JERUSALEM — This Friday’s protest at Sheikh Jarrah was met with the most violent repression since the weekly demonstrations began. The Jerusalem police and Israeli Border Guard officers brutalized the three hundred non-violent demonstrators and arrested at least eight in response to the demonstrators’ attempt to protest in front of homes illegally seized from Palestinian families by radical right-wing Jewish settlers.
Though Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators have been arrested en masse in the past, the protest is often a mellow affair characterized by chanting, singing, and kibitzing among a few hundred Jewish Israeli leftists. However, this week the demonstrators demanded to enter the Simeon the Just compound that the police normally cordon off to everyone except settlers. Their intention was to highlight the unfairness of not only the right of settlers to throw Palestinian families out of homes they had lived in for 60 years, but to expose the police’s discriminatory practice of blocking the neighborhood off to supposedly protect the settlers. The police practice is eerily reminiscent of the Israeli Army’s apartheid policies in the West Bank city of Hebron, where access to Shuhada Street is forbidden to everyone except the radical settlers who have occupied the surrounding areas — even the Palestinians who live near the street must avoid it under threat of settler violence or arrest.
At first, a small group of demonstrators climbed a stone wall and sneaked through a backyard until they reached the neighborhood. They were followed by another group, and then another, until the street was filled with protesters. The police responded with massive force, attempting to push the demonstrators up a hill and back behind the cordon. The violence resulted in a spate of arrests which seemed to be carried out randomly; the police simply grabbed anyone they could get their hands on. For over an hour, Jerusalem cops shoved everyone in sight, including old people and a woman holding a small child (see the first video I posted). And yet, the police brutality could have been more extreme. If the demonstration had been supplemented by a significant contingent of Palestinian Israelis, there is little doubt that the violence deployed against it would have been exponentially greater.
While inside the cordoned-off neighborhood, I spoke with a young Palestinian woman who lives next door to a house seized by the settlers. She feared disclosing her identity, insisting to me that more publicity would put her family in danger. The woman told me that she was recently attacked by a group of teenage settlers while she returned late at night from university classes. The attack began when the boys shouted curses at her, prompting her to shout back. Then they surrounded her, punching and kicking her until she fell to the ground. After she screamed for help, some neighbors rushed from their homes and chased her assailants away. “Every day the settlers curse at us and make rude gestures,” the woman told me. “The reason they do it is obvious: they are trying to scare us so that we leave.”
The door of the woman’s house was covered with Stars of David painted by the settlers. As in Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank, Jewish settlers spray paint Stars of David on Palestinian homes and businesses which they seek to occupy or which have emptied of their original residents. (This practice caused writer Judy Mandelbaum to wonder if the Star of David is becoming the “new swastika.”) “The police don’t do anything about this,” the woman remarked to me. “They have seen the attacks, they know they take place. But even if I did call them they would not arrest the Israelis. They only arrest us.”
Indeed, none of the settlers’ religio-fascist machinations could have been fulfilled without the full support of secular figures in the government, from the technocratic Barkat to the atheist Prime Minister Netanyahu to Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who just ordered his occupation army to seal off the windows of Palestinian homes located along the route to Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. The violence directed against the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators on Friday was just another snapshot of a settler-colonial state slamming its last remaining vestiges of opposition against the wall.