Every night for the past week, young Palestinians have been gathering in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to protest the imminent forced eviction of local Palestinian families. The youth break their Ramadan fast together, sing, and come together in a show of solidarity with the neighborhood’s residents.
Israeli police have attempted to disperse these demonstrations using disproportionate force, including stun grenades and the Skunk, a vehicle that shoots putrid liquid at high velocity. On Tuesday, that violence peaked when officers arrested three protesters, including Mahmoud El-Kurd, whose family is facing displacement. Another protester, who was pinned to the ground as an officer kneeled on his neck, was bleeding when police detained him; he was later taken to hospital while still under arrest.
Israel Police said forces were deployed to Sheikh Jarrah on Tuesday following a protest in which dozens of protesters violated the order and hurled rocks and bottles at officers. Three suspects were arrested for their involvement in violating the order. However, despite the police’s claims, there was no “violation of order” but rather a gathering of young Palestinians that was dispersed by police. Throughout the night, only one rock was hurled at the water cannon.
Over the past several weeks, Palestinians have been protesting the displacement of families from the neighborhood following an Israeli court order. The eight families facing imminent displacement, like all the families in the Karm al-Jaouni complex, are Palestinian refugees who were forced out of their homes in the 1948 war and their descendants. In the 1950s, the Jordanian authorities and UNRWA housed them in that area, which was an open space with no buildings at the time. Following Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, settler organizations have been trying to take over the properties, claiming they were originally owned by Jews.
The legal battle over these homes has extended over decades. Last year, the Jerusalem District Court ordered the eviction of eight families, which would leave 500 people homeless. Last week, the Supreme Court held a preliminary hearing regarding an appeal of the district court’s decision. Justice Dafna Barak-Erez ordered four of those families to decide by Thursday whether they agree to a settlement according to which they can continue living in their homes if they recognize the settlers’ ownership of the property.
If the Palestinian families reject the deal, which is likely, Barak-Erez will have to decide whether they can appeal the court’s decision to evict them. If their request to file an appeal is rejected, four of the families are set to be forcibly evicted next week.
‘This is not a protest, it is our right to be here’
To understand the growing frustration among Palestinian youth over the fate of Sheikh Jarrah, one must go back to the protests outside Damascus Gate last month, where popular protest pushed police to remove the divider fences Israeli authorities had placed to prevent Palestinians from sitting on the stairs. “The victory there gave the youth power, they saw that they can achieve results, and now, wherever there is occupation, like here, they show up,” said Mohammed Abu Hummos, a Palestinian activist from Issawiya.
While Israeli media describes this show of solidarity as “riots” or “clashes,” in effect, Palestinian youth are merely sitting outside homes that are at risk of forcible eviction, including El-Kurd’s home, half of which has already been taken over by settlers. The other home is that of the Rawi family, where dozens of settlers currently live after the family was forcibly evicted about a decade ago.
The settlers, who find these gatherings disturbing, have been calling police to the scene every night. Yesterday, police were already at the scene, and by 8 p.m. officers with the Yasam riot police and crowd control unit were blocking the narrow road leading into the area, preventing the protesters from reaching the homes.
“We sit, we sing and talk, but this seems to be a problem for the police, and officers have been arriving every night to forcibly evacuate us,” said Ahmed, one of the protesters. “This is not a protest, but even if it had been, it is our right to be here.”
Around 10 p.m., several settlers came out of the Rawi family’s home and began arguing with the young Palestinians at the scene. Other settlers were seen talking to the Yasam police officers while pointing at specific activists. The officers then started pushing the Palestinian youth out of the street, sparking a protest around the police barricade.
— شبكة قدس الإخبارية (@qudsn) May 4, 2021
At that point, siblings Muna and Mahmoud El-Kurd made their way back home. “We asked the officers to go through, I told them ‘I live here and you know me,’ when they attacked Mohammed and pushed him to the ground,” recalled Muna.
Last year, +972 Magazine published an essay by Mohammed El-Kurd, Mahmoud’s older brother, about the family’s fight against their dispossession. In a recent video that has gone viral on social media, Muna is seen confronting one of the settlers now living in part of her family’s home. “Ya’acob, you know this is not your house,” Muna is heard saying in the video. “Yes, but if I go, you don’t go back, so what’s the problem?” the settler responds. “If I don’t steal it [the house], someone else is going to steal it,” he continues.
“Of course I have hope,” said Muna while waiting for her arrested brother outside the police station on Salah al-Din road. “Our past experiences, both in Damascus Gate and Lions’ Gate [against Israel’s decision to install metal detectors in 2017], clearly show that it is youth uprisings that are saving this place. It is true that there has also been diplomatic pressure, but I feel that the youth movement is what is making the difference.”
“At the end of the day, our protest is nonviolent, we are mobilizing quietly, we sing. But the police’s reaction has been repressive as they target us with the Skunk, tear gas, arrests, break into our homes and attack us,” said Muna. “Two days ago, Mohammed and I went to a cafe and they attacked us. It is obvious that the presence of the youth here is helping us. The issue of Sheikh Jarrah is their issue as well, our homes are their homes, what is happening to the homes here will happen to their homes in the future. It is clear that following developments in Damascus Gate, the youth felt triumphant.”
According to Abdelfattah Sakhafi, 70, who is also set to be forcibly evicted from his home, if the evictions go through, thousands more protesters will show up. “These kids are fearless, because they feel that they have no future. They go to work in West Jerusalem, and far-right activists attack them. If you kick me out of my home with my six children, do you think they will forget that?”
‘Police violence begets more violence’
Israeli police used force to disperse the show of unity in Sheikh Jarrah on Monday night, too. Officers arrested two young Palestinians, and one of them was seen bleeding from his face while being arrested.
That night, police wounded Salah Diab, one of the leaders of the neighborhood’s protest movement. Officers stormed into his backyard, sprayed him with tear gas, and pushed him to the ground, breaking his leg. “I hadn’t done anything, I was in my own home,” recalled Diab. “The police are acting foolishly, its violence begets more violence. People are merely gathering for a vigil, and they are attacked, just as they were in Damascus Gate.”
“It frustrates the settlers to hear Arabic underneath their homes,” Diab continued. “What they are allowed to do, we are not. On Lag B’Omer [a Jewish holiday] they made bonfires, danced, and got drunk. I told the police officer: ‘You said we were disrupting traffic, so we moved. What now?’ He said: ‘This is a Jewish holiday.’”
Last Saturday, Palestinians from Umm al-Fahm in Israel’s north arrived to protest the imminent evictions. Police confiscated Palestinian flags and arrested three demonstrators. On Tuesday, they organized a solidarity protest at the entrance to Umm al-Fahm.
Residents and activists link the police activity over the last few days to the violence by security forces against Joint List MK Ofer Cassif and the firing of stun grenades at protesters in the neighborhood last month. It seems that, as was the case in Damascus Gate, the only way police know how to solve the “problem” of Palestinian unity in Sheikh Jarrah is through the use of more force. A settler group on the Telegram chatting app called on people to show up to support the Jewish families who are “suffering from severe harassment by Arabs.”
The chief of Hamas’ armed wing Mohammed Deif warned yesterday that “if the aggression against our people in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood does not stop immediately, we will not stand idly by and our enemy will pay a heavy price.” Following the statement, hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets of Ramallah.
Sakhafi said the families refuse to recognize the settlers’ claim to their homes. “It will not happen,” he stressed, “we refuse to recognize their ownership of our land. This has been Muslim-owned land for more than 500 years. They pushed us into a corner, but we refuse to sign this deal. We have been struggling for more than 50 years, if they have any rights to our land, they wouldn’t have let us stay here that long. If the settlers say it is their land, why are they offering us 10 million shekels [three million dollars]? We’ve lived in this house our entire lives, just the thought of having to be evicted is extremely difficult.”
A version of this story was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.