Arab rights protesters seek to lift Israel's Left

By Ben Lynfield, February 18, 2010
Activists dressed as Avatar characters demonstrate in east Jerusalem against Palestinian evictions

Activists dressed as Avatar characters demonstrate in east Jerusalem against Palestinian evictions

While many Israelis use Friday afternoons for a pre-Shabbat nap, hundreds each week are refusing to sleep through what appears to them to be a glaring injustice against Palestinians. They have converted a park opposite east Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood into the venue for regular protests against evictions of Palestinian residents to make way for Jews.

When they started in November, the protests were tense, with police deeming them illegal and arresting anyone they viewed as playing a leading role. But after the courts upheld their legality last month, the police have taken a more hands-off approach.

Last Friday, there was a friendly, almost carnival feel to the demonstration, with a man selling popcorn amid chanting of "Sheikh Jarrah, don't despair, the occupation will end".

"There was much more energy when we were facing a SWAT unit," said one demonstrator, holding a sign declaring, "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies."

Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the determination of the protesters, who recently have included the writer David Grossman and Yossi Sarid, the former education minister.

Jews had owned the properties since the 19th century

"People are being thrown out of their homes by a discriminatory law," said Sarah Benninga, an art student. "I feel a civic obligation. I can't stand by and just watch this happen to my neighbours."

Around 500 Palestinians are threatened with eviction from disputed properties in Sheikh Jarrah, which had been owned by Jews as far back as the 19th century. The Palestinians are refugees from the fighting in the 1948 war who took up residence in Sheikh Jarrah in 1956 in an arrangement with the UN refugee agency and the Jordanian government. The latter had expropriated the Jewish-owned property after the war.

In August, two families were evicted after an Israeli court upheld the Jewish ownership claims and agreed that the Palestinian tenants had violated the terms of their lease.

Protesters say the evictions of the Palestinians are unjust because Arabs are not allowed to reclaim properties that they lost in 1948 in other parts of Israel. They also worry that settlement in Palestinian areas will make it hard to reach a peaceful compromise in the city.

But Yair Gabbay, a Jerusalem city councillor, says he supports the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah because Jews should be able to live everywhere in Jerusalem. He says that there is no reason to return Palestinian property because in his view, they started the 1948 war "and there must be a price for starting war".

Avner Inbar, a protest organiser who is a student in political philosophy, says he hopes the demonstrations will help revive the Israeli Left, which has been in decline since the second intifada. A demonstration is planned for March that will feature popular Israeli singers. He says that for the protests to work, they will need to have a broad appeal, bringing together both the radical and more mainstream left.

Palestinians do not participate in the protests but they welcome them. "It is good that the public should know what is going on here. The demonstrations will tell our story to the world,'' said Refqa Kurd, 85.

Last updated: 1:11pm, February 19 2010