By Jalal Abukhater
4 May 2021 – For us Jerusalemites, it is frankly nauseating to hear commentators throw around cliches of “cycle of violence”, call for a “return to calm”, and generally engage in bothsidesism, whenever violence erupts. And in the past few weeks, we have heard them yet again. There are no two equal sides in Jerusalem.
The problem with these statements is that they whitewash the fact that Jerusalem is a city under violent occupation and its occupier, Israel, has made its intent to slowly uproot the native population quite public.
In this sense, violence is a permanent feature of the lives of Jerusalem residents, even when outside observers perceive the streets to be “quiet”. And it is not a matter of “both sides” de-escalating.
This past year had been particularly violent for Palestinian Jerusalemites. The impact of COVID-19 on our community is dwarfed by the effects of relentless harassment, arrests, home demolition and displacement by the Israeli authorities, ultimately aimed at the ethnic cleansing of the city.
No one should be surprised at the amount of anger Palestinians hold towards the Israeli occupation authorities in the city. Their encroachments on the rights of our community are endless and are directly responsible for any uptick in violence.
Such is the case with this latest violent episode which began in the first days of the holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan is a special time for Muslims all around the world, but in Jerusalem, the festive atmosphere is simply magical. It is a time when Jerusalemites – young and old – come together with friends and family, stroll through the streets of the city, buy sweets, drink coffee, and enjoy the light displays, impromptu music shows and street performances.
You would not see Jerusalem come alive late at night during any other time of the year. It is a special experience that reflects the strong communal bonds among Palestinian Jerusalemites. And it is, of course, a favourite occasion for the Israeli authorities to harass Palestinians and spoil their festivities. This year was no different.
On April 12, a day before the start of Ramadan, I walked down the steps of Damascus Gate into the Old City to have my last hummus and falafel breakfast meal at Abu Shukri, before beginning the month-long fast. On my way, I noticed the first signs that the Israeli authorities were planning something. The space, benches and steps around the Damascus Gate plaza were blocked by metal barricades. Damascus Gate, with its three police garrisons erected in recent years, looked like a militarised encampment.
There was no reason to set up these barriers at a popular Ramadan hangout spot other than to upset the Palestinians. The decision to bar West Bank Palestinians from visiting Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa, citing a lack of vaccinations as an excuse, further riled Jerusalemites.
The reaction was immediate: on the first day of Ramadan, April 13, a large number of young people gathered at the Damascus Gate to protest against the arbitrary actions of the Israeli occupier. Over the following days, the protests grew, as Israeli provocations continued. On April 22, hundreds of extremist Jews marched on the old city under the protection of the Israeli police, chanting “Death to Arabs!” Palestinian youth were relentless in their resistance.
Thirteen days into Ramadan, on April 25, the barricades fell. I arrived a little after 9pm that night, around the time when people were beginning to gather after Taraweeh prayers. Large crowds of Palestinians marched, determined to take back the occupied Damascus Gate. The Israeli police withdrew and the youth then forced the removal of all barricades and poured into the space. Chanting, singing and dancing, we reasserted our presence on our land.
The “victory” was bittersweet, however. For almost two weeks, Palestinian youth were subjected to brutal suppression, getting beaten up, attacked with stun grenades and foul-smelling “skunk” water cannon, and detained. And while foreign media paid attention to these dramatic images, it ignored completely Israel’s other sustained campaigns of brutality against Jerusalemites.
While Palestinian youth were resisting encroachment on their public spaces, some Jerusalemites were facing brutal dispossession of their homes.
In Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, 500 Palestinians from 28 families are facing eviction from homes that have belonged to them for generations. In February, a court ruled that six Palestinian houses where 27 people live are to be handed over to Jewish settlers. Earlier this week, the court gave the Palestinian families four days to “reach an agreement” with the Jewish settlers, in which they would renounce that they own their homes in exchange for a delay of their eviction.
The appalling absurdity of the court decision is a prime example of Israel’s brutal occupation and ethnic cleansing policies. In Israeli apartheid courts, there is no justice for Palestinians. More than 200 families in East Jerusalem are at risk of eviction due to similar court cases filed against them.
The Palestinian families have vowed to resist. In one video that went viral prior to the court hearing, Sheikh Jarrah resident Muna al-Kurd is seen confronting a settler about stealing Palestinian homes, in which he replies with a heavy American accent “If I don’t steal it, someone else will.” Half of al-Kurd’s home had been taken over by Jewish settlers in 2009.
Home demolitions are another brutal Israeli practice to have continued over the past year, even amid the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, more than 163 homes and structures were demolished in East Jerusalem, displacing 359 Palestinians, including 167 children.
In February, the Jerusalem Municipality requested the activation of demolition orders against some 70 Palestinian homes in the al-Bustan area of Silwan neighbourhood, adjacent to the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israeli municipality plans to build an archaeological park there. If carried out, the demolitions would uproot some 1,500 Palestinians.
Jabal al-Mukaber, a neighbourhood of Jerusalem most affected by demolitions over the past three years, has seen homes demolished and families displaced to make way for a planned ring road that is supposed to connect Israeli settlements in the southern West Bank to Jerusalem. In June 2020 alone, 23 buildings belonging to Palestinians were demolished, resulting in the displacement of 57 people, including 34 children.
In al-Walaja, seven buildings were destroyed and families displaced without warning to make space for the establishment of an Israeli national park. Homes were also demolished in the Sur Bahir area because the buildings were in a “buffer zone”, arbitrarily determined by Israeli authorities.
Israeli violence does not stop at evictions and home demolitions. It also extends into the political sphere, where the Israeli authorities continue to deny the Jerusalemite Palestinians their political rights. They regularly attack and arrest Palestinians engaged in political activities or attempting to represent political parties; even Palestinian Authority (PA) officials are harassed.
In recent days, the Israeli government unequivocally indicated that it would not allow the Palestinian legislative elections, originally scheduled for May 22, to be also held in East Jerusalem, where nearly 400,000 Palestinians live. Israeli police regularly raided events that promoted the Palestinian elections and arrested Palestinian parliamentary candidates. As a result, PA President Mahmoud Abbas officially postponed the planned elections, citing Israel’s outright refusal for the election process to be held in East Jerusalem.
By contrast, Israelis living in Jerusalem have been free to vote four times in the past two years, many of them casting a ballot for the same Jewish extremists who recently were chanting “Death to Arabs!” in our streets.
Jerusalem may have disappeared from the news for now, but the occupiers have not left us alone. The colonial violence has not gone away. On Thursday, Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah expect to be evicted from their homes by force, to be immediately replaced by Jewish settlers.
Over the weekend is Laylat al-Qadr, the one night of Ramadan where Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque is the busiest, which also coincides with what Israelis call “Jerusalem Day”, the day Israel occupied East Jerusalem. Israelis mark that day by marching through our streets and raiding Al-Aqsa, fully protected by the Israeli police, who put us under strict lockdown. But we will not passively watch on.
Israel does its best to make life for Jerusalem’s Palestinians a misery and a constant struggle. It does everything to make us disappear. But we will not. Every day, we face police brutality, arrests, home evictions and demolitions, impoverishment and a denial of basic human rights. The occupier’s violence is a permanent feature of our lives.
But we are determined to fight for our city and remain, no matter what Israel does in its tireless effort to erase us.
Jalal Abukhater, a Jerusalemite, holds an MA in International Relations and Politics from the University of Dundee.
10 May 2021