Ramadan has been a tense month in Jerusalem; it started with the Israelis forbidding Palestinian Jerusalemites from using the area at the Damascus Gate as a public space for social and cultural activities, in their effort to undermine the identity and significance of the place for the Palestinian community. Last year, the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem changed the area’s name and erected a sign at the Damascus Gate reading in Hebrew “Ma’Alot Hadar VaHadas” (in English, “The Hadar and Hadas Steps”), in memory of the Israeli border police officers Hadar Cohen and Hadas Malka, who were killed in confrontations with Palestinians at the Damascus Gate in 2016 and 2017, respectively. But the Arabic name of Damascus Gate as it is known to Palestinians is Bab El-Amud, meaning “the Gate of the Column”. This name makes reference to a black marble column 14 metres high which had been placed in the inner square of the door during the ancient Roman period. Distances from Jerusalem were measured from this column.
Over the past month, Palestinians have held sit-ins in increasing numbers at Bab El-Amud on a daily basis, in spite of the escalating attacks by occupation forces. The demonstrating Palestinians have endured beatings, tear gas and skunk water from Israeli soldiers as well as attacks and threats to burn yet more Palestinians and their villages at the hands of extreme Israeli settler groups such as Lehava.
On 22 April, hundreds of far-right and anti-Palestinian activists took to the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, chanting “Death to the Arabs”. Haaretz revealed that Israeli far-right organisations had used WhatsApp groups to call upon protesters to carry guns while posting instructions on how to avoid arrest. The Haaretz article quoted a comment in a group chat for far-right group La Familia events: “Burning Arabs today. Molotov cocktails are already in the trunk…the way I see it, an Arab dies today.” During these events, we saw several videos of Israeli soldiers brutally beating and stepping on the heads of Palestinian protesters. After two weeks of daily confrontation, the Israeli police backed off in front of steadfast Palestinian youth.
Earlier this year, the Israeli Central Court of East Jerusalem decided to forcibly displace four families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in favour of Israeli settlers who declared their intent to build a settlement of 200 residential units in the neighbourhood. After a long juridical process, the Israeli Supreme Court was due to issue a similar ruling on 10 May. Several other families in the same neighbourhood face the same predicament.
Those families whose homes are targeted by the Israelis today were originally refugees expelled from their homes during the 1948 Nakba. In 1956, these families were subsequently protected through a housing agreement with the Jordanian Ministry of Construction and Development and with UNRWA. According to this agreement, the Jordanian government provided the land under Jordanian rule, UNRWA paid for the construction of 28 homes, and the residents paid a symbolic fee signifying that ownership was to be transferred to them in due course. The 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem interrupted this process.
The claim that these homes belong to Israeli settlers is based on a 1970 statement from the Israeli Department of Legal and Administrative Affairs, which permits Jewish Israelis to reclaim property lost in East Jerusalem in 1948. Meanwhile, the Absentees’ Property Law of 1950 applies to non-Jewish Palestinians, including those who became citizens of the State of Israel but were not in their usual place of residence as defined by the law; this law prevents Palestinians from reclaiming the land from which they were expelled. According to international law, however, East Jerusalem, including the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, is occupied land and it is unlawful under the Fourth Geneva Convention for an occupying power to transfer members of its own population into the territory it occupies. International humanitarian law prohibits the establishment of settlements, as these are a form of population transfer into occupied territory.
The families of Sheikh Jarrah and all Palestinian who are watching this happen are therefore experiencing déjà vue of the events of 1947—especially at this time of the year when we are about to commemorate the Nakba itself, the military actions that led to the expulsion of two-thirds of the Palestinian population from their homes. These thoughts of the Nakba engendered feelings of solidarity among many Palestinian Jerusalemites as well as activists from other areas of 1948 Palestine who had arrived to sit in support of the families of Sheikh Jarrah during the month of Ramadan and who were also subjected to attacks by both soldiers and settlers.
On Monday 28 Ramadan, Israeli forces launched a huge attack on Palestinian worshippers practicing Itikaf, a retreat into the mosque from daily life taking place during the last ten days of Ramadan. They injured hundreds in their effort to expel Muslim worshippers to prepare the area for the thousands of settlers who planned to march to Jerusalem’s Old City, dancing with Israeli flags to celebrate the occupation of Jerusalem, which they call the unification of Jerusalem. We could see their euphoric dance and hear their genocidal chanting for revenge “their names to be deleted”, in reference to the Palestinians – as they saw a fire at Al-Aqsa Mosque.