A favourite history lesson I was taught as a child was of Saladin, the Muslim leader who, on hearing of the illness of Richard the Lionheart, despite being at war with him over the Holy Land, sent his doctors to treat Richard – who happily recovered. Sheikh Jarrah, the area in East Jerusalem, from where the Palestinian families have been facing eviction to make way for Jewish settlers, is named after Sheikh Jarrah, the 13th-century doctor of Saladin whose tomb is located there.
It was a heartening sight to see Neturei Karta Jews outside Downing Street at the emergency demonstration organised by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) on the evening of Tuesday 11 May, the first day of the conflict. Eleven days later, with a truce agreed, 12 people have been reported killed in Israel – two of them children, while the Palestinians reported more than 230 killed, 63 of them children, with 1,500 injured. According to the United Nations office for Humanitarian Affairs, 2,500 Palestinians have been left without homes and more than 38,000 are internally displaced; roads – including to hospitals – water, fuel and electricity have all been hit. A building in Gaza that housed international media outlets, such as American Associated Press and Al Jazeera, has been destroyed. And the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which runs a trauma treatment programme for Palestinian children in Gaza, said that they have dealt with children “who have absolutely terrifying, violent nightmares, that make them unable to function”. Eleven of those children between the ages of 5 and 15 have now been killed by air strikes to their homes. The NRC media adviser told CNN, “This is not like going to some frontline which you can avoid. This is the frontline coming to your bedroom.”
I took the photo of the Neturei Karta Jews outside Downing Street, and I also went on the second demonstration last Saturday that went from Marble Arch to protest outside the Israeli Embassy. Contrary to what has been written elsewhere, I saw no “protesters intent on violence”. The police presence did not seem to me “large”, no different from my other experiences of demonstrations against Brexit. I saw no “missiles thrown at the police”. I only saw police standing watching, looking relaxed. As well as many groups of differing nationalities declaring themselves by their flags, I saw three separate groups of British Jews, carrying placards proclaiming who they were and their solidarity with the Palestinians in Israel. The atmosphere was not at all “menacing” but friendly and considerate, even if it was gravely determined. Separately, my daughter was also there. Exchanging experiences the next day, she spoke of the creativity of the Palestinian chanting, led by hand drumming, as compared to the more monotonous British-style call and answer chant: “Free, free” –“Palestine!”. She also spoke of the charm and spirited resolve of the many, late teen/early twenties girls who led chants. It is true both demonstrations were large, I don’t think 150,000 is an exaggeration for the one on Saturday, but it was safe. The beginning of the demonstration ran alongside Bayswater Road to Queensway within the park. However, as my daughter said, we weren’t there to appeal to the beautiful trees in the park. Outside the Israeli Embassy there were speeches and young men on lamp-posts while either side of me were toddlers on the shoulders of their fathers being periodically danced to the rhythm of the chanting. A man went through the protesters with an open cardboard box on his shoulder from which he offered us dates — more than was on offer at anti-Brexit or Countryside Alliance demonstrations.
Palestinians have lived in Sheikh Jarrah since they were rehoused there in 1950, having been forced to abandon their homes in West Jerusalem and Haifa during the fighting around Israel’s creation in 1948. Their rehousing there was based on an agreement between the United Nations Refugee Agency and the Jordanian government which controlled East Jerusalem at the time. A court decision over this second expulsion from their homes was due in the first half of this May. Knowing it was looming, Palestinians had held protests throughout April which were met with Israeli police brutality recorded on video, though the Israeli police say they were responding to violence by the demonstrators. The experience of the families of Sheikh Jarrah, being expelled for the second time, highlights a piece of Israeli legal discrimination: Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim land in East Jerusalem that was owned by Jews before 1948. But the descendants of the more than 700,000 Palestinians who were expelled during Israel’s founding have no legal means to reclaim their families’ land; nor do the 300,000 Palestinians displaced when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza strip in 1967; nor do the roughly 250,000 Palestinians who have not been allowed to return to the West Bank and Gaza after Israel revoked their residency rights between 1967 and 1994; nor the hundreds of Palestinians whose homes were demolished in 2020 alone.
In April also, on the first day of Ramadan, Israeli police had entered the al-Aqsa mosque and cut the cables to the loudspeakers that broadcast prayers from four minarets. It coincided with Israel’s Memorial Day for honouring those who had died fighting for the country – the Israeli president Reuven Rivlin was delivering a speech below the mosque at the Western Wall. This was followed by the closing off by Israeli police of a popular plaza outside Damascus Gate, where young Palestinians gather at night during Ramadan. Palestinian youths began attacking Jews, which led to a few hundred of an extreme-right Jewish group, Lehava, marching through Jerusalem chanting “Death to Arabs” and pulling Palestinians from their cars to attack them. A community leader in Sheikh Jarrah whose leg was broken during a police raid on his house said that it felt like they are now being expelled to make Jerusalem a Jewish city.
On 4 May, the head of Hamas military issued a statement: “This is our final warning. If the aggression against our people in the Sheik Jarrah neighbourhood does not stop immediately, we will not stand idly by.” Then, at al-Aqsa mosque on 7 May, Israeli police armed with tear gas, rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades burst into the packed mosque at 8pm, setting off clashes with stone-throwing protesters, leaving many injured. And three days later, the police raided al-Aqsa a third time, firing stun grenades and rubber-tipped bullets at protesters who retaliated with stone throwing. That evening, nearly a month from the cutting of the cables, Hamas fired the first rockets at Israel.
The Palestinian protests, up to that point, had been a youth movement of university students, high school students and local community organisers – they had not flown political flags. The current protests at the Lebanese and Jordanian borders, identifying with the Palestinian plight, are also spontaneous. And the PSC, responsible for the demonstrations in London, states that it is for “peace, equality, justice and against racism, including anti-Jewish prejudice and apartheid and occupation”. One of its founders, Tony Greenstein is also a founder of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods from Occupied Territories.
Israel’s right to exist is undeniable, whatever one might think about the justice of its formation. But it is bewildering to hear Benjamin Netanyahu saying on Tuesday, “I’m sure all our enemies around see what price we are charging for the aggression against us…” Until the Israeli government stops the creeping annexation of Palestinian land, allows Palestinians to return as equal citizens and agrees to a two-state solution, Israelis may be physically returned to their homeland, may be the fourth strongest military in the world, controlling the land, air, water, access to food and even the freedom of movement of all Palestinians in Gaza in the world’s largest open-air prison — but morally they will be exiles. And the rest of the world — by not sanctioning Israel, as it did apartheid South Africa, by letting the injustice continue — will be complicit, further fostering extremism and fundamentalism in Israel, Palestinian territories and beyond.
The Palestinian people have made many mistakes in their struggle for freedom – the military wing of Hamas is guilty of war crimes and its punishment of those they have believed to be collaborators has been grotesque. Since 1994, however, Hamas has frequently stated that it would accept a truce if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, repaid reparations, allowed free elections in the territories and gave Palestinian refugees the right to return. And its leader, Khaled Mashaal, has publicly affirmed the movements readiness to accept a two-state solution.
It is clear from the banners of the Neturei Karta that they see the situation in Palestine as unjust and cruel, (though I and most people, including Palestinians, would not agree with them on Israel’s right to exist). There is considerable dissent among Jewish Israelis to the Israeli government’s ongoing treatment of Palestinians. In the UK Na’amod, an organisation that is inclusive of all different types of Jews, calls for freedom of occupation on Israel. In the US, IfNotNow and the Jewish Voice for Peace, oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Ninety US rabbinical students signed a public letter on 14 May, to American Jews …”Our political advocacy,” they write, “too often puts forth a narrative of victimisation that supports violent suppression of human rights and enables apartheid in the Palestinian territories and the threat of annexation. How many Palestinians must lose their houses, their schools, their lives for us to understand that in 2021 Israel’s choices come from a place of power and that Israel’s actions constitute an intentional removal of Palestinians.”
And though Joe Biden was slow to call for a ceasefire, the tide is turning in the Democratic Party. The former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish and spent time in the 1960s in Israel, has spoken about the Palestinians’ “decimated houses, decimated healthcare, decimated schools” and last week in the New York Times he wrote: “The fact of the matter is, Israel remains the one sovereign authority in the land of Israel and Palestine, and rather than preparing for peace and justice, it has been entrenching its unequal and undemocratic control.”
As President Biden says, this truce is an opportunity. Peter Beinart, a Jewish academic and journalist writing in the New York Times, quotes Edward Said, the Palestinian literary critic: “Some humane and moderate solution should be found where the claims of the present and the claims of the past are addressed”. Beinart goes on to tell the story of George Bisharat, a Palestinian-American, to whom an Israeli soldier apologised for the time he had spent in the house George Bisharat’s grandfather had built in Jerusalem, and offered to pay rent by way of some compensation to the family for having had it taken from them. It inspired Bisharat to match the Israeli soldier’s humanity. “Just that writ large,” he wrote, “is what awaits Israel if it could bring itself to apologise to the Palestinians.” The return of Palestinian refugees, Beinart goes on to write, “far from necessitating Jewish exile, could be a return for us as well…The longer Jews deny the Nakba (the word Palestinians use for their expulsion, meaning ‘catastrophe’), the deeper our moral exile becomes. By facing it squarely, and beginning a process of repair, both Jews and Palestinians, in their different ways, can start to come home.”
“We know too well our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” said Nelson Mandela. For the sake of those scared children who have just lost their lives, surely a Gandhi or a Mandela can be found to make this latest deadly conflict the last, and negotiate a Palestinian and Israeli two-state solution?
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