Israeli police defy judicial opinion, vow to break up Israeli anti-occupation demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah

Last Friday afternoon, Israeli police arrested 17 Israeli anti-occupation demonstrators who had crossed the Green Line and assembled in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where over the last year three families have been thrown out of homes built for them in the early 1950s by the the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on land allocated by the Jordanian authorities who administered the land following the 1948 war that surrounded the creation of the State of Israel.

Jewish (they may not all be Israeli citizens) settlers immediately moved into those three homes, guarded by their own private security organization — and by the Israeli national police and Border Police. The situation in this area is now very tense, but violence has been astonishingly limited.

There have been some verbal confrontations, but the two sides generally make enormous efforts to ignore each other’s presence.

There seems to be no actual threat to the Jewish settlers, other than legal challenges by the Palestinians, and now the protests organized by a new coalition of Israeli activists.

Israeli anti-occupation demonstrators have begun holding Friday afternoon protests there, on a weekly basis over the past several months, in support of the threatened Palestinian families. Last Friday’s arrests may have marked a turning point.

Here is a photo of Didi Remez (from his Facebook site) at the 15 January protest demonstration organized by Israeli anti-occupation activists in solidarity with threatened Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah.  In this now-iconic image, Didi Remez is objecting to the arrests made by the Israeli police, and telling them to “Arrest me, too!”.   The police complied –  he was arrested.

Didi Remez protesting to Israeli police - Arrest me too - in Sheikh Jarrah demonstration on 15 January 2010

After all the commotion, a bigger demonstration is expected today.

UPDATE: Here is a photo of the start of today’s demonstration just tweeted by CNN’s Kevin Flower
KevinFlower of CNN photo of Israeli demonstration 22 January 2010

After last Friday’s arrests, in which the head of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Hagai Elad, was among those taken into custody when he simply approached police to attempt to mediate, the demonstrators spent over 36 hours in jail during the Israeli weekend and the Jewish sabbath, before an Israeli judge ruled that the arrests were not warranted.

This Friday demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah has now become the talk of the town — and of elsewhere in the region.

One of the organizers of the weekly Friday Israeli anti-occupation demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, Didi Remez, has posted a notice about today’s demonstration, saying that “Police have refused to grant license for [this] Friday procession; refusing to provide reasons. The vigil, unequivocally ruled legal and not requiring licence by Jerusalem Justice of the Peace, will take place at 15:00, as usual. Police, however, have warned organizers that, ruling or no ruling, they will forcibly break up the demonstration”.

Didi Remez was one of those arrested last Friday.  He was also reportedly one of the first of some 20 demonstrators arrested today.

Another photo of the Didi Remez at the Friday 15 January 2010 demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem.

Didi Remez protesting to Israeli police - Arrest me too - in Sheikh Jarrah demonstration on 15 January 2010

UPDATE: True to their word, the Israeli police broke up the demonstration.  They arrested some 20 Israeli demonstrators, including veteran Israeli politician Yossi Sarid, who told the Ynet website that the arrests were “arbitrary and unruly”. Sarid also said: “I have been following the developments here for the past few months and I have read about what the police did over the past week. I became nauseous and wanted to vomit.”  YNet reported that former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg and Hadash MK Mohammad Barakeh also participated in the demonstration, and that protesters “waved signs reading, ‘Free Sheikh Jarrah’ and chanted, ‘Cowardly settlers, leave the homes at once’.  The YNet story can be read in full here.

Maan photo of police arresting demonstrators in Sheikh Jarrah on 22 Jan 2010

UPDATE: Ben Lynfield has just reported in The Scotsman that “Yehuda Shaul, an activist in the former soldiers’ group Breaking the Silence was dragged away after he led the crowd in a chant of ‘democracy is not built by evicting people from their houses’.” Ben’s article can be read in full here.

Another 25 Palestinian homes are under challenge in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where a Jewish settler organization has plans to build a large residential complex to house some 200 Jewish families.

A Jewish settler organization has claimed a swathe of property in that key East Jerusalem neighborhood around a newly-important tomb that Jews believe holds the earthly remains of a priest in the Second Jewish Temple, Shimon HaTzadik (Simon the Just). The settler organization is claiming some 28 UNRWA-built homes in which Palestinian refugee families have lived for over 50 years.

In what looks more like “victor’s” justice than Solomonic or any other kind of wisdom, Israeli courts have upheld claims by Jewish settler organizations that land in East Jerusalem, which did not become part of Israel at its founding in 1948, but which previously belonged to Jews, either in the late Ottoman period, from around 1875, or under the post-First World War British Mandate period.

The Turkish Government — successor to the Ottoman Empire which ruled the area for some 500 years prior to the end of World War I — turned over copies of its records to both the Israeli Government and to the Palestinian Authority in recent years. At the beginning of 2009, the Turkish Government sponsored its own search through the Ottoman Archives in Ankara and provided Palestinian lawyers with an attestation saying that there is no proof of Jewish ownership of the land in question.

It is possible, the Turkish authorities have reportedly suggested, that the previous Jewish claimants rented, rather than owned the land in question — but they certainly didn’t own the houses, which were built by UNRWA.

In an agreement concluded during the early years of the Jordanian administration, the houses would be turned over to the Palestinian refugee families if they agreed to forego UNRWA-provided food rations for three years. The Palestinian families did so. But the Jordanian authorities apparently failed, somehow, to register the properties as belonging to those families. They have also declined to appear in Israeli court to testify on behalf of the currently-threatened Palestinian families. In case after case, the Israeli courts have ordered the eviction of the Palestinian families, and have given the homes to the Jewish settler organization.

Didi Remez said, in his posted statement, that “Barring last minute intervention by the Attorney General, we will be illegally arrested. Because of the Sabbath, this means incarceration for 36 hours before release. Sheikh Jarrah is a unique juncture, in that embodies the both the struggle for basic justice and the defense of democracy … A police that ignores the judiciary and the rule of law is a partisan militia. A country that silences protest on the streets of its capital is not a democracy. Older Israelis who do not support the dedicated, value-driven youngsters (not me) on the street are not Elders. Jewish-Americans who remain silent are not ‘pro-Israel’. US journalists who will not connect the dots and cover the issue have forgotten who and what they are. We will not be intimidated. We will not be silenced“.
See Didi Remez on Facebook for full coverage.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, ACRI, sent a letter posted here to Israel’s Attorney General in the middle of this past week, dated 20 January, arguing that “The protests at Sheikh Jarrah, like any public protest, can not and should not be forcefully suppressed. Freedom to demonstrate and freedom of expression are basic principles of Israeli democracy, and there is no justification for denying them at Sheikh Jarrah … The Israel Police has the important task of preserving both the public order and the public’s right to protest … It appears that this task has been accomplished in Sheikh Jarrah in a manner that is discriminatory, all too often departs from police authority, and fails to provide the necessary protection for Palestinian residents”.

The ACRI letter also asks the Israeli Attorney General to investigate its specific complaints of police restrictions on the right to demonstrate, of unlawful arrests, and of unfairly blocking streets and preventing movement in a discriminatory manner. It also calls for “prevention of violence toward Palestinian residents in the area”, and asks the Israeli Attorney General to. “provide the Jerusalem District Police with clear policy directives that illuminate the objectives of the police in a democratic society – with the aim of ensuring the fundamental rights of every person in Sheikh Jarrah to demonstrate, to speak, and to move freely, protecting their right to bodily integrity and property”.

Among other points it raised, the letter told the Attorney General that “It seems that the police tried to deter the protesters and used arrests as a form of punishment and a means of deterring any future protests at the site … The seriousness of the police actions demands an investigation by your office, as well as a directive clarifying that this sort of policy is illegal and must not be repeated in the future … The police used caustic pepper spray, wore black masks, disguised themselves as civilians, and employed other means to suppress a legitimate protest activity taking place in an area that caused no public disturbance … [S]ome 70 protesters were arrested over three Fridays and remained incarcerated for the entire following day. The condition for their release was a restriction on their freedom to participate in future protests. The police actions in these instances indicate that the Israel Police is misinterpreting both the laws regarding demonstrations and the conditions for arrest. There is a clear need, therefore, for your involvement and guidance in these matters”.

The letter, written by ACRI attorneys Tali Nir and Dan Yakir, requests the Israeli Attorney General to issue clear and specific “legal guidelines” to the police on these matters. It was also copied to the Israeli Minister of Internal Security and to various police officials.

An interesting article on the situation, written by Amos Harel, is posted here: “There are very few events in Israel today which are more indicative of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and which reflect better the shortsightedness of contemporary Israeli policies in Jerusalem than the recent events in Sheich Jarach [sic – spelled here phonetically according to the Hebrew-language pronunciation]. These events include the forceful displacement of Palestinian families living on that land since 1948 and the violence inflicted on peaceful demonstrators protesting against the forceful removal of Palestinians from their homes … For many years the Israeli government and the Israeli public as a whole has rejected almost unanimously ‘the right of return’ of Palestinian refugees to their pre-1948 land. The opposition to recognizing the right of return is based on the recognition that such a right would undermine the identity of the state of Israel as a Jewish state. It is also based on the view that the cost of trying to redress all past injustices may be too high. Houses, land and villages owned by Palestinians before 1948 have been transformed so radically that an attempt to restore ownership would generate new injustices and would trigger violence. Yet, this reasonable rejection of the right of return has been based on mutuality and reciprocity. It has been understood that (the very few) Jewish refugees of 1948 ought also to renounce their own rights. It is only this mutuality and reciprocity that legitimates the confiscation of Palestinian land in Israel after 1948. How can an Israeli court restore ownership of a Jew over land in Sheich Jarach while denying at the same time the claim of the displaced Palestinian refugee to restore her ownership of her house in Jaffa? Is not it absurd that the very same Palestinian whose property was confiscated in 1948 finds that his new home is confiscated on the grounds that it was owned previously to 1948 by Jews? What is it precisely that distinguishes the claim of the Jew from that of the Palestinian? Is it mere racism disguised under layers of legalistic distinctions? Let me at this point leave the legalisms and examine the realities. The Jewish settlers in Sheich Jarach are not innocent refugees trying to make a living on a land previously owned by them. The settlers in Sheich Jarach are fanatics who bought the rights from its previous owners with the aim of establishing Jewish presence in the heart of the Palestinian city and expelling its Palestinian residents. To substantiate this claim, it is sufficient to walk into the neighborhood, watch the provocative flags and racist graffiti or, if this is too inconvenient, just follow the weekly news about the violence of the settlers against their Palestinian neighbors. The process of settling Jewish fanatics in the heart of a Palestinian city was the process which destroyed the heart of the Palestinian city of Hebron. The tours conducted by left wing organizations into Hebron expose the visitor to a ghost city deserted by its Palestinian inhabitants. The few remaining Palestinians living in the Jewish part of the city are subjected to humiliating restrictions imposed on them by the security services. The violence perpetrated by few hundreds zealots left thousands of people homeless and destroyed what used to be a rich and flourishing city. The fear of Hebronizing Jerusalem led large groups of Jerusalemites to join the peaceful demonstrations conducted every week in Sheich Jarach. These demonstrations united members of the Israeli academy, professors and students with left wing activists of various groups including Taa’yush and “Anarchists against the Wall”. Yet, for some reason this union was perceived as highly dangerous by the Israeli police which decided to use extreme violence against these peaceful demonstrations. Israeli prisons have seen in recent weeks many young men and women put into custody for no reason other than their will to protest against the policy of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem“…

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