Tag Archives: East Jerusalem

Settlers Burn ISM Tent in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah

copied from my Alternative Information Center article here

 

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.

ism_tent_burnt

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”[1]. 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”[2].

 

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.

fuck_palestine

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.”[3]

 

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.

Chomsky_book_in_Sheikh_Jarrah

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!”


[1]http://www.civiccoalition-jerusalem.org/ccdprj.ps/new/pdfs/Sheikh%20Jarrah%20Report%20(2).pdf. page 9

[2]page 19

[3]http://www.en.justjlm.org/584

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ISM in Sheikh Jarrah

so what is the ISM, and what is the ISM tent in sheikh jarrah, and what is sheikh jarrah? let me try to answer these questions now, as I sit alone in the brightly-lit ISM tent in the middle of the night in Sheikh Jarrah.

Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem that was settled by Palestinian families in 1952. I will let the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity website pick up from here-

(http://www.en.justjlm.org/)

“These Palestinians are all former refugees who escaped their erstwhile houses during the 1948 war. Arriving in then Jordanian ruled East Jerusalem, they waived their UN refugee cards in exchange for the right to build houses on a vacant lot in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

After Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Jewish organizations claimed ownership over these houses by virtue of Ottoman deeds dating back to the 19th century. The families, however, were not allowed to regain ownership over their former properties in Israel, though backed by similar Ottoman deeds. Indeed, while Israel’s “Absentee Properties Law” officially strips Palestinians of ownership rights over their pre-1948 properties, Jews are free to reclaim possession of prewar assets. This inequality before the law is responsible for the current crisis in Sheikh Jarrah.”

So basically, when Israel won the Six Day War in 1967 and ‘redeemed’ East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai and the Golan Heights, they tried to evict the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah; the Palestinians refused, and promptly secured for themselves legal representation, thereby beginning the legal battle that continues to this day. (Side note regarding the ‘Ottoman deeds from the 19th century’- An elderly man from the neighborhood, who comes every night and gives me a cigarette, told me last night that recently, the Sheikh Jarrah lawyer went to Turkey and looked through the old Ottoman Empire archives for the documents that would prove or disprove the Israeli government’s claim that a Jew had owned the land in 1817. The lawyer discovered a pre-1817 document, stating that originally a Palestinian family owned the land, and lived in a cave nearby; the Palestinian family hired a Jewish man to look after the land, tend the olive trees, and, eventually, to take care of renting the land out to others. Over time, through a mysterious, gradual and unofficial process of transfer, control of the land came under the Jewish man’s hands, though in truth, that is, officially, the Palestinian family never relinquished control. This man is the Israeli government’s fabled Jewish landowner from 1817. Nonetheless, when the Sheikh Jarrah lawyer attempted to bring this convincing evidence to court, the judge ruled that it was ‘too late’ in the proceedings to introduce such damning proof.)

The ISM tent is located in a very precarious place. First, what is the ISM? From Wikipedia- “The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is a Palestinian-led movement focusing on assisting the Palestinian cause in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict using nonviolent methods.” Founded in 2001, “the organization calls on civilians from around the world to participate in acts of nonviolent protests against the Israeli military in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip”. Apart from going to ‘demos’ and getting tear gassed while standing in front of the apartheid wall shouting at soldiers, we also monitor and videotape Israeli soldier harassment at checkpoints, monitor and videotape instances of Israeli settler harassment, help Palestinian farmers struggle under oppressive and restrictive conditions to meet their farming quotas, etc. The average ISMer seems to me to be an idealistic, goodhearted, and intelligent 20-something (though there are older members) from Europe, who stays with the organization for 2-3 weeks in the middle of a longer summer trip; the organization is carried, however, by those who stay on for multiple months, and become proper organizers.

Now I promised I would answer the third question as well- what is the ISM tent in sheikh jarrah? Well, it is where I am currently sitting, crosslegged in the peace and quiet of a slightly, slightly chilly August night in east jerusalem. A flourescent light set above me casts a harsh light onto two well-used and well-loved mattresses and tiled floor space, surrounded on all sides by a blue tarp on the outside, and a tattered white tarp on the inside. The white tarp is littered with graffiti- ‘when the voice of the oppressed are stifled, we must lend them ours. Their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs. with love, selin’; ‘denmark, finland, sweden, italy, pakistan, england, and poland support palestine’; ‘never give up’; ‘be realistic. demand the impossible!’; ‘never sing with settlers!’; ‘our ideas, our actions are shit-proof! we aren’t afraid of your POOP’ (i’ll explain this in a bit); ‘on behalf of all the stray cats of Jerusalem, we/I would like to express our solidarity to the Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah. from the chief cat of stray cat committee for Palestine Solidarity, Jerusalem (SCCPS) www.sccps.org’; ‘dear ISM, keep the yard and area clean! designate an ashtray- all those cigarette butts are from us!’; ‘a.s.a.b. all settlers are bastards’….

this tent is stationed beside a house. Until 2008, a Palestinian family lived alone in this house. in the year 2000, they built an extension; the Israeli government, however, who for 33 years had already had its eye fixed on this neighborhood, waiting for an excuse to move in, forbade the family to live in or even enter their extension, on the grounds that it is illegal to build a structure without a permit (side note- this is one of the cornerstones of the israeli government’s house demolition policy- even if a palestinian family owns land (which is unlikely, as the JNF since 1948 has bought [or stolen with the help of the government] over 90% of the land in Palestine for sale or lease only to Jews), they cannot legally build on their own property without a permit, which is incredibly expensive to apply for and almost always rejected. So the Palestinian family builds on the land without a permit, and so one morning they find on their doorstep, or tacked onto a tree outside their front door, or lying on the ground out on the street, a demolition order. Then they wait; the knock could never come, or it could come in a week, or a month, or 10 years. But to many it comes- the 18-year-olds-with-guns of the IDF show up with bulldozers at 6:00 in the morning, announce over loudspeaker that the family has 15 minutes to grab their belongings, and then promptly demolish the house. Thank you to the Caterpillar company for supplying the D9 bulldozer to the IDF- who call it the ‘teddy bear’- since 1954!)

In 2008, then, the government decided to move a gang of settler youth into the house extension (originally built, remember, by the palestinians for their own home), creating an impossibly tense and awkward situation whereby a palestinian family must share their structure with violent, religious-nationalistic Israeli boys. the israeli government turned the space into a boys’ club, rather than a family home, because in their view the latter would appear a more blatantly callous human rights violation. Today, the front of the house is adorned with israeli flags, while the back of the house holds the palestinian family, the home’s builders and rightful owners. Of their many children, two 13-year old twins come to the tent every night and play me songs on their IPOD. Yesterday, I heard the word ‘falestin’ in one of the songs, and asked them to translate the lyrics. They bashfully would not translate directly, but said ‘you know, he is saying ‘one day falestine will be free’, that sort of thing. he is also saying ‘my mother, her house was demolished, my brothers and sisters were arrested…’

so the ISM camps out here every night to document settler violence, which decreases if there is an international presence (or at least is redirected towards us). I have not yet had feces, or water, or oil, or garbage thrown at me, though all such projectiles and others have been launched recently, usually in the middle of the night. needless to say, it is very socially tense- religiously-dressed boys walk past the opening of the tent constantly, looking in for a moment, sometimes sneering or laughing, always giving the cold shoulder; we hear them 10 feet away, playing with their big growling dog, laughing and cavorting drunkenly in the yard (it is while drunk, so i hear, that they commit the worst violence against our tent). they know we are here to support the palestinians, and so they point at us yelling ‘hitler! hitler!’. for some reason, things have been peaceful and quiet the four nights i have been sleeping here, if you can call it sleeping- if there are three or four of us, we take turns sleeping and staying awake, trying to maintain a constant watch. tonight, though, i am here alone, probably because ISM is low on volunteers; soon I will lay down in the darkness, and hope I am not woken by the splash of strong-smelling liquid on my body or the tent.

a couple nights ago marked the beginning of shabbat, and i was sitting outside as the sun was setting; the tallest of the settlers walked by me, and turned his nose up at me in a sort of jeering, hostile and disgusted look. as he paused next to me, i looked up at him and said ‘good shabbos!’ he was taken aback. ‘you are jewish?’ ‘yes!’ ‘you speak hebrew?’ ‘no.’ ‘you love israel?’ ‘i love the land, the earth!’ ‘you no like the people?’ ‘uuuuuhhh…’ ‘you love the country?’ ‘no, not really. i don’t like the government.’ ‘aaahh.’ he paused for a moment, then extended his hand. ‘good day!’ we shook hands and he walked away. i wonder- is he kind to me now because he knows i am jewish? did it make him think for a moment, that maybe these internationals who camp outside his front door are not nazis?

last night a friend and i were playing guitar outside at 4 in the morning, and a settler walked up to us and listened, and nodded his approval when the song ended. he asked us in broken english where we were from, and then he pulled out his wallet, and removed an old, battered photograph of a young orthodox jewish boy, holding a palestinian flag and smiling. i pointed to him as if to ask ‘is this you?’ he shook his head. he pointed to what was either the settler house, or an israeli flag in front of it, and made an ‘i dont like this’ motion. it seemed like he was trying to reach out to us, like he was sympathetic to the cause! but a moment later a palestinian came up and asked us not to play music with the settlers, because to locals in the village it would look as if we were striking a bond of solidarity with the enemy, which is certainly not our purpose. it’s a shame; earlier, when a couple settlers my age walked up to the tent and asked me where i was from, a palestinian ran up and closed the tent and said ‘don’t talk to us!’. i understand that these settlers have done, and will continue to do, horrific things to the palestinians here, above and beyond the horror that their act of settling represents as such; there is a part of me, however, that wants to reach out to them, that is not afraid of and hostile towards their alterity, that wants to bridge the gap, as a gesture that may lead us closer towards peace. but there are deep currents of enmity here, of which i only glimpse the surface.

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