Sheikh Jarrah: A new generation of activists lead the fight for Palestinian rights

Muna al-Kurd, a Palestinian activist in Jerusalem
6 min read
18 May, 2021
In-depth: The mobilisation of young Palestinians in solidarity with residents facing forced displacement has made Sheikh Jarrah the heart of a new wave of Palestinian activism.

With tensions in Jerusalem running high since April, growing anger over Israeli plans to displace residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood has re-energised the struggle for Palestinian rights.

The latest escalation of Israeli repression in Jerusalem, which spiralled last week into an ongoing military conflict between Israel and Hamas that has so far killed over 200 Palestinians, overlapped with the 73rd commemoration of the Nakba on 15 May - the 1948 expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland to establish the State of Israel.

As Sheikh Jarrah shows, for Palestinians, the fight against dispossession and displacement continues to this day.

"With this young generation, we're truly witnessing some dynamics we haven't seen before"

Events in Jerusalem gained worldwide attention after Israeli forces raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and violently dispersed worshippers and protesters on 7 May. This followed continuous attempts by police to stop Palestinians from accessing the Old City during the holy month of Ramadan.

Parallel to these Israeli escalations, the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem had for weeks been the flashpoint for unrest ahead of a now postponed Israeli court ruling on the potential dispossession of dozens of residents from the neighbourhood to make way for Israeli settlers.

The large-scale mobilisation of mostly young Palestinians in solidarity with the residents has made Sheikh Jarrah the heart of a new wave of Palestinian resistance.

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The initial trigger came at the start of Ramadan on 13 April, after Israeli authorities installed metal barriers outside Damascus Gate, the main entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, blocking access to a public area for Palestinians which led to protests against the restrictions.

Persistent rallies succeeded in forcing Israel to backtrack and remove the barricades on 25 April. Soon afterwards, anger was heightened by the plans to forcibly evict four Palestinian refugee families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah by 2 May.

"It's rage that's been piling up for more than ten years," Amany Khalifa from the organisation Grassroots al-Quds told The New Arab, referring to a series of expulsions ordered by Israeli authorities between 2008 and 2009.

"With this young generation, we're truly witnessing some dynamics we haven't seen before".

The demonstrations by hundreds of Palestinian youths who took to the streets to reclaim their space at Damascus Gate, and eventually won, inspired others to join the fight in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah.

"Israel's policies are designed to rid Jerusalem of Palestinian Jerusalemites," Khalifa said. "This is why we're seeing masses of people rising up today".

Israeli forces attempt to detain a Palestinian protester
Israeli security forces try to detain a Palestinian woman in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. [Getty]

Since late April, Palestinian youths have staged nightly vigils in the Jerusalem neighbourhood in support of the families at risk of expulsion, sparking confrontations with Israeli police forces and Jewish settlers.

More than 200 young Palestinians, most in their mid to late teens and early twenties, have been coming every evening from all over Jerusalem to gather and chant against the threatened forced evictions.

They have been staying in the area until after midnight so as not to leave their compatriots alone with the neighbouring settlers.

"These youngsters see the residents are going to be kicked out of their houses. It's a red line for them, so they're here to show support," Zakariah Odeh, director of the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem (CCPRJ), told The New Arab from Sheikh Jarrah.

Israeli security forces intervene brutally every so often to suppress protest actions. Numerous violations have been documented on the ground, including unprovoked attacks and excessive force used against demonstrators, arbitrary arrests, the use of sound and stun grenades and spraying skunk water at protesters and homes.

In recent days, groups of Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank have been joining the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah to disrupt the Palestinian solidarity gatherings, under the protection of Israeli police.

To make things worse, two weeks ago Israeli police blockaded the entrances to the neighbourhood, banning entry to everyone except Israeli settlers.

"Israel's policies are designed to rid Jerusalem of Palestinian Jerusalemites. This is why we're seeing masses of people rising up today"

"Palestinian Jerusalemites have been prevented from entering. Solidarity activists are having to squeeze between houses and jump from rooftops to get inside," the CCPRJ director told The New Arab, as a group of settlers walking nearby unsettled him.

"I see them playing songs in Hebrew loudly, dancing, screaming and acting provocatively," Odeh added, as the sound of stun grenades could be heard in the distance.

Repression against the resistance movement has not only been physical. Activists in Sheikh Jarrah have complained that social media giants are suspending their accounts and deleting images and video footage of attacks on residents and their supporters by Israeli forces and settlers.

But this heavy-handed crackdown has not put off the scores of young Palestinians who are refusing to suffer Israel's occupation in silence.

"This is what you wanted to be when you were a child? To be on the wrong side? To be on the side of oppressors?", activist Maryam Al Afifi, a student and musician, was heard saying as she confronted an Israeli soldier who recently arrested her in Sheikh Jarrah for defending another woman in a video that has since gone viral.

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Mohammed and his sister Muna El-Kurd, whose family has been living under the threat of displacement from their house in the Karm al-Jaouni area of Sheikh Jarrah, have been keeping the world informed about the situation there.

The El-Kurds are one of the four families who were initially set to be expelled at the beginning of May. Half of their home was seized by a group of settlers in 2009.

Three months ago, Muna launched an online campaign under the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah to highlight the plight of the homeowners threatened by expulsion. In a recent interview, she explained resiliently that "if their families are evicted, the rest of Jerusalem will be taken too".

On 2 May, the Israeli district court ruled that the four households must be evicted or reach a compromise with settler organisations by paying rent and recognising them as landlords. The families resolutely refused in a sign of renewed resistance.

With the events escalating in Jerusalem, the Israeli Supreme Court postponed the hearing with a new date to be determined within a month, sending a signal that Israel is seeking to restore calm, after coming under increasing pressure both locally and globally.

Israeli settlers in Sheikh Jarrah
Israeli settlers sit on the rooftop of a house decorated with the Star of David in Sheikh Jarrah. [Getty]

"The widespread protests within Israel are very worrying for Tel Aviv, it doesn't want to see this turning into something bigger," Odeh noted, referring to the mobilisation of Palestinian demonstrations in Lyd, Haifa, Akka and other cities.

There are also concerns among Palestinians that Israel is using the court delay to weaken and quash the wave of popular revolts. "Israel is betting on time to quell people's solidarity and uprising against their ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem. Don't let this tactic wear you out. Continue rising up online and offline," Palestinian feminist Marwa Fatafta tweeted last week.

Protests have also taken place across the occupied West Bank, with 11 Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces so far.

These massive mobilisations in Jerusalem, along with the involvement of Palestinian citizens of Israel, are unprecedented, as a new generation of Palestinians rises to confront decades-old Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing and displacement.

In 2008-2009, after four households in Karm al-Jaouni, in addition to part of the El-Kurd household, were handed eviction orders, a few dozen Israeli and international activists came to the neighbourhood to support the family members, soon launching weekly demonstrations.

"Back then, it was just a handful of mostly Israeli protesters with few Palestinians. It's incomparable with what we're seeing today," Amany Khalifa from Grassroots al-Quds said.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec