At about 2am on Monday, 11 September, settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah burnt to the ground an International Solidarity Movement tent that had been established to monitor and prevent settler violence in the neighborhood.
Sheikh Jarrah resident pointing out the remains of the ISM tent, burnt by settlers on 11 September (Photo: Ben Lorber for the AIC)
The tent, which thankfully was empty at the time it was torched, had been located in the front yard of the al-Kurd family home since March 2011. The Al-Kurd family, who have lived on the property since 1956, reside in the back section of their home while a constantly rotating cast of Orthodox Jewish young men occupy the front extension of their home. This is due to an Israeli court ruling that forbids the Al-Kurd family from living in their home extension, which they built with their own hands in 2000. Since it was occupied with settlers in 2008, the al-Kurd family has been forced to endure an uneasy, tense and potentially violent co-existence with settlers in their own home. The ISM has maintained a constant presence outside the al-Kurd home to monitor this situation and demonstrate international solidarity.
“I was in the house,” says Nabil al-Kurd, “and at 1.30 a.m. I heard something. I went outside, I saw firemen and I saw the policemen.” Mohammed Sawbag, resident of the neighborhood, adds that “the police asked for proof, photos or something, pictures that we took- we have our cameras around the site, and computer screens inside Nabil’s house. We will send a disc of what happened to the police.”
Settler violence is nothing new for this area of East Jerusalem accustomed to political, civil and ideological conflict. In 1956, 28 Palestinian refugee families were allocated the land by UNRWA and the Jordanian government, the latter controlling East Jerusalem after the 1948 Middle East War. The Promised property deeds to the land were never delivered to the families, and after the 1967 Middle East War the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee produced Ottomon-era title deeds alleging Jewish ownership of the land from the late 1800s. Despite the dubious authenticity of the documents (a trip to the Ottoman archives in Turkey in the late 1990s revealed that the alleged documents do not exist in their records, and the documents themselves lack essential specifying features characteristic of the era, such as detailed descriptions of the property), and despite the fact that ownership guaranteed by the documents is merely a primary registration of ownership that does not allow for the uprooting of third parties who inhabit the land, the Committees quickly began demanding rent payments from, and seeking to evict, the 28 families of Sheikh Jarrah.
The vicious legal battle which has plagued the community since the mid-1970s took a drastic turn in 2009, when four families were forcibly evicted by Israel from their homes. Now, numerous settler families live side-by-side with the 23 remaining Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, who are embroiled in court battles and live suspended in a precarious state of uncertainty.
Why does Israel want this land? The Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem, in its December 2009 report ‘Dispossession and Eviction in Jerusalem: The Stories of Sheikh Jarrah’, writes that “Sheikh Jarrah’s…strategic importance is based on the fact that Israeli control over this area…will form a Jewish ring or buffer between what Israel intends to keep, Jerusalem with a Jewish majority, under its direct control”. The report continues that “collectively the various development initiatives in Sheikh Jarrah are intended to advance the creation of Israeli strongholds in the historic basin surrounding the Old City- with Sheikh Jarrah to the north, Silwan to the south, and the Mount of Olives to the east. Sheikh Jarrah is situated between the Old City and Mount Scopus which is home to the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital. In order to establish continuity through this valued corridor linking West Jerusalem with locations of strategic, historical, and religious significance to the Jewish population, a succession of Israeli neighborhoods were built to link West Jerusalem and Mount Scopus”.
The battle of Sheikh Jarrah residents against the Israeli Commissions is thus simultaneously a battle against the Israeli occupation, annexation and colonization of East Jerusalem. Standing in front of the charred ruins of the ISM tent, Sheikh Jarrah resident Mohammed Sawbag relates how “from the beginning they don’t want this kind of protest. It makes them nervous….they don’t like the tent, with or without [people in it]…they don’t like this kind of symbol”.
This recent act of violence is the most extreme in a string of assaults over the last month. “It’s not the first time they tried to burn it”, relates one ISM activist. “In July settlers tried to destroy it, they ripped the side, entered the tent, and were urinating on the mattresses, we had to get new blankets. Then they urinated and defacated on the sofa” outside the tent. The most horrific incident occurred in late July. “We were sitting outside, it was 2 a.m. and from the small window next to the tent they threw all this shit in the tent, it went on the mattress, on the floor, inside, everywhere. We cleaned and then an hour later, shit again. Then we cleaned again and the settlers went out, pretending they didn’t do it.”
The blaze in the front yard of the al-Kurd family home came as a shock to the close-knit Palestinian community of Sheikh Jarrah. Says Nabil al-Kurd, “nobody does anything like this except for the settlers, because nobody in the [neighborhood] can do anything to my house, because they are good. If I am good with you, I don’t do anything bad.”
The settlers have left visible signs of their animosity throughout the property. The front door and surrounding courtyard of the Al-Kurd family’s home extension, which settlers have occupied since 2008, is adorned with layers of Israeli flags and Stars of David, a display that oversteps the boundaries of religious-cultural pride and enters the terrain of sheer brazenness and stubborn self-assertion. This display pales, however, in comparison to the occupied house across the street, which, in addition to being draped with Israeli flags, is crowned with an enormous 10-foot tall menorah on the roof. The walls of the Al-Kurd courtyard are emblazoned with graffiti like ‘Fuck Palestine’ and the logo of the Jewish Defense League, and most of the colorful drawings on the walls, painted by activists along with the children of the Al-Kurd home and the Sheikh Jarrah community, have been scrawled over with black spray paint. Slogans like ‘Free Paly’ and images of Palestinian flags wrapped in barbed wire, however, still remain on the courtyard walls as testaments to resistance and solidarity.
Settler graffiti in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah (Photo: Ben Lorber for the AIC)
In the current political climate, with the Palestinian initiative at the UN less than two weeks away, this latest attack on the ISM tent is almost certainly motivated by fear of an uncertain future. Says Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity activist Sarah, “you’re talking about a difficult time point because you’re in September, and there’s a whole buildup by Israeli authorities and the settlers to make things look more dramatic than they are, I think to justify [Israeli and settler] violence. I hope not, but I’m afraid it is so…I think it’s a growing feeling that settlers all over East Jerusalem and the West Bank have, that they are backed up by the authorities, and burning something is a violent action, and I’m assuming that they feel a sort of backing that they suppose allows them to behave as they will.”
Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, an organization of Israeli activists, has been campaigning and holding weekly demonstrations on behalf of the Sheikh Jarrah community since August 2009, when the first evictions occurred. The organization began, says Sarah, with the realization that “obviously there’s been a long tradition of Palestinian nonviolent struggle in which Israelis and internationals have taken part, but it has mostly been in the West Bank. In East Jerusalem, the struggle, before Sheikh Jarrah, was in the footsteps of this popular nonviolent struggle…when the evictions happened in Sheikh Jarrah, it was almost unheard of – people almost didn’t even hear about it. Now a lot of people know what Sheikh Jarrah is…there’s much work to be done in bringing this story to new publics… which may view themselves as more center, but we feel that if they learned about the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, they would understand how much discrimination and how many problems the people are facing.”
The situation in Sheikh Jarrah has evolved since the forced evictions in 2009. Then, police patrolled the streets constantly, clashes between settlers and Palestinians were regular and sometimes turned violent, arrests were common, and international activists were present day and night. Now, ISM activists often find that the streets are quiet,and their only role for the night is to smoke cigarettes with Palestinian locals and scoff at settlers, who occasionally spit at them before returning to their nightly routine. On the 1st of September, Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity announced on their website that “the situation has changed…the settler takeover of properties in Sheikh Jarrah has been hindered in parts of the neighborhood, and halted in other parts. The courts have begun, for the first time in years, to rule against the settler organizations in hearings about the future of the neighborhood. The police, the executive arm of the settlements, have retreated from the neighborhood. Arrests of neighborhood residents have dwindled to next to nothing…most importantly, the political reality in East Jerusalem has begun to change. The joint Palestinian-Israeli political struggle has become a byword in East and West Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the goals of our struggle- the removal of the settlers from Sheikh Jarrah, the return of the families to their homes, and, above all, the liberation of the residents of East Jerusalem from repression- are still far from being realized.”
Precisely because the goals of the resistance are far from being realized, ISM is more determined than ever to rebuild their tent and maintain an ongoing presence in Sheikh Jarrah. “We can’t let the occupation become normalized here”, an ISM activist said while standing outside the al-Kurd family home. “If we leave now, we will be sending the message [to the settlers]- ‘Ok, you win, you live here now, everything’s all right, there’s nothing we can do about it’. These settlers have been here for almost three years. Even if everyone in the neighborhood is used to it, as long as there is an occupation we will be here, because it is unjust. And even if the streets are calm most nights, who knows when something could happen?” And indeed, anything could happen at any time. On 9 November 2008, the Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem recalls how “police entered the [al-Kurd family home]. In the middle of the night, the front door of the house was broken in. Police, masked and heavily armed, quickly filled the residence after having surrounded and locked down the neighborhood” (22). This attempted eviction set the tone for all future evictions, which occurred by surprise, in the middle of the night, and were always accompanied by a barrage of heavily armed soldiers and a military lockdown of the area.
A book by Noam Chomsky was amongst the articles burnt when the ISM tent in Sheikh Jarrah was destroyed by arson (Photo: Ben Lorber for the AIC)
As ISM will continue its presence in Sheikh Jarrah, Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity is developing new tactics to raise awareness and combat the occupation throughout East Jerusalem. Says Sarah- “Sheikh Jarrah isn’t an isolated incident, you can’t isolate the incident in Sheikh Jarrah from what’s going on in all of East Jerusalem. So through the past year we’ve been demonstrating in other places, and the objective now is to bring this situation to new audiences, that maybe may not come to a demonstration because they’re scared, or don’t like to demonstrate. So we will do this by way of tours and by founding an information center which will be a base in Sheikh Jarrah, and not something which will just be on a weekly basis, and raising the situation there as related to the rest of East Jerusalem…. the point is we are working out of very basic human rights…it’s about fighting for equality and justice. And obviously what’s going on in East Jerusalem is that Palestinians are being discriminated against- that’s why it’s easier for Jewish settlers to take over the land, because the law favors them.”
For now, the police are investigating the al-Kurd family footage, and searching for the suspect(s). Meanwhile, ISMers maintain a nightly presence in Sheikh Jarrah, sitting out under the stars until a new tent is constructed. Says Mohammed Sawbag, “they [the settlers] will not try to do anything for the next few days, because the situation is bad for them. We have pictures of who did it. They are afraid. A settler told me he was not responsible, that he doesn’t know who did it. I told him you are lying! He tried to tell me that during the last month there were no insults and nothing bad has happened. He is lying!”
Nabil al-Kurd said it best as he stood in his front yard, next to the charred remnants of the ISM tent, three feet away from the words ‘Fuck Palestine’ scrawled on his courtyard wall, beside the home extension which legally is not his, though he built it with his bare hands- “This is democracy in Israel!”