East Jerusalem protests revive hope in Israeli left

4 02 2010

Protests in Sheikh Jarrah on Friday (Reuters)
Bethlehem – Ma’an – A record number of Israeli demonstrators in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood on Friday challenged the trend of continued arrests and threats to protesters, reviving hope in an Israeli left.

Despite police plans to end the demonstration with force, more than 300 Palestinians, internationals, and Israeli activists gathered in Sheikh Jarrah on Friday afternoon to protest the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes.

A record number of protesters attended the rally, which most expected would end in dozens of arrests and possibly violence. During previous protests, dozens were detained including the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai El-Ad. When police and protesters clashed in December, 21 were detained.

The Israeli daily Haaretz estimated that more than 70 demonstrators have been arrested to date.

Last month, however, a Jerusalem judge deemed the activists’ arrests illegal. The same court ruled that the demonstrations are within the boundaries of the law. Speaking to Haaretz, attorney Michel Sfrard, who represented the detained activists, called the court’s ruling a “major victory.”

On Friday, one protester joyously waved a photocopy of a Hebrew-language article announcing the judge’s decision. Standing with the tight group of demonstrators, Knesset Member Hanna Swaid of the Hadash party remarked, “Police tried to stop the protests, but the Israeli court ruled this is a legal demonstration.”

Observers increasingly look at the protest as a way to check the pulse of the Israeli left. Some say the weekly demonstration – made primarily of Israelis – indicates that the left is on the verge of a revival; others disagree.

Swaid commented, “The Israeli left was waiting, unfortunately, for a very long time for the resumption of peace talks. This will not happen under this government. The left has to take to the streets to exert pressure and show that there is a great part of Israeli society that doesn’t support the policies of Judaization, settlers, and occupation.”

The heavy police presence, he added, “only increases the willingness of people to come and show sympathy for the Palestinians.”

Armed with drums and handwritten signs reading “Free Sheikh Jarrah” and “People before territory,” the demonstrators stood across the street from about 50 police clad in full riot gear. The tension was palpable as the protesters and the police squared off.

A new generation?

Neria Biala, 35, decided to attended a West Bank demonstration several months ago at the urging of a friend. She said she was shocked by what she saw there. “What struck me the most was the violence – the army and the police were extremely violent,” she recalled.

Biala then embarked on a journey of re-education. Now, with a new understanding of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, she sees Sheikh Jarrah as a microcosm for the state’s ills. And, in light of the recent arrests, Biala sees participating in the protest a step toward safeguarding Israeli democracy.

Biala reflected that Israelis who are uninformed and uninvolved are harming their own country. “It’s suicide not to know what’s going on here.”

Oshra Bar, 22, described himself as a longtime activist. After high school he refused service in the Israeli army.

“It’s impossible to have a democratic state when you have race laws,” Bar said, pointing to “Jewish only” roads in the West Bank and restrictions on the sale of land to Palestinians.

“What is happening here [in Sheikh Jarrah] is a direct continuation of the Palestinian Nakba – the people [Arabs] are being dispossessed again,” Bar said, adding that she believes in a secular, bi-national state with equal rights for all citizens. “I’m here to show that I’m against race laws.”

She looked then toward the police. Her chin down and her dark eyes raised, Bar said defiantly, “I’m not afraid to be arrested.”

Reporting by Mya Guarnieri in Jerusalem.

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