Mass mobilization from Sheikh Jarrah to historical Palestine

The recent uprising showed once again that there is a third way to end the occupation, which is popular nonviolent resistance across Palestine and Israel.
A Palestinian smiling while being arrested by the Israeli police in the old city of Jerusalem, 21 May 2021 (WNV/ Mahmoud Elian)

Since April, Palestinians have been engaged in a mass uprising that started in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, spread across the city and into Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The uprising was primarily nonviolent until May 8, when Hamas intervened with armed resistance. However, it showed how all Israeli strategies of colonial power have failed to normalize the occupation and demobilize Palestinians.

The Sheikh Jarrah story

In the 1970s, two Israeli organizations claimed ownership of the land with 28 houses of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. These 28 families, around 500 residents, have lived there since 1956 as a result of an agreement between the Jordanian government and the United Nations for Relief and Works Agency. When Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, settlers’ organizations opened legal cases against Sheikh Jarrah’s residents to evict them from their homes.

These organizations argued that Jewish families had owned the homes before Jordan had seized them to house Palestinian refugees, which of course ignored the right of return for Palestinians displaced in the Nakba. The forcible eviction of some Sheikh Jarrah families started in 2008.

Palestinians do not see the story of Sheikh Jarrah as a struggle only between families and Israeli settlers, it is seen by Palestinians as part of a wider project of ethnic cleansing, uprooting Palestinians from their homes. For Palestinians, it is a continuation of Nakba.

Nonviolent actions made Sheikh Jarrah a leading cause in Palestine.

Since the first evictions, Sheikh Jarrah’s residents — with support from Israeli and international activists — organized nonviolent actions in parallel with the families’ legal struggle in the Israeli courts. Israel has escalated their aggressive policies against Jerusalem’s residents especially since Trump’s presidency. For example, Israeli troops even injured Knesset members while they protested against the forcible expulsion of the families.

In April 2021, Israel’s Supreme Court decided to evict four Sheikh Jarrah families. This escalated the situation and the residents gained more solidarity from Palestinians and Israeli activists. Representatives of the 28 Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, along with 191 endorsing organizations, sent a letter to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, calling to urgently include the imminent forced displacement of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah as part of the open investigation into the situation in Palestine.

The Israeli occupation authorities escalated the repression against the residents, but this backfired and ended up mobilizing more Palestinians and Israelis to join the sit-ins. During this phase of protests, men, women and youth participated in the actions, which in some cases took the form of mass mobilization by both Palestinian and Israeli activists and leftists, even Knesset members.

These nonviolent actions forced the court to postpone the eviction for a month in an attempt to reach an agreement between the two parties — the settlers’ organizations and the Palestinian residents. The court arbitration was refused by Palestinian families because it included acknowledgement from the Palestinian families that the settlers owned the land. These nonviolent actions made Sheikh Jarrah a leading cause in Palestine. It became a trend on social media and gained the attraction of mainstream media worldwide.

Values, timing and place

The timing of the court decision was crucial for the mobilization of Palestinians. It came during Ramadan, where people across historical Palestine come to Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Israeli authorities know that harming religious symbols such as Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher incenses and easily mobilizes Palestinians from historical Palestine.

In the past years, the Israeli government has allowed settlers to invade Al-Aqsa Mosque more frequently and provoke Palestinians. The incursions have nothing to do with religious radicalism, it is more about harming high cultural and religious places valued by Palestinians. Accordingly, among the protesters there are many secular Muslims and non-Muslims. Ramadan is an occasion for Muslims to practice their religion by praying in Al-Aqsa Mosque. But it is also seen by Palestinians from all over historical Palestine as a traditional social and political occasion to meet in the old city of Jerusalem’s public spaces, like Al-Aqsa Square and Damascus gate, the main entrance to the old city of Jerusalem, eating together and organizing cultural festivals and gatherings for folklore, singing and dancing. During Ramadan, people usually sleep less during the night and more during the day. Especially for the youth, many do not sleep at all until the early hours of the morning. Thus, night times are the most important time for youth to gather and enjoy themselves.

This is crucial context for understanding the effects of the curfews that Israeli authorities impose. Moreover, Israeli authorities have enforced different restrictions on Palestinian movement in the old city of Jerusalem and prevented gathering in public venues.  Palestinian youth were prevented from gathering at Damascus Gate, where they would normally practice their special Ramadan cultural rituals such as singing, dancing and offering food and drinks to the city’s visitors. These Palestinian practices carried a political meaning and were perceived as resistance against the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem.

Critical memorial events

With Ramadan facilitating the gathering of Palestinians — which escalated to collective action — mid-May also marked the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba, which Palestinians consider as ongoing since 1948. The Sheikh Jarrah events are a clear example.

Simultaneously, Israelis celebrate what they call “Jerusalem Day,” marking the June 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem, which they would later annex into Israel. During this holiday, thousands of young ultra-religious and nationalist Israelis march through East Jerusalem with Israeli flags, provoking Palestinians and subsequently providing justification for the Israeli authorities’ prevention of Palestinian residents’ movement. Ultimately, the Israeli authorities place the city under curfew to facilitate the settlers’ marches. Israeli aggression in an occupied city which has a massive presence of Palestinians during Ramadan month, and their attempts to control the city through their discrimination policies, contributed to the resistance surge.

As much as they feel the realities of discrimination in Israel, this generation is also unimpressed by the political leadership in Gaza or the West bank.

Since the April 2021 escalation around the imminent risk of evictions from Sheikh Jarrah, and the onset of Ramadan, Palestinians have been organizing nonviolent collective sit-ins and cultural activities at Damascus Gate — or as it is called by locals, Bab Al Amoud — an eight-meter-high gate leading to Al-Aqsa Mosque. The area around it is designed like an open theater with half-circle stairs, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque area comprises approximately 14.4 square kilometers. Israel has long since established checkpoints at the gate to control people entering the old city.

Practices on Palestinian holidays and during gatherings reflect our collective identity and the rejection of Israeli control over the city. As such they are unwelcome by the Israeli army, which attempts to repress and disperse them. Singing revolutionary songs is sufficient for the army to attack people; raising the Palestinian flag is enough for the army to arrest people. Israeli police have violently responded to the nonviolent demonstrations and continue to do so on a nightly basis, injuring and arresting hundreds of Palestinians.

Repression intensifies resistance  

The excessive use of force on Palestinians in the Old City of Jerusalem and on worshipers in Al-Aqsa Mosque not only mobilized Jerusalem residents but also Palestinians living in Israel. From Akko in the north to Naqab and Bir Saba’ city in the far south, including the mixed cities such as Lod, Jafa and Haifa where Palestinians and Israeli Jews live together, people organized demonstrations in their cities and towns, and joined the actions in East Jerusalem.

Throughout the long history of Palestinian resistance, each time it has been people power that situates their cause as a priority on the world agenda.

Such mass participation from Palestinians living in Israel is unparalleled. The last time it happened on any scale, albeit briefly, was in October 2000, when Israeli forces killed 13 Palestinians living in Israel. Most participants are youth, many born after the 1993 Oslo Accords, and some born after October 2000. They were born at the height of the project of Israelization of Palestinians living in Israel and the integration of Palestinian youth into Israeli economic and institutional life. However, these uprisings confirm how anti-Palestinian racism never stopped; they are convinced that they are not citizens of this state and are in fact seen as an enemy, with the distinction particularly felt in the mixed cities.

As much as they feel the realities of discrimination in Israel, this generation is also unimpressed by the political leadership in Gaza or the West bank.

The outstanding question for the Palestinian leadership is when they are going to translate their speeches about popular nonviolent resistance into practice? When will they urge their members to join the popular nonviolent resistance? Importantly, because this uprising is grassroots and independent, the vast majority of the participants put political identity aside and prioritized belonging to the cause. The Palestinian political leadership is absent from the uprising and the masses are disconnected from them.

The uprising showed again that there is a third way to end the occupation, which is popular nonviolent resistance — neither negotiations nor armed resistance alone will liberate Palestine. Throughout the long history of Palestinian resistance, each time it has been people power that situates their cause as a priority on the world agenda.

Before the uprising, the Israeli Palestinian conflict was not in the Biden administration’s top 10, yet after the uprising, it is. Intensifying resistance is a key strategy for Palestinians to force third party intervention and pressurize the Israeli occupation authorities. This uprising fostered hope among Palestinians that the Israeli military occupation will not last forever, that it will end in our time. There must be a continuation of popular resistance from Palestinians and Israeli activist groups that will stretch the occupation and make it costly. This will generate pressure on the Israeli government through the greater transnational solidarity seen during this uprising. Boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel and advocating for international restrictions on military assistance can be ways of channeling such solidarity.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.