JERUSALEM – Every Friday afternoon for more than a year, hundreds of Israeli Jews have gathered on a dusty little square in the middle of Arab East Jerusalem. There are some Palestinians there, too, including a couple of boys selling fresh orange juice. The people gather there, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, to protest the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes to make way for Israeli settlers.
These evictions are humiliating, sometimes violent, and frightening to other Palestinian families – who are in danger of losing their homes as well. Israeli students were the first to organize a protest, known as the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. They were followed by distinguished professors, famous novelists, and a former attorney general, among others.
At first, the Israeli police used force against the protesters, even though such demonstrations are perfectly legal in Israel. This provoked such bad publicity that the police backed off, while still blocking the road to the new settlements. All the demonstrators can do is hold up signs, bang drums, chant slogans, and show solidarity just by turning up.
The background to the evictions is not exactly straightforward. Some Jews did live in the district before they were kicked out in the 1948 war of Israeli independence. Many more Palestinians were kicked out at the same time from neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, and found new homes in areas like Sheikh Jarrah, which came under Jordanian jurisdiction until the Israelis took back East Jerusalem in 1967.
These people were largely left in peace until a few years ago, when Jews began to lay claim on properties lost in 1948. Palestinians who might wish to make similar claims on properties in West Jerusalem cannot do so. Because they settled after 1948 in “enemy territories,” such as Jordanian Sheikh Jarrah, they are barred by Israeli law from reclaiming lost property.
Some Arab properties in Jerusalem are purchased by Jewish businessmen or organizations. But some are simply appropriated. Documents, going back to the Ottoman period, are sometimes produced, but their authenticity and provenance are often in doubt. In any case, as is so frequently the case in Israel, the Palestinians are given a raw deal.
Sheikh Jarrah is far from the worst case. Other Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem are cut off from the rest of the city by Israel’s so-called “security wall,” which means that their inhabitants do not receive proper municipal services, despite being obliged to pay city taxes.
Uncollected garbage piles up in the streets. Water supplies are erratic. Children can no longer go to their schools. People lose their jobs.
Things are even worse in Palestinian towns farther afield, such as Hebron, where Israeli settlers often behave like Wild West gunslingers, flouting the laws of their own country as they drive away Palestinians by cutting down their trees, poisoning their livestock, and subjecting them to other forms of torment, including fatal shootings, which have gone unpunished.
When American diplomats complained about Jewish settlers’ forcible intrusion into Palestinian neighborhoods, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded that Jerusalem was not a settlement, but the capital of Israel. This implies that Jews can push farther and farther into East Jerusalem, as well as build settlements on Palestinian territories around the city, which Israel now claims to be part of Jerusalem. The ultimate aim, it appears, is to make Jerusalem Jewish, by purchase, by invoking historical claims, and, if necessary, by force.
This effort is so systematic, and backed so vigorously by the Israeli government, that there seems to be little prospect of a few hundred protesters, however distinguished, managing to stop it. So is it all a waste of time? Is it just a radical-chic outdoor cocktail party?
At least one Palestinian gentleman thought not. He lives a few streets away from the spot where the protesters gather. “If it weren’t for you people,” he said with a joyful smile, “we would all be doomed.”
He may be expecting too much. But the show of Jewish solidarity no doubt makes some Palestinians feel less alone. Moreover, it is harder for Palestinians to demonstrate themselves, because they risk losing their precious residency permits in Jerusalem.
But the protests are worthwhile for another reason: they are good for Israel. Protests, or civil resistance, in the face of government force, rarely have immediate, tangible results. Under dictatorships, they can even be counterproductive, leading to violent reprisals. This is especially true of violent resistance, which simply invites greater violence.
Israel is not a dictatorship. On the contrary, it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. Despite all the segregation, discrimination, and ethnic and religious tensions, Jerusalem is also one of the Middle East’s last truly diverse cities. There are precious few Jews left in Tehran, Damascus, or Cairo. By contrast, the Arab population in Jerusalem is 36%, and growing.
Israel must also defend itself against much Arab hostility. But systematic humiliation of Palestinians, by allowing settlers to get away literally with murder, has a corrupting effect on Israeli society. Citizens are coarsened by the casual brutality meted out to a minority, and become inured to it. Even if most Israelis never see a roadblock, the security wall, or forcible evictions, the habit of looking away, not wishing to know, is a form of corruption.
This is why the Friday afternoon protests, however ineffectual in the short run, are essential. The demonstration of solidarity makes Israel a more civilized place. It keeps alive a sense of decency, a hope that a better society is still possible – for Palestinians and Israelis alike.