In June, 2015, I recounted a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah that resulted in injuries and arrests (see the post here). The situation has since worsened again, as David Shulman relates.
There are some 1200 Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, and every last one of them is slated for eviction. These things take time. Not even the present government can just cleanse the neighborhood of people whose crime is not to be Jews. The courts have to make it kosher. The last aggressive wave of evictions took place almost ten years ago. We stopped it, with the loss of a few houses. International pressure worked well together with the weekly demonstrations, which often ended in fierce attacks, and sometimes mass arrests, by the police. For over two years we were there every week, at times with hundreds of demonstrators, more usually with several dozen. Cussed perseverance is an underrated virtue.
Bitterness comes from grim certainty: déjà vu. For ten years we kept them at bay. Not that we, or the Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah, thought the reprieve would last. Now we’re back, because the Sabbagh clan of five brothers, each with his extended family, is targeted for immediate eviction. The courts have given their approval. An appeal is still in process, but it is very unlikely that it will have an effect. Thirteen more families are next in line. I don’t think we have to rehearse the whole sordid story.
So here I am again, in the same streets, the same neighborhood park where we assemble, the grocery store on the corner, the mosque, the petrol pump, the grassy mound with its ruined arch, the beaten-up cars on the sidewalk, the stone benches near the traffic island, the signs to the American Colony Hotel, the Palestinian restaurants uphill. Everything is the same. Except that every wicked act is singular, and always new. Settlers, their tzitzit flying in the wind—it is still winter—walk by on their way home (a stolen home) or to the grave of Shimon the Righteous, who has been enjoying a renaissance. For our part, the drummers are drumming, the activists are chanting, our friends Saleh and Muhammad are serving coffee in tiny paper cups, just as they used to do, with astonishing sangfroid, while the riot police were dragging demonstrators away by their hair and shooting them with pepper spray and tear gas. Coffee first, even in extremis; it is a matter of civility and hospitality. The thin light of winter afternoon, just before Shabbat, is receding, and it’s cold. I remember the first time I got pepper gas in my eyes, on this street, just over there. I thought I’d never see again.
House by house. Saleh’s first, which the settlers captured. Then we climb up to the Sabbagh homes on the ridge overlooking Sheikh Jarrah. Women, heads covered, in heavy coats, emerge on to the steep steps. Muhammad speaks. “The Israelis claim to have a state with laws and rules and democracy, but for us it is a state of terror. We are facing a second Nakba, a slower one than the first, but no less merciless. Their courts rule on racist principles, and their soldiers are only waiting to attack us. We don’t know if they will come to expel us today or tomorrow or in a week or a month. Many of us have been through it already. Those who lost their homes in Sheikh Jarrah have not recovered. It is not easy for a human being to lose a home. Our hearts long for our lost homes. We thank you for standing with us.”
It takes some time before the riot police arrive, and at first they hesitate. Maybe they are waiting for the ones on motorcycles with their fancy helmets. No need to rush. The motorcycles turn up. They confer. They photograph everyone in the front line. Then they push their way into the crowd. They’re in black, which seems right. Machine guns over their shoulders. What I worry about is the Tasers. I’m also trying to keep my foot safe in the crush. A car ran over it three weeks ago, and I’m still hobbling. The cane, however, has a striking effect on my friends. For one thing, it establishes yet another bond with Amiel, whose foot was badly hurt by settlers, over a year ago. I ask him if it has stopped hurting. Not yet.
Like last week, the police are intent on kidnapping the Palestinian flags. Yigal says by now it’s a Pavlovian thing. The flag drives them mad. There is nothing illegal about waving a Palestinian flag in Israel—once, during the Oslo years, it was a normal part of the public space—but that doesn’t stop the them from going after every one they see.
Now they close in on Yonatan and, hitting hard with their fists at everyone nearby, slash the flag from his hands. Danny is hit. The crowd sways and swirls around them, people are crying “No Occupation,” la l’ihtilal, the drumming accelerates, the black squad, happy with their prey, tear themselves away from their pre-Shabbat pleasures, we regroup, we breathe in, the singing crescendos, the wounded rub their wounds, and Saleh is still offering coffee in tiny white paper cups. It’s over for now.
Over in some sense.
thanks to Amir Bitan and Guy Butavia for permission to reproduce their photographs. See Guy’s video here
postscript: one week later
From stolen house to stolen house to the house of many stories waiting to be stolen, we walk the walk through Sheikh Jarrah. Maybe the weekly demonstration is picking up speed. Today there were some 250 of us, possibly double last week’s count. Together with our enemies, the border police and the riot police, who are here today in large numbers, we enact Kafka’s rule:
Leopards break into the temple and drink up the libations from their jugs; this is repeated again and again; in the end it is foreseen and becomes part of the ceremony.
Our leopards, clothed in black, heavily armed, and clearly in a violent mood, wait for the moment we unfurl miniature plastic flags of Palestine. Then the dark leopards bravely charge into the mass of demonstrators, plucking the flags like figs from a tree. Oddly, the more they pluck, the more flags keep popping up. It must be frustrating for the leopards. Quickly they lose patience. They push and shove and hit. Each time a crop of flags is decapitated, another wave, red-white-black-green, washes over the crowd. In this battle for Sheikh Jarrah, for the future, for the tiniest glimmer of hope, for some shred of dignity, the leopards win, for today, as they are meant to. They walk off with armfuls of crumpled plastic. We couldn’t do this without them.
Then they congregate across the street from the little park which is our base. With them are two trouble-makers from the extreme right-wing organizations of Ad Kan and Im Tirtzu; one of them has been photographing us furiously from the start. He looks the part: sullen, scornful, obtuse. It’s a great honor, I say to Eileen, to be photographed by such monsters. The police fraternize with them while we go on with our cries: Down with the Occupation, Don’t be Silent, etc. etc., the drummers beating, the skies joining in with a host of crumbly cumulus clouds, just for us. Winter in Sheikh Jarrrah.
No one was hurt today. Just as the demonstration was ending, Saleh was arrested, later released. The ritual was performed correctly, without flaw.
text: David Shulman © 2019
For those of you who would like to see more of Sheikh Jarrah, I recommend the short film directed by Julia Bacha and Rebekah Wingert-Jabi, Our Neighborhood (released by Just Vision): https://www.justvision.org/myneighbourhood/watch For a good photographic history of the Sheikh Jarrah protests, see https://972mag.com/photo-essay-3-years-of-settlement-struggle-in-sheikh-jarrah/38493/