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What happened to the protests in Sheikh Jarrah?

Two and a half years after the emergence of the protest movement that was celebrated as the birth of “a new Israeli left,” only a handful of demonstrators come to the East Jerusalem neighborhood each Friday. Solidarity activists claim that the battle has moved to other places, while local Palestinian residents fear the future, and wonder whether evictions will resume, now that the media attention is gone.

Just one year ago, the story of Sheikh Jarrah made it all the way to Washington, D.C., taking center stage at the annual J Street Conference, where leading members of the Israeli Solidarity movement were invited to speak to an audience of American Jews and D.C. policymakers about Israel’s discriminatory and repressive policies in East Jerusalem. The platform given to young Israeli anti-occupation activists arrested for protesting the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes was a strong indication of just how successful the protests that began in the fall 2009 had become in raising international concern over Israel’s policy of settlements in East Jerusalem. Americans, Israelis and the international media suddenly took notice of where Sheikh Jarrah was, and were talking about Israel’s responsibility in undermining a two-state solution by settling Jews in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem.

What began as only a handful of protestors, shortly after the Hanoun and Ghawi families were kicked out of their homes on August 2, 2009, became a weekly Friday ritual of several hundred people who came with a lot of energy: people held signs demanding Israeli settlers get out of the neighborhood; Palestinian residents made speeches; there were drum circles and people calling for an end to the occupation and slogans like: “Arabs and Jews refuse to be enemies.” There was the feeling that a new left in Israel was emerging.

As the protests became regular and increased in numbers, the Jerusalem Police began making arrests, sometimes of dozens of protestors at a time. In January 2010, the protests made headlines in Israel when the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai El-Ad, was arrested, along with 14 other Israelis – only to be released hours later.

Israelis who had never even been to a protest beforehand were protesting in large numbers and getting arrested once the police decided it was enough. The Solidarity movement became a symbol of Israeli civil disobedience against settlements and the occupation – and the public discourse among the liberal community in Israel focused on the authorities’ violations of freedom of expression and the right to protest. At the height of its activity, there were several thousands Israelis and Palestinians protesting in Sheikh Jarrah, and prominent figures came through to show support, among them: Israeli novelist David Grossman, former Speaker of the Knesset Avram Burg, former US President Jimmy Carter and former Irish president Mary Robinson.

In recent months, if you go to Sheikh Jarrah on a given Friday afternoon, you will only see at best a handful of Israelis and Palestinians standing in the Sheikh Jarrah Park, down the road from the houses that have been inhabited by Jewish settlers. The presence there now resembles more of a vigil, like those of Women in Black in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv who have protested the occupation weekly for decades; a symbolic act instead of on-the-ground political action.


Activists moved on

Sheikh Jarrah protesters (Photo: activestills.org)

As of September 1, 2011, the Solidarity Movement decided to stop organizing protests at Sheikh Jarrah; the movement was no longer to be called “Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah” but simply “Solidarity.” According to a statement published on their website, the protests in Sheikh Jarrah reached their zenith and had exhausted their mission, since the takeover of Palestinian houses by settlers were either stopped or delayed by the courts, and the police had ceased entering the neighborhood and arresting residents. They announced that their activities would start taking on different models:

In the coming months, a series of activities in Sheikh Jarrah will replace the weekly demonstrations. We will conduct to tours of the neighborhood for the Israeli public, hold large-scale political and cultural events, and begin the construction of a permanent information center run by the neighborhood’s residents.

Although the information center has yet to be established, Solidarity activists continue to protest Jewish settlement, evictions and discrimination throughout East Jerusalem, in Silwan, where the City of David continues to operate, and in Issawiya, where a National Park is being built on private Palestinian land. Solidarity has become a national movement, which also operates in Arab-Israeli cities such as Ramle and Lod. In Ramle, Arab-Israeli families are under threat of eviction by Amidar, a public housing company owned by the Israel Lands Administration.

Solidarity has also set up activist groups in universities throughout the country that hold educational programs. A group of high school teachers identified with Solidarity participated in the letter to Education Minister Gideon Saar asserting they would refuse to take their classes to Hebron. It remains to be seen if those changes made the movement more effective and widespread, or whether the disengagement from the place in which the protest has started resulted in a blurring of the original message.

According to Solidarity activist Daniel Dukarevich-Argo, the protests were a success and remaining there was no longer politically effective. “The protests turned from something politically important to something much less significant. Throughout 2010 everyone who went there felt their presence was important – because of police repression and because of settler aggression, but the reality changed. We didn’t want to preserve the ritual for the sake of the ritual.”

While Dukarevich-Argo believes it was the right decision to move on and assures that if something in the neighborhood changes they will resume demonstrating, other Israeli Solidarity activists have a different take. They feel it was important to continue protesting in the neighborhood because of the significance of Sheikh Jarrah’s story and most importantly, in order to continue and show solidarity with the local Palestinian residents. Indeed, some Palestinian locals have expressed anger about the cessation of activity . In the absence of the Solidarity activists, a new committee of five members has been created to assume responsibilities for activities in the neighborhood. It’s this committee that is now responsible of the small vigils taking place every Friday.


Ten families still fighting eviction orders

Palestinian families at a press conference in Sheikh Jarrah in late 2009 (Photo: Activestills)

In total, seven Palestinian families have been evicted from Sheikh Jarrah. Since November 2009, there have been no more evictions. However there are still several families stuck in a protracted legal battle with Israeli organizations over ownership of their homes.

According to Hatem Abo Ahmad, one of the lawyers representing the families in the neighborhood, there are 10 families still under threat of losing their homes. Abo Ahmad is not optimistic. The courts so far recognized Jewish claim for pre-1948 homes, while preventing the same claim from Palestinians who left West Jerusalem. Still, he told me that on legal grounds, many of the families have all the necessary documents to prove their ownership. Abo Ahmad also said that, the lawyers have acquired Turkish documents from the Ottoman period that provide further evidence of the families’ ownership claims. It has yet to be seen how these court proceedings, which could take years and years, will transpire.

Local residents feel that no one is talking about Sheikh Jarrah anymore. The Israeli and international media – which up until not so long ago, were preoccupied with Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem and putting a spotlight on the joint efforts by Israelis and Palestinians to stop them – have moved to Iran.

At the largest policy conference on Israel in the United States hosted by the AIPAC lobby at the start of March, Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t even utter the word Palestinian once. Although Israelis continue to join Palestinians in solidarity each week throughout the West Bank, the story of Sheikh Jarrah – where Israelis took a leading role in the protests –seems like a long lost memory.


Following the recent release of Just Vision’s new documentary “My Neighborhood,” which details the struggle of Palestinian families and Israeli activists against settlements in Sheikh Jarrah, +972mag is presenting a series of articles on the state of the protests, past and present. This is the first in a series.

For more information on the legal issue in Sheikh Jarrah, click here and here.

Read also:
Friday protests in Sheikh Jarrah: Now a tiny vigil 


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    1. sh

      To clarify something a little hazy in your article, Mairav, the decision to change Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity’s name to Solidarity was taken a while before they decided to stop demonstrating in Sheikh Jarrah and I’m not sure the two developments were linked. As someone who went pretty regularly on Fridays, although I live well north of Tel Aviv making the trip by public transport and then their bus took up most of the day, I was shocked last summer when, at the first protest after Ramadan, they announced that they were moving on to different and would no longer be holding the regular protests there. The tone seemed to imply that the protests had achieved something concrete when in fact they had basically succeeded in freezing further incursions by settlers. While an accomplishment, this had never returned any of the houses already taken over by them to any of their owners. It also left the Al-Kurds in the same ghastly predicament they had been in since the courts decided that it was OK for settlers to use their annex as a store-room and the settlers took that as meaning that they could spend all their waking hours in his front yard (which at one time had swings for kids and flowers in it and is now a dump) and poison the family’s daily comings and goings from the back house into which they were now compressed, to the street.
      The protests had achieved so much publicity, Sheikh Jarrah was so well-placed for the hesitant to take their courage in their hands and dare to look the problem in the eye for the first time, bonds had been forged between the inhabitants and the protesters, the line between the revolutionary ardor of some Solidarity members and abstaining from clearly stated political objectives had been so carefully trodden. I do believe that winding down these demonstrations has blurred the original message and lost much painstakingly built up credit. Perhaps Dukarevitch-Argo thinks they were a success because the police had been shown to be violent and dishonest and had finally been forced by the courts to keep a low profile at the demonstrations, but that should have been the best of reasons to continue them. With the flagship gone, the boats are scattered all over the show. I suppose that kind of misjudgment is why why everyone says the left is dead.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Sinjim

      What stunning arrogance to declare the protests a success when the families these activists were there to ostensibly support continue suffering.
      This is the result of the nature and the organization of Solidarity. Palestinians were only ever participants in the movement, never leaders. I’m sure their input was valued, but ultimately the decision-makers were the Jewish Israelis who organized the protests. The Solidarity website and its twitter account were primarily in Hebrew with an accompanying English translated site. There are no Arabic language resources. How is it possible to never attempt to reach out to the people you’re trying to help and call yourself “Solidarity”?
      I wonder if the group of people who made the decision that the Sheikh Jarrah protests were a “success” included a single Palestinian among them or if any Palestinian from the families who had been kicked out of their homes had been given a chance to offer her input.
      This story is another reminder of the caution that must be taken with co-resistance efforts. Israeli Jews aren’t the ones who suffer here, and they can’t be the leaders of the Palestinian struggle. At some point they need to realize this isn’t about their needs to feel good about themselves; it’s about the needs of the people who their state oppresses, needs which continue to be denied to them.
      The oppressor can never be the savior as well.

      Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      Sinjim, Nasser Ghawi was/is, I hope, a leader in Sheikh Jarrah and quite a few others too. They and some leaders in Silwan worked with SJS. In all fairness about the website, the people busy with it were all activists out in the field themselves which, when there’s no money to hire anyone, kind of reduces the amount of time that can be spent on it. Part of the site should have been in Arabic. The English part did have a few original articles in it in the beginning, but less and less later on. Solidarity activists are certainly not oppressors of Palestinians, nor did they attempt to be saviors. They attempted, like most Israeli pro-Palestinian activists do, to at least attenuate some of the worst abuses by the military and the police, by being there. They’ve done some good, imaginative things and are tireless in their efforts to be in several places at the same time, but have made some mistakes, perhaps over-extended themselves.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Natan Brill

      Armchair Activist
      One who sits in their armchair or desk chair and blogs or posts Activists issues on facebook without ever really doing anything about said issues or exercising any form of activism as it would require that person to actually leave the armchair.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Hi Mairav, an important related question:

      Is there a transparent/democratic decision making process in Solidarity?

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      To Solidarity’s credit too is today’s announcement about Mount Scopus slopes, a “national park” that would further restrict the residents of A-Tur and Issawiya that it has been involved in trying to stop. As a result of their campaign, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Nature and Parks Authority have announced the allocation of land earmarked to be part of that national park for the development of neighborhoods in Issawiya and A-Tur. Their campaign goes on over the size of the areas allocated. Rather than writing Solidarity off, constructive criticism would probably be more useful.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Woody

      When this movement first organized, I think many people sensed that it was lacking a solid political orientation and as a majority was made up of newer, more liberal, and often Zionist activists. It was great that the protest movement attracted these new Israelis to a margin of the occupation in which they could operate comfortably. This surely led to the radicalization of a number of people. We shouldn’t forget that the protests were a mainstay stop for nearly every international group coming through and that the ISM was involved in the struggle from the beginning, thrusting their weight to Jerusalem for the first time in awhile. However, due to this perceived lack of political orientation, I believe that the movement fell into exactly what Mairav is describing – a fad. Notice that Bil’in continues a fight, but SJ “The Movement” is waning. This is in large part because there is no Jewish-Israeli led organizing committee that visitors decided to use to direct the movement. Solidarity activism means going where you’re asked to and I don’t believe the residents of Sheikh Jarrah asked them to go. This is a horrible outcome bu Solidarity in SJ and it is not unlike the offensive rape posters that they decided were appropriate not too long ago.

      Reply to Comment