Activists see Israeli police using violence to silence support for Sheikh Jarrah

Israeli and Palestinian activists say security forces are using increasingly heavy-handed tactics to stifle protests

Prominent Palestinian activist Muna El-Kurd reacts during scuffles with Israeli police amid ongoing tension ahead of an upcoming court hearing in an Israeli-Palestinian land-ownership dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, May 4, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
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Israeli security forces have embarked on a violent campaign to silence those protesting against the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian activists said.

The Israeli police, they said, burst into the homes of prominent activists and arrested them, assaulted marathon runners trying to support the Palestinian families, tear-gassed demonstrators and detained journalists.

Sheikh Jarrah has become one of the most highly militarised zones in the city, with security checkpoints and a heavy police presence on the streets. The new measures effectively turned the small neighbourhood into a prison for its Palestinian residents, they said.

“The Israeli police are treating the Palestinians of East Jerusalem as the enemy,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specialising in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and a world-renowned expert on the geopolitics of Israel.

"They are targeting the Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem and the press. My friends from Peace Now all receive threats, and they are not idle threats, because of their anti-occupation stances," he told The National, referring to an NGO in Israel advocating for a two-state solution.

The Israeli police have denied the claim of the activists, saying they respect the right to free speech.

"Israel is a democracy and a state that respects rule of law," Captain Waseem Bader, a spokesman for the Israeli Police, told The National. "The Israeli police respect human rights and protect citizens or anyone as long as they abide by law. There is a zero-tolerance policy with anyone who is instigating violence or implicated in acts of public disorder."

The Israeli police said they arrested a journalist after they "refused" to present their press cards.

“In Sheikh Jarrah, a journalist was briefly arrested when she defied orders and refused to show their press cards; she shoved an Israeli policewoman, which constituted an assault. We will deal strictly with anyone who violates the law and order. No one is above the law in Israel," the spokesperson said.

On Sunday, Israeli police raided the home of activist Muna El Kurd, 23, who led protests against the potential expulsion of dozens of Palestinian families from their homes in the area, including her own.

Ms El Kurd, a prominent campaigner for the families on social media, was led away in handcuffs before being released later in the day along with her twin brother Mohammed, who turned himself in for questioning.

Israeli security forces fire tear gas as Palestinian protesters and activists flee, near an Israeli Police checkpoint at the entrance of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in east Jerusalem, during a rally demanding the reopening of the roadblock, on May 29, 2021. Tensions between Israel and Palestinians that lead to 11 days of military violence initially flared in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied east Jerusalem, where Israeli police cracked down on people protesting the planned expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes so Jewish settlers could move in. / AFP / Ahmad GHARABLI
Israeli security forces fire tear gas at the entrance of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied east Jerusalem, during a rally demanding the reopening of roadblocks on May 29. AFP

As their father Nabil El Kurd held a press conference with Muna outside the police station where she and her brother had been detained, the police threw stun grenades and tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd.

"We arrested Muna and her brother Mohammed on the basis of a court order on suspicions of taking part in violent riots in Sheikh Jarah," Captain Bader said. "They were released later. The Israeli police are not part of the legal battle in the neighbourhood and are only protecting the security and safety of citizens or anyone visiting Jerusalem."

The arrests came days after Israeli police were filmed detaining a reporter and beating a photojournalist for covering demonstrations in the contested neighbourhood.

Jalal Abukhater, a Palestinian writer and civil servant in Jerusalem, wrote on Twitter that he was attacked by Israeli police forces on Friday during a marathon outside Sheikh Jarrah to draw attention to the families' plight before a third hearing, at the Israeli Supreme Court, in the long-running legal battle.

“I run marathons around the world. Never have I been attacked violently by police forces as I was today, during the Jerusalem run from #SaveSheikhJarrah to #SaveSilwan. I was beaten six times, attacked by Israeli forces, for running in my ancestral town and city,” he tweeted, referring to Silwan, another neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, where seven Palestinian families face losing their homes to Jewish settlers.

Israel used a new chemical, known as Skunk, to disperse the Palestinian protests.

Developed by two Israeli defence companies and named after the mammals that produce a foul-smelling odour as a defence mechanism, Skunk is sprayed on to crowds of demonstrators from armoured vehicles.

The stinking fluid is marketed as a more effective alternative to tear gas and rubber bullets. The Israeli army says Skunk is designed to minimise casualties.

Rights groups including Amnesty International and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel criticised the extensive use of the weapon.

Activists on the ground say the actions of the security forces in East Jerusalem are designed to silence those championing the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations.

Police stand by during a demonstration calling for justice in the killing of Musa Hassuna in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, central Israel, Friday, May 28, 2021. Two Lod residents were killed in the recent clashes, Hassuna, 32, by a suspected Jewish gunman and Yigal Yehoshua, 56, by suspected Arab attackers. No charges have been filed in either case, and police say investigations are ongoing. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Israeli police at a barricade during a demonstration in Lod on Friday, May 28. AP

"This is not the Israeli police that we know. This is different," said Mr Seidemann, who has lived in Jerusalem for 50 years and is the founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli NGO with a mission to identify and track the full spectrum of developments in Jerusalem that could affect either the political process or permanent status options.

The legal battle for the right to live in East Jerusalem coincided with weeks of Arab-Jewish riots in Israel and helped to ignite an 11-day Gaza war in May. A ceasefire took effect on May 21.

At least 243 people, including 68 children, were killed in Gaza. In Israel 12 people were killed, including two children.

Heavy-handed tactics

The minaret of the Al-Omari mosque and St. George Greek Orthodox church are reflected in the broken windshield of a vehicle sitting outside a synagogue in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, central Israel, Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in the wake of clashes between Arabs, police and Jews. The church shares a wall with a mosque and sits across from a synagogue in an area known as the triangle of religions. Like Jews and Arabs across the country, communities in Lod are on edge as the future of peaceful coexistence in mixed cities remains in question. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Lod has seen some of the worst clashes between Arabs and Jews. AP

Human rights activists in Israel say the heavy-handed tactics employed by the Israeli police at Al Aqsa Mosque last month have sparked the worst communal violence in Israel in decades.

Violence flared in several Israeli cities and towns with sizeable Arab populations, chiefly the town of Lod, south-east of Tel Aviv. The government said it was responding to sabotage and trying to nip the bud a civil war.

On Tuesday, the Israeli cabinet said ministers agreed to allow a right-wing march in Jerusalem’s Old City to go ahead on June 15 as planned if organisers and police reached agreement, chiefly on the route.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces an end to his long hold on power on Sunday when the Knesset is scheduled to vote on approving a government of diverse parties that came together to unseat him.

If that vote is successful, it will be up to prime minister-hopeful Naftali Bennett and his partner opposition leader Yair Lapid to decide whether to proceed with the march.

Aya Zinatey, 33, a Palestinian activist from Lod, says the Israeli police have a policy of detaining people and then releasing them as a way of intimidation.

"Silencing our voices in Palestine is a long-running Israeli policy. But it has become more evident recently," Ms Zinatey told The National.

Ms Zinatey, who defines herself as a political feminist, is organising open-air public speaking and discussions on the Israeli occupation in her hometown and other Palestinian cities that were under Ottoman and then British colonial rule before the creation of Israel in 1948.

“I heard that Palestinian women before Al Nakba in 1948 held gatherings called halakat istikbal [round table talks] on Palestine and decided to follow suit,” she said, using the Arabic term for catastrophe, which the Palestinians use to describe the war that broke out after Israel’s creation in which many of their ancestors had to flee their homes.

Palestinians run from tear gas fired by Israeli police during clashes in the Silwan neighborhood of east Jerusalem, Friday, June 4, 2021. Clashes erupted after a marathon by activists in solidarity with residents of two Palestinian neighborhoods under threat of forced expulsions by Israeli settlers. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Palestinians run from tear gas fired by Israeli police during clashes in the Silwan neighborhood of east Jerusalem. AP

Al Nakba is generally marked on May 15 – the day after Israel’s Independence Day.

"This Saturday we are organising a campaign in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan to encourage Palestinians to buy the products of fellow Palestinians and boycott Israeli products. We will never stop drawing international attention to the displacement of fellow Palestinians," Ms Zinatey said.

Mr Seidemann, the Israeli lawyer and peace activist, said the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories must come to an end sooner or later.

“The Jewish people have achieved freedom in the form of a sovereign state: Israel. The Palestinians will also achieve their freedom. I have spent my adult life trying to make it possible but it will happen and, only when the Palestinians are free to run their lives completely, will Israel be free. I’m not comparing the occupier with the occupied, but occupation is a curse on both,” he said.