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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

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.

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    1. Ben Israel

      The ultimate gibberish of someone who doesn’t really have anything to say: “the settlers and police are FASCISTS”. Thanks, Eitan, I am sure they will all be spending sleepless nights because you applied a bad world to them.

      Eitan-you want to talk about “stolen land”? The Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University that you study at is on STOLEN Arab land that belonged to the Arab village of Sheikh Jarrah before 1948. The Progressives Tel Aviv University campus is on the stolen land from the former Arab village of Sheikh Munis. One of the original organizers of the Shiekh Jarrah demonstrations admitted that he lives in a house that was stolen from an Arab who lived in west Jerusalem in 1948. A sometimes contributer here at “972” admitted he also lives in a stolen Arab house.

      There is no end to the hypocrisy of these people.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Eitan

      Hi Ben, I’m glad you want to talk about the Nakba!

      Reply to Comment
    3. lablueyz

      BI: I presume that if you are in Israel you are one of those folks who are terrified of a Palestinian State -because give a finger, lose the hand.
      What you are expressing/experiencing is the fear of what is in your own heart and the vision of “Greater Israel” via “Greater Jerusalem” you chesrish.
      Dreams die easy. Wake up!

      Great article!


      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben Israel

      If you are Eitan Grossman I can tell you that you can hold demonsrations for the next thousand years but the Jews in Shimon HaTzadik, Maalei Zeitim and all the other places being subject to demonstrations will not leave. If you think that you are making some sort of deal with the Palestinians saying that you will help drive the Jews out of these places in return for them agreeing to letting HU, TAU and the rest keeping the stolen land they are on , you can forget it. That’s why the Palestinians will not give up their demand for the “Right of Return”.
      Thus, if you really want to help them, picket Tel Aviv University, get them to track down the owners of the land of Sheikh Munis and give it back to them. You can do this yourself because the TAU is full of Leftist/Progressives like yourself and I am sure they will be moved by an emotional appeal to the reverse the Nakba.
      Or maybe they really don’t care and simply want to be “moral” on somebody else’s account.

      Actually I have no problem with Jews being in Givat Ram, Ramat Aviv-TAU, Maalei Zeitim and Shimon HaTzadik-Sheikh Jarrah. The Arabs started the war, proclaiming a genocidal jihad, but fortunately they lost it. They lost their land just like the millions of Germans expelled after World War II from Pomerania, Silesia, East Prussia, the Sudentland and other places in eastern Europe lost theirs. End of story.

      Reply to Comment
    5. David

      Can we have the definition of fascism please?
      Using the word fascism in this context is an insult to the 50 million who died in the fight against fascism.
      I think the usage of the word shows a sense of engorged self import and pathos.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Christian Barnes

      In terms of history most land has been stolen off someone else, who likely stole it off someone before. In ‘England’, the Romans stole from the Celts, the Angles robbed the Saxons who had their land robbed by the Vikings, and then the Normans came in and robbed their descendants.

      However we can not use historical injustice to justify our own injustice. I am not going to bulldoze the homes of someone who I feel is less ‘English’ than me, or who does not follow the ‘Church of England’, saying “You can not criticise me, look at history, it is what has been done”.

      You may say what does he know English guy, they caused half the problems in the first place. Wrong thinking! I am a person, not an Englishman. We are not our governments (sadly). The history of the rocks on which we live are not us, unless we are talking about planet earth. Division along religious, racial or national lines are increasingly irrelevant. The division is between those that believe in justice for all and those that believe in privelege for a select group.

      Two state solution is still just division, one world solution is the project in hand.


      Reply to Comment
    7. Eitan

      Hi David, I think it’s a bit of a shame to focus on this one word, since a discussion of fascism in the present context is a bit beyond the point of the present article. Still, you can have as many definitions as you like. Wikipedia quotes quite a few. An oft-quoted one is “A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” [Robert O. Paxton, “The Anatomy of Fascism,” 2004]. The first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article are also worth reading in conjunction with the important website http://www.hahem.co.il/slipperyslope/ for the details.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Christian Barnes

      Definition of Fascism – very easy.

      One group oppressing another

      Reply to Comment
    9. max

      The police are brutal when they face an illegal situation. Are they more towards leftists than rightists? Are the Israeli police more violent than others? With no answers to these questions the rest of the post – in this context – is irrelevant.
      “none of those East Jerusalem residents who fled their homes inside Israel during the Nakba are allowed to reclaim them in a similar way”
      True. Are you familiar with an example in the world in a similar context where this isn’t the case? Where the losing aggressor was allowed to revert to the pre-aggression state? If not, why the indignation?
      “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.’”
      does not imply
      “the explicit goal of the settlement is to prevent Palestinians from living in their homes in peace and security”
      but does imply
      “as well as to obstruct any form of Palestinian national self-determination in which Jerusalem would be the national capital”.
      That’s their political goal, which you don’t share. You’re both right to advance your views using legal means.
      “it’s because the reality in which we live is extreme” – you must be joking! It isn’t Switzerland but _extreme_ is what you find in various Arab countries experiencing their Spring.
      “It may be the time we start taking the settlers words at face value” – probably, and I understand that this is exactly what the Israeli “right” is doing when listening to the Palestinians’ words about 1948
      “The settlers have harassed the residents of the neighborhood” – that’s the only part in the post that, if true, is worth fighting for.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ya'ar

      Ben, you seem to have no clue about the geography of Jerusalem. Giv’at Ram is located on the other side of the city, far from Sheikh Jarrah: http://bit.ly/l1FBry

      The alleged “deal” that you attribute to the demonstrators and the Palestinians is ridiculous. May I mention the fact that the Hebrew University was founded in 1925?

      You seem to be using the Nakba as a means of intimidation, but for honest people who respect human rights there is nothing to fear. It is an outrage the so much of Israel is built on stolen land taken from people who were expelled by force and the Palestinians hold an unquestionable right to return to them. Neither dirty deals nor preposterous accusation of genocidal intentions can take that away.

      Reply to Comment
    11. directrob

      Why was not everybody arrested or beaten to pulp? I guess in the end you gave in, choosing peace instead of justice. A peaceful demonstration instead of a show of determined Gandhi like “principled nonviolence”. This time you were probably right.
      By the way you might have broken “a rule” but certainly not “the law”. For “the law” to be broken there should be “a rule of law” and a “justice system” respecting universal human rights. Otherwise the rule of law does not exist.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Dannecker

      For the first time, I am in agreement with Ben Israel. I agree that Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University are on stolen land, as is both re and ost 1967 israel. If you go back to Minsk, no one will bother you

      Reply to Comment
    13. Dannecker

      For the first time, I am in agreement with Ben Israel. I agree that Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University are on stolen land, as is both pre and post 1967 israel. If you go back to Minsk, no one will bother you

      Reply to Comment
    14. Ya'ar

      Dannecker, when someone steals something, there is no point in cutting their arms or expelling them. These are immoral punishments.
      It is true that the universities hold Palestinian land which was taken illegitimately, and that they should compensate the original owners of the land either by returning it to them or by other means of compensation.
      Your logic actually supports expulsion of people as a way of resolving conflicts (you support the crimes of the Nakba and you support expelling leftists to Minsk). This is an immoral stance: justice must be made, but not by means of an eye for an eye.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Ben Israel

      I lived in Jerusalem in the past. I suggest YOU bone up on your history and geography. The Hebrew University campus inaugurated in 1925 was the Har HaTzofim campus (Mount Scopus-Mount of Olives). It was an unusable enclave from 1948-1967. Thus, the Hebrew U built a new campus at Givat Ram, which as I said, was built on the land of the Arab village of Sheikh Badr.
      If it is wrong for Jews to live in Sheikh Jarrah, which was Jewish-owned property before 1948, then it must be wrong for Jews to live on what was ARAB property before 1948. Thus, I suggest the Left/Progressive University professors wasting their time at the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations work instead to convince the Hebrew U and Tel Aviv U people, who, by and large are Leftist/Progressives TO GIVE THE STOLEN LAND THEY ARE SITTING ON BACK TO ITS ORIGINAL OWNERS. After all, these people do consider themselves the moral beacon of our times, don’t they? The Palestinians will not buy the line that if the Leftist/Progressives demonstrate against Jews returning to Sheikh Jarrah, the Palestinians will conveniently forget about Givat Ram and Ramat Aviv.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Dannecker

      Yaar, you misunderstand me. I dont support expelling leftists to Minsk. I support the voluntary transfer of israelis to their true homelannds, ie Minsk, so the Palestinians can return to their homelands. There is no room for both occupier and victim to share in the small amount of land in Palestine, so international justice demands not only the right of return of the Palestinian people, but the right of return of the israeli people as well

      Reply to Comment
    17. Ya'ar

      I thought you gave up on answering and I stopped checking…
      Anyway, Ben, unfortunately you wrote in your comment from June 9, 2011 (8:46) that “The Givat Ram campus […] is on STOLEN Arab land that belonged to the Arab village of Sheikh Jarrah before 1948.” You wrote “Sheikh Jarrah”, which is wrong. On your last comment you corrected it to Sheikh Badr.
      As for your plea to give back the stolen land of the universities (in Sheikh Badr or Sheikh muwannis) to the Palestinians, I endorse it wholeheartedly. Stolen land *must* be returned. As you yourself admit, the Hebrew University existed before the Nakba and has a right to exist on its non-stolen land. I can imagine an agreement with the Palestinians according to which the universities will be allowed to remain on the parts of Sheikh Badr and Sheikh Muwannis which they have taken up in return to compensation of money and/or alternative land, but this is up to the rightful owner of the lands to decide.
      Dannecker, I think I’ve actually understood you perfectly well. Transfer of inhabitants who were born on the land, voluntary or not, is morally wrong, and is contrary to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (articles 1, 2 and 13). The young generation of Israel has a right to remain on the land, but the discriminatory regime must fall, and the Israeli Jews who hold stolen property and have profited from the disappropriation of Palestinians are responsible and accountable and must compensate them. The size of the land is not an argument.
      I agree with you that Jews still have their own right of return to countries out of which they were driven out as refugees, but a right is not an obligation. It is up to the refugees and their descendants to decide whether or not they wish to return.

      Reply to Comment