Ameinu has been closely following the protests over illegal evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh-Jarrah neighborhood. In recent months, as the protests have grown, the Israeli police have been reacting with increasing harshness. We asked Sara Benninga, a protest leader, to provide us with a first-hand analysis of the protests and her vision of Israel, 2010. Benninga is a 28 year old student activist who is rapidly becoming the face of Israel’s New Left.
In recent months you have emerged as the face of Israel’s “New Left.” Do you view yourself as a leader of a new movement?
I see myself as part of the group of Israelis and Palestinians who have been demonstrating in non-violent protests for the past months against the unjust settlement in the neighborhood of Sheikh-Jarrah in East Jerusalem. The struggle against the settlers actions in Sheikh-Jarrah, supported by the government and the municipality, is based on racist law allowing Jews to retrieve property that was owned by them before the 1948 war, while Palestinians cannot, a trespassing of human rights, and will be barrier in the way of a future peace process. Our demonstrations have been going on for the past few months. More than 90 demonstrators have been arrested and held over the weekend in jail as a consequence of escalating police violence and a will to “crush” the popular resistance. I am just one of many others, many young and old, women and men, who understand that we cannot go on living in a state which is based on the occupation of another nation, causing humanitarian crimes, and basing its policy on racism and discrimination. The “New Left” doesn’t need new leaders yet, but first of all lots of new energy and courage in order to build a real cooperation of Israelis and Palestinians.
How have the protests at Sheikh Jarrah evolved over the past several months? What do you hope to accomplish going forward?
The beginning of the process was the strong feeling that we had to speak up against the ongoing process of permeation of settlement and Judaization of east Jerusalem. Sheikh-Jarrah is just one example of what is going on in east Jerusalem. The protests started as a small group of about 30 people marching from west Jerusalem to east Jerusalem, and then holding a demonstration in front of the stolen houses in Sheikh-Jarrah, growing every week. After a few weeks there were two weekends of violent arrests of protestors by the Jerusalem police. The police started preventing us from entering the street of the stolen houses, and we were force to demonstrate in a public garden nearby. In the weeks after that even more people joined, and then two more weeks of arrests during demos followed. The court has ruled that the police acted unjustly in arresting us, and that it is our right to protest. However, this doesn’t seem to matter to the police, which is getting instructions from above (the Minister of Internal Security has said that the “misbehavior” – i.e. our protest – in Sheikh-Jarrah must be “crushed”). This past Saturday night we held a large demonstration of Jews and Arabs, and had anywhere between 3000 and 5000 people attending. This coming Friday we will continue with our regular demonstrations. However, it is only a matter of time until the next arrests happen. We are determined to continue protesting until the houses return to their rightful owners. These demonstrations show a rising awareness to the consequences of the ongoing occupation. When a state constantly tramples the rights of a certain group of people one cannot prevent this violence from penetrating into the society itself, and this must be stopped.
You were a teenager when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. How do you think Israel has changed since then?
The violence against the Palestinian population was just as brutal during Rabin’s time, the difference being that most Israelis were unaware of it. Rabin himself suggested “breaking the bones” of Palestinian protestors during the first Intifada. However, I think Israeli society is also getting more violent and less tolerant within itself. The government is trying to create people who think unanimously, so that no one will question the occupation and the trampling of values and rights which are by now part of our daily life here. This can be seen even in small things like television advertisements calling people to serve in the military, and depicting those who don’t as “unpopular”. Most Israelis do not know much about the occupation and it is easy enough to live here as a Jew without too many consequences. This is a scary situation. People do not see themselves as responsible for the injustices committed, and they do not understand that their “normal life” is many times a result of them being Jewish. Israeli society must retrieve its ability to think independently and question reality.
What is your vision for Israel’s future?
This is a hard question to answer. I am afraid to say what I think will become of Israel if the occupation continues and security continues to grow more important and overbearing. This scenario is part of what we are fighting against. However, since our demonstration on Saturday night the vice mayor of Jerusalem announced that he will open his office in one of the stolen houses of Sheikh-Jarrah (Hanoon family house), just showing how much we are fighting against an institutionalized injustice. Therefore, it is hard to say what will happen. My hope is that we will be joined by thousands of Israelis that will wake up from the apathy controlling Israeli society, and that we will send a message saying that there are many Israelis and Palestinians who do not want to live in the manner Israel is going. I would like to think that this might change some basic notions on which Israel is based and create a more just and equal environment for Israelis and Palestinians.