is punishable with violence and unwarranted arrests, in which the police serves a small sector of society, in which the law applies selectively and whose primary points of reference are ethnicity and political affiliation. It’s a reality in which liberal values, such as equality and freedom, are considered extremist and even treasonous because they come into conflict with the goals and practices of racism.

The fact that Friday’s demonstration was non-violent doesn’t mean that everything that was done was legal. If I understand right, it’s probably illegal to block the entrance to any private compound, and the police would be expected to evacuate whoever did so, with the minimal level of force necessary. The use of civil disobedience – breaking a law – is a choice that can be made in the context of a non-violent struggle, by people who are willing to take legal responsibility for their actions. It is an important tool, and shouldn’t be used lightly, but it shouldn’t be rejected out of hand, either. Personally, I think that it’s a good thing to block the entrance to settlements and to limit the settlers’ freedom of movement. The very fact that they are living in someone else’s home is an outrage. That their privileges are acquired and maintained at someone else’s expense is unacceptable. They should be forced to confront the fact that when they make a cage for the Palestinians, they make one for themselves as well.

This demonstration involved yet another difficult experience: the experience of realizing, in the flesh, that ethnic and religious affiliation is a weak basis for solidarity. The fact that settlers, police, and (most) demonstrators are Jews doesn’t mean very much, in the end. The line that is being drawn, again and again, is between those who support and profit from fascism and those who oppose it. Between those who steal lands and erect walls, and those who hope to put an end to the racist system that gives privileges to one group and takes them from another. Between those who promote apartheid and those who seek peaceful and meaningful co-existence.

As an individual activist, I think it is imperative for Solidarity and our allies to return to Ras el-Amud, to continue the struggle against the expansion of settlements and the erection of new ones, to stand in solidarity with the residents of Palestinian Jerusalem, and to fight for full and absolute civil equality.  The only tool that has a chance of turning the tide against fascism and racism is grassroots, non-violent, joint action.

(An earlier version of this article was first published on the Solidarity homepage.)

Eitan Grossman is a Solidarity activist and a post-doctoral fellow of the Martin Buber Society at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.