Mel Frykberg
Inter Press Service (IPS)
March 9, 2010 - 1:00am

On Saturday night over 3,000 Palestinian, Israeli and foreign peace activists, waving Palestinian flags and shouting "Free Sheikh Jarrah", gathered in the East Jerusalem suburb in support of Palestinians threatened with home demolitions and evictions.

Progressive members of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, called for the removal of illegal Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and for the rights of Palestinian residents to be respected.

The presence of hundreds of Israeli security forces kept the protestors separated from a counter-gathering of dozens of right-wing Israeli settlers who support Israel’s Judaisation of East Jerusalem.

The Sheikh Jarrah protest was the largest gathering to date and represented a victory of sorts for the Palestinians and their Israeli and international supporters.

Previous demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah have been marred by violence with the Israeli police arresting dozens of protestors, including respected Israeli leftists, and attempting to ban the gatherings completely.

However, the protestors received support from the Israeli High Court of Justice last Thursday after petitioning for permission for the protests to continue.

Jerusalem’s police chief, Maj. Gen. Aharon Franco, was called into court to explain his reason for denying the leftists the right to protest.

He was then publicly rebuked by Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch who said that the police’s handling of previous demonstrations took the state back 30 years.

The court victory and the carnival and almost festive atmosphere of the Sheikh Jarrah gathering, with the accompanying music, and the large turnout could well be a sign of hope for peace.

Could the Israeli left be emerging from its collective coma and finding common ground with the growing number of Palestinian grassroots activists who are turning to civil disobedience and disavowing the armed struggle?

During the last few days fierce confrontations between Palestinian protestors and Israeli security forces have flared all over the West Bank.

On Mar. 5 scores of Palestinian demonstrators were wounded and arrested and several dozen Israeli police injured as rioting broke out in Jerusalem at the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.

The same day serious confrontations broke out around the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in the southern West Bank with dozens wounded and arrested. The Ibrahimi Mosque is where Israeli settler Dr Baruch Goldstein machine-gunned 29 unarmed Palestinian worshippers to death in 1994.

Palestinians allege that the Israeli authorities are ramping up their efforts to control Muslim holy sites as part of their Judaisation of East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.

This increasing violence and brutalisation of Palestinians has not been lost on the Israeli left.

Israel once had a thriving and active leftist movement. But following the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifadah or uprising in 2000, accompanied by a wave of suicide bombings against Israeli civilian targets throughout Israel, disillusionment set in.

This disillusionment was compounded by what Israelis saw as Palestinian inflexibility during the failure of the Camp David Summit in 2000. Israeli leftists argue that the Palestinians turned down a generous deal for a two-state solution. Palestinians, however, dispute this version of events.

However, the growing unrest and an Israeli government and right-wing attack on Israeli NGOs and human rights organisations have infuriated the left.

In December, 25 Israeli and other peace activists were arrested in Sheikh Jarrah. In late January an extreme right-wing nationalist movement called Im Tirtzu ran an advertising campaign attacking the New Israeli Fund (NIF), a left-leaning organisation committed to democratic change in Israel.

This was followed by an attempt by members of the Knesset’s right-wing Kadima party to ban Israeli NGO’s receipt of foreign funds.

Last year Israel’s Gaza District Coordination Office (DCO), the Israeli governmental body which issues exit permits to Palestinians, severed all ties with Israeli NGOs thereby making it almost impossible for them to carry out their humanitarian work.

On top of this came Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s verbal attack on Breaking the Silence, the Israeli NGO which collects testimonies from Israeli soldiers who have witnessed, or participated in, abuses of Palestinians.

Israeli columnist and journalist Mya Guarnieri summed up the collective thought of Israel’s left recently: ‘’The situation is beyond urgent now. The Israeli left must redirect its energies, channeling them to the source of the sickness that threatens everyone, regardless of their political affiliation.’’

Veteran Israeli peace activist and ex-politico Avraham Burg commented in the daily Haaretz on his participation in the protests: "People of truth and morals who refuse to stand idly by while the state of Jewish refugees repeatedly throws Palestinian families into the street and hands their miserable homes over to bearded, blaspheming thugs."

Silan Dallal, 22, a member of Israel’s Anarchists Against the Wall and a veteran of many protests said she had come to Sheikh Jarrah to protest the growing racism and intolerance in Israeli society towards Palestinians.

"It is not possible for anybody of conscience to remain silent. I believe the Israeli left might be waking up," she told IPS.

Meanwhile, Nasser Ghawi, who together with 37 family members has been living on the streets of Sheikh Jarrah since they were evicted by the Israeli authorities last August, says he is hopeful he might be able to return to his home where Israeli settlers are now living.

"The Jerusalem Municipality has confiscated our family’s tents 16 times. We have no more tents to live in but maybe if Israelis continue to support us we may be able to return home," Ghawi told IPS.


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