Two summers ago, I joined a group of Israelis and Palestinians at their weekly protest in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The protests, which began in December 2009 following the eviction of four Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood, quickly began attracting hundreds of participants a week, including author David Grossman, former Speaker of the Knesset Avrum Burg, and Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman. By the time I arrived in August 2010, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement had emerged as the Israeli Left’s most significant protest movement in years. Sara Benninga, a young, charismatic art student from Jerusalem, became the face of the movement.
Ameinu ran a Four Questions segment with Sara in March 2010 and I was curious to see for myself what the situation was on the ground. The evening of the protest, Sara picked me up and gave me a personal tour of the area before things got started. I was moved by her passion and commitment to the cause as well as her fluency in the complex issues of Palestinian and Jewish ownership and property rights that the evictions raised. I wrote about my impressions on Foreign Policy.com. It was reprinted here.
Last summer, Israel’s social protest movement dominated the headlines and brought Israelis out into the streets by the hundreds of thousands. Tellingly, the organizers of those protests took great pains to separate their movement from the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to maintain a broad appeal. This strategy seemed to work at the time, though many critics on the left wondered out loud how a self-described social justice movement could ignore the 800-pound guerilla that is Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank. Undoubtedly, the summer protests of 2011 had awakened Israelis to the economic injustices around them, but their failure to address the occupation left the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement outside of the “big tent.”
This past month, July 2012, I returned to Sheikh Jarrah to see what, if anything had changed over the past two years. As always, Sara Benninga was there, but she told me that she was no longer leading the movement, having resumed her full time studies; the neighborhood residents now organize the weekly demonstrations themselves. The crowd was smaller too, with fewer than 100 people on the street. But the passion was still there with Palestinian kids taking turns leading the chants and the passing cars honking in solidarity with those on the street. There were also several confrontations with the ultra-Orthodox settlers who were squatting in the homes from which Palestinians had been evicted. Tensions flared and while there was a lot of yelling and name-calling, the protests never turned violent and not for one moment did I fear for anyone’s safety. The principles of non-violent protest that guide the movement easily carried the day.
While the crowds at Sheikh Jarrah may be smaller than they were two years ago, the core issue remains unchanged: the Palestinians have not been allowed to return to their homes and more neighborhood residents are facing eviction. The movement is also expanding to include other Palestinian areas that are being threatened by settler encroachment, such as the Palestinian village of Susiya, which is slated for demolition. While the nationwide social protest movement continues to garner the headlines this summer as that movement enters a newer, perhaps more radical phase, the protests at Sheikh Jarrah remain at the forefront of the struggle against the occupation. Perhaps it is inevitable that the two movements will converge – the occupation plays too large of a role in perpetuating Israel’s social inequality for the obvious link to continue to be ignored. The government crackdown on the social protesters this summer could be the catalyst for the merging of these two forces for change in Israel and the territories.
Click here for more information about the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement.