As a Palestinian watching the scenes unfold in my homeland on social media, I have been consumed by a range of conflicting emotions. I have felt pain and despair at these violent restrictions on basic Palestinian rights and freedoms; but I have also noticed a spirit of care and solidarity among Palestinians that has been inspiring.
How did we get here? Over the past week, thousands of Palestinians have been gathering to pray at al-Aqsa compound – one of the holy sites of Islam – in East Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. But they have also been standing alongside the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, the neighbourhood from which numerous Palestinian families are facing eviction, in a move by Israel the United Nations has described as a possible war crime, given that it involves the transfer of “an occupying [power’s] civilian population into the territory that it occupies”.
Awaiting the worshippers at al-Aqsa has not been long nights of Qur’anic recitation or peaceful contemplation, as is the tradition during Ramadan, but rather a campaign of state-sanctioned terror. Israeli forces have launched a series of violent assaults on unarmed protesters. Twice in the last four days they have stormed the mosque itself, attacking worshipers inside the structure by firing stun grenades, teargas and rubber bullets, in what the media has too often wrongly described as a set of “clashes” or “skirmishes”.
The storming of al-Aqsa has taken place ahead of the annual Jerusalem Day march, during which thousands of far-right Israelis maraud through the Old City to celebrate their state’s capture of East Jerusalem. Despite facing overwhelming Israeli force, besieged Palestinians have remained steadfast in their refusal to leave. In the past, the settler mob has ended its march by praying in al-Aqsa compound: a provocative assertion of Israeli sovereignty over the site. But this year, as a result of the protests, the route was changed by the authorities, leading the organisers to cancel the entire thing. It is a small, perhaps only temporary, victory for Palestinians, but it is nonetheless a hugely significant one that sends a clear message to Israel and to the world: we will not leave.
These events are part of a growing wave of nightly protests that has spread across all Palestinian communities, both in our homeland and in exile, sparked by escalating Israeli expulsions of Palestinians from Jerusalem.
Since 1967, Israel has been accused of actively engineering a Jewish demographic majority in the city through a range of illegal policies: a state-led settlement programme; house demolitions; the revocation of Palestinian residency rights; and forced evictions through dubious “legal process”. All of this is a continuation of the ethnic cleansing that took place in West Jerusalem and Palestine more generally during the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians, including my own family, were forced from their homes.
The efforts to expel Palestinian families from the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, the erection of metal barriers preventing Palestinian gatherings in the Old City, and the reported assaults on Palestinian Christians entering the Holy Sepulchre church to celebrate Easter must all be understood as part of this wider plan to strangle Palestinian life in Jerusalem. The rebellion we are now seeing in Jerusalem represents a complete and utter refutation of this politics of slow suffocation.
When Israeli police tried to block the main highway into Jerusalem last Saturday, in an effort to prevent Palestinians from the town of Abu Ghosh from reaching the city to pray on Ramadan’s holiest night, Jerusalemites reportedly drove down to pick them up and helped them reach the city.
This may not be the beginnings of a sustained political uprising. The military assault on Gaza on Monday, which killed 24 people including nine children, brings this home. The realities of entrenched occupation mean that it is extremely difficult for Palestinians to sustain a mass mobilisation, as they have in the past. And the decision last month of Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, to postpone the first Palestinian legislative elections in 15 years, illustrates how uncertain the political future is. Indeed, the protests are also in part a venting of frustration and resentment at a leadership that has driven the national movement into the ground.
Despite these dark circumstances, Palestinians have battled hard for a series of small victories: the removal of barriers at Damascus Gate; the postponement of eviction in Sheikh Jarrah until further notice; the rerouting of the Jerusalem Day marches. For Palestinians everywhere, moments like these, and the resharing of them online, have become symbolic of what our struggle is about: the right to return and to live in freedom in our homeland.