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An Inside Look at Sheik Jarrah: How a Human Rights NGO Lost Its Way, and Its Message

This Tuesday, Seth Morrison, a board member of the Jewish National Fund, resigned from his duties. In a letter to the Jewish Daily Forward, Morrison claimed that “A subsidiary of the Israeli branch of the JNF launched eviction proceedings against the Sumarin family, who live in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem.” He then revealed that the JNF has transferred properties in East Jerusalem numerous times to  “Elad, a settler organization whose purpose is to ‘Judaize’ East Jerusalem.”  He concluded, “I fear that such actions endanger Israel’s future as a secure and democratic state.” Morrison, however, is not the first to protest these actions.

Seven floors of recently quarried Jerusalem stone wrapped this citadel. Metal shutters covered small windows. An iron gate was the only entrance into the compound. It was built for protection, stability and security. It was white, tall, commanding, and, well, beautiful. Above the imposing walls, the tops of newly planted eucalyptus and olive trees waved in the soft spring breeze.


Outside the walls of the bastion, the dirty beige houses were crumbling, the eucalyptus trees shriveled and dry. Black water tanks perched themselves perilously on their roofs.  These ramshackle houses contrasted starkly with the fortress.


This was Ma’ale David, a settlement complex situated in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is the doorstep to the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.


On this Friday afternoon, hundreds of Jewish and Arab students, construction workers, intellectuals, and journalists stood at the gates of Ma’ale David. They had gathered to protest this settlement complex, built in the middle of Ras Al’ Amud, a neighborhood of 12,000 Palestinians, for 8 Jewish families.


As the Jewish families looked on from atop the walls, waving flags and throwing water down onto the protesters, megaphones from protesters led chants in Hebrew, Arabic, and English that resonated off the building. They shouted “From Sheikh Jarrah to Bil’in, free, free Palestine!” a reference to the Palestinian town of Bil’in where weekly protests are held against the West Bank Barrier Fence. Chants of “Medinat Mishtara” or “Police State” were directed at Israeli security personnel, which the Israeli Government provides at an estimated cost of over 20,000 Shekels a year per person in West Bank Settlements.


As the protests grew, riot police were called in to maintain order. An Israeli protester began shouting at a police officer and had to be calmed by fellow protesters. The protesters then decided to sit in front of the driveway before the gate of the compound to prevent Jewish settlers from entering or exiting the compound. Suddenly, police began pulling protesters off of the road. Police officers punched, grabbed and even tazed non-violent protesters. Tensions burst into a fury of shouts and pushes.


The Sheik Jarrah Solidarity Movement was founded by Israeli and Palestinian activists in 2009 after police evicted four Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian families were former refugees who fled to the neighborhood after Israel’s War of Independence. After arriving in the Jordanian ruled East Jerusalem, they exchanged their United Nations refugee cards for the right to build houses on vacant lots or to occupy abandoned houses in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood.


After Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, Jewish organizations claimed ownership of the houses based on Ottoman deeds dating as far back as the 1800’s. The Palestinian families were not allowed to claim ownership of lost properties in Israel, despite being backed by the same Ottoman land deeds. Indeed, Israel’s “Absentee Properties Law” strips Palestinians of their rights to pre-1948 property deeds while Jews can claim lost property in court.


Only when Jewish developers aligned with the settler movement began a large-scale effort to claim legal ownership of many houses in East Jerusalem did protests begin. All told, 200 claims were made by the developers, which, if given, would require the eviction of more than 400 men, women and children. In Sheik Jarrah, 27 families are fighting for the right to stay in their homes.


The Sheik Jarrah Solidarity Movement (SJSM) holds weekly demonstrations protesting the discriminatory Absentee Property Law and rallying in solidarity with Palestinian families facing eviction. Each Friday afternoon, protesters rendezvous in one of the only public parks in East Jerusalem, and then begin a march towards settler houses, many of which have been made into strongholds using razor-wire, fences, and guard-dogs.  A drum-line’s cadence, along with leaders using megaphones, directs the sign-holding protesters. The posters read “Settlements=Obstacle to Peace,” “Jerusalem won’t be Hebron” and “Housing is a Human Right.”


Over 200 protesters arrive every week, including novelist David Grossman and Rabbi Richard Jacobs, poised to become the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism. In addition, a number of kippot and skirts can be found joining in at the protests.

In this hotbed of controversy, tensions can easily mount. The Ras Al’ Amud protests saw the first use of police violence against non-violent protesters in the Solidarity movement’s history. Police brutality caused 15 injuries, five of which required medical assistance. A video from another protest in 2010 shows a fistfight between an unarmed activist and an M-16 wielding settler. At one point the settler pointed the gun at the activist and other bystanders.


While the organization was originally founded to protest the unfair treatment of Palestinians in Sheik Jarrah, they have now expanded their actions throughout the “Holy Basin,” the hills around the Temple Mount, and beyond. They now operate in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood and others around East Jerusalem, such as Ras AL’ Amud and Silwan. They monitored events in East Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalaim, Jerusalem Day, and filmed Israeli and American students during a midnight march through the Arab and Christian quarter of the Old City.  During the festivities of the day, SJSM filmed racial slurs shouted by hundreds of yeshiva students who had gathered in front of a mosque in Sheik Jarrah.


Widening its scope of operations has come hand-in-hand with widening its politics. Originally, the organization’s mission was to combat house evictions and monitor settlers within the neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. Now it has become an umbrella organization for many actions opposing settler activity, house eviction, fence building, and check-pointing, in addition to those supporting Palestinian independence efforts.


On September 17, Israeli and Palestinian women demonstrated together on either side of the Qalandia Checkpoint near Ramallah. In mid-July, SJSM teamed up with a group called Anarchists Against the Wall to hold a march in solidarity with the Palestinian bid for statehood in the United Nations. Almost 3,000 people marched from the Jaffa gate to the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Most recently, SJSM helped organize “Palestinian freedom rides” in which Palestinians tried to cross Israeli checkpoints on Israeli busses.


SJSM also protested the eviction of Jewish and Arab families in Beit Shean who could not pay rent to Amidar, Israel’s National Housing Company. The families, who were thrown out into the street, joined hundreds of residents of Beit Shean and megaphone wielding activists from SJSM to protest the evictions. Similar actions were held in Ramleh and Lod. In Jaffa, SJSM protested the eviction of Tzipora and Yisrael Steinling from their home.


What unites these protests is what SJSM sees as national and social mechanisms that place one group over another. They claim only “solidarity” can cut through ethnic, nationalistic, and class differences. They hope to break ideological and bureaucratic systems in order to change the reality in Israel. From their humble beginnings as a grassroots organization, SJSM has its sights set on becoming a national force.



However, with this increased presence in East Jerusalem and beyond, the movement, it seems, has lost its humble roots. It has ceased to be about protesting that which most sensible people can agree upon, namely, the unfair and discriminatory use of Ottoman deeds to evict Palestinians. It has now become a national organization that sponsors huge marches in solidarity with the creation of a Palestinian state and protests at checkpoints and buses. Its message is now one that loudly proclaims “Israel is apartheid state, free Palestine, end occupation.”


Videos from demonstrations clearly show the virulent anti-Israel rhetoric that has come to typify the movement. Posters proclaiming “solidarity against fascism” and “solidarity against apartheid” are de rigueur. One set of protesters held up signs reading “President Obama, Stop giving money and weapons to the Israeli Zionist Terrorist State,” while another read, “The international community must hold Israel accountable for their crimes against humanity.”


For the people who gather in Sheik Jarrah, the unfair yet technically legal treatment of twenty families in East Jerusalem has become an excuse to denounce, vilify and discredit Israel.


It is one thing to question certain actions of the state of Israel. In fact, Israel is proud to be a democratic state where non-violent protests are protected under law, unlike some states in the Middle East. It is another to be malicious and malignant in the name of “solidarity.”


I will not be surprised if the SJSM’s goals fail to stop the eviction of the Palestinian families. They themselves have lost sight of their goals. They have tried to become the next “Peace Now,” when all they have managed to do is engender anger and spite for their cause by aligning themselves with the anti-Israel and anti-Zionist camp.


They have failed to garner the support of the people who really matter, the citizens of Jerusalem, because they have become too extreme. They have also failed to recognize that strongly anti-Israel rhetoric serves only to embattle both sides.

Solving the issue in East Jerusalem, and in the West Bank in general, will require compromise and concessions, compliance and cooperation. The vehement vocabulary, fierce claims, and overzealous protesting of the SJSM will only serve to polarize this already intractable issue that has become the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.