Armed Militias Loose in Silwan and the “Illegality” of a Peace and Mourning Tabernacle in Sheikh Jarah
Jerusalem or Gaza – where is it worse to be Palestinian? The question was posed by veteran journalist Amira Hass two weeks ago. Surprisingly (or not), her detailed answer is that things are worse in East Jerusalem:
In her article, Hass discusses a recent report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI):
Unsafe Space: The Israeli Authorities’ Failure to Protect Human Rights amid Settlements in East Jerusalem: http://www.acri.org.il/eng/story.aspx?id=763. The obvious conclusion from this report is that when it comes to East Jerusalem, the Israeli police are simply the settlers’ police (with government backing). In Silwan, the grip of the settlers’ police is especially tight. One has to visit this very densely populated village come town, on a steep hill, resembling a Brazilian favela from a distance, to see the contrasting living conditions for most of its 55,000 local inhabitants, on the one hand, and 300 pampered settlers, on the other hand. For background on Silwan, and details about a recent protest action there, see Joel Beinin’s report: Confronting Settlement Expansion in East Jerusalem –http://www.merip.org/mero/mero021410.html.
The settlers in Silwan are also served by militias in the form of private “security” contractors (whose nefarious conduct is being funded by the Israeli tax payer). Both policemen and armed citizens can roam around the place surrounded by an aura of impunity. The fatal shooting incident on Wednesday 22/9, when Samer Sarhan, a 32 year old father of five was killed by one these “security” personnel, is only one of the tips of the iceberg (although this iceberg has been documented quite well in reports such as ACRI’s).
being arrested and severely beaten by the police during the demonstration held in Silwan on 1/9/2010 (see Joel’ Beinin’s report). The report was first published on the Sheikh Jarrah – Solidarity group’s website. Daniel’s report reflects activists’ frustration with the fact that Israeli mainstream media ignores conclusive evidence presented by peace activists and willingly serves as a mouthpiece for the police and for the army, even when their claims are ridiculous and mendacious.
The second report was written by David Shulman, a veteran activist and a professor of Indian studies at the Hebrew University. His excellent reports from Mount Hebron and other places in the occupied Palestinian territory have been published in the anthology “Dark Hope – Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine”:http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/755748.html . David recounts the day’s events in another locus of protest, Sheikh Jarrah, where the settlers’ police actions were certainly less fatal, but no less grotesque.
The people of Silwan, as well as those Israeli activists trying to assist them, need our help in making their voices heard.
You never know what kind of a day you’ve woken up to in this city. Will it be a lazy and serene day, the first day of a vacation that I’ve waited so long for, or a day where the entire city turns into a Kafkaesque story. But perhaps it’s not the city – but the people who live here. So here’s the story: it’s about murder; the police; detainees; missing people; hate; lies and loads of stupidity and folly. In short a typical day in East Jerusalem.
1. The Murder: At around 4 AM one of the settlers’ private security guards opened fire in the direction of some residents in Silwan. At least one man was killed by the shots. 32 year old Samer Sarhan, a father of five. These are all the facts that are certain. According to the security guard he was pelted with stones and his life was in danger. According to Silwan residents Samer was on his way from his home to work and the guard prevented him from continuing, during the ensuing argument the guard took out his pistol and fired.
2. The backdrop: The Jewish settlers in Silwan have a set up a private armed militia for themselves, and we all foot the bill. 65 million New Israeli Shekels ($17.5 Million) are paid out every year by the Israeli Ministry of Housing to guard a couple of hundred Jewish settlers in the middle of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. The guards are regularly briefed by the settlers, and very often are hired by the heads of the right-wing organizations. The guards are armed only with live ammunition. This is how an armed militia that is operated by the settlers came to be.
These militiamen have opened with live fire at least seven times in the last three months. And those are just the occurrences that I am aware of, apparently there have been many more. This time it ended in disaster.
3. Silencing: From the moment that the murder took place the Jerusalem Police started a comprehensive operation to silence the matter. Large police forces surrounded the event site and prevented people from getting near. When it became known that a man was shot in Silwan, the police spokesperson stated that it was the result of a dispute between clans. This announcement was made hours after police forces were at the site and had already questioned the security guard. The pinnacle of the event for me was that the police reporters that I talked to continued to assert during the course of the morning that this was a case of a dispute between rival clans, despite the fact that the guard reconstructed the event before our eyes. They sucked up their information directly from the police spokesperson.
4. Missing people: Up until now, 18 hours after the event, nobody knows exactly how many people were injured by the shooting. Early rumours contended that there was another casualty, and 18 year-old youth who was in the area. Jerusalem hospitals, the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Abu Kabir and the Israeli Magen David Adom refused to provide any information whatsoever regarding those injured or killed during the event, and what their condition was. Even the information that Samer was killed was given to his family only many hours later. According to reporters a blanket silence such as this, where no one is willing to provide information, many hours after the event, was exceptional to say the least. Although we’ve already seen situations where hospitals and Magen David Adom have been threatened by the Israeli security forces and prefer not to become embroiled, however, in general, after a couple of hours the information becomes public. Not in this case. (As opposed to the
conspicuous prominence of hordes of Israeli hospital directors who are interviewed after every Palestinian terrorist attack).
5. Arrest warrants against Israeli left-wing activists: How do you get rid of a left-wing activist who’s in the area? For this too the police have a creative solution. A “Solidarity Sheik Jarrah” activist was arrested in Silwan this morning and was taken in for a police interview about an event that had taken place on April 30th this year. Their timing is a bit curious, the activist was apparently to close to the crime scene at the time that the security guard was reconstructing the murder.
6. Meanwhile in Sheik Jarrah…: 60 “Solidarity” activists and Palestinian residents decided despite the events to build a sukkah in the neighbourhood, next to one of the residents’ house. The sukkah which was planned as part of the joint celebration of Sukkot (The Jewish Festival of Booths) was also meant to serve as a mourners’ tent regarding the murder in Silwan. Three building inspectors from the Jerusalem Municipality (who apparently remembered that they are supposed to provide services to East Jerusalem) turned up accompanied by dozens of police and demolished the sukkah time after time. Somehow they overlooked two giant sukkahs that the Jewish settlers had built in the neighbourhood, not to mention hundreds in the public domain throughout the city. And so, the peace sukkah in Sheikh Jarrah became the only one to be destroyed during the holiday.
7. Kafkaesque arrests: 2 women activists were arrested during the course of the inspectors’ courageous assault on the sukkah. Here too the police achieved a new record for creativity. The arresting police officer decided to arrest one of the activists since the Jewish settlers might assault her in the future. And so the activist was brought into the police station in order to ensure her safety. The brave soldier Schweik would certainly be jealous of such a plot twist.
8. From the media: “Dozens of left-wing activists attempted to approach the Tomb of Simon the Righteous in the area where Jews reside in Sheik Jarrah, the police prevented them and detained one activist for interrogation regarding the breach of public peace and assault against a police officer”. This is the wording of the police announcement regarding the events in Sheik Jarrah, which the media hurried to parrot. This was definitely a comprehensive report regarding an event in which activists constructed a sukkah next to a Palestinian home, and the police destroyed it time after time. It’s interesting to note that the Police doesn’t believe its own announcements: the proof being that neither of the activists arrested was accused of assault.
9. At the end of the day: It’s now evening in Jerusalem. The festival of lies, distortions and fictions has run its course. Apparently, only to resume again tomorrow. Tomorrow will bring a new dawn, in which each of us will have to choose between being a captive of the “Jerusalem Syndrome” or to see one’ self as part of the hard reality, to which the city awakes every morning.
September 22, 2010 Sheikh Jarrah, Succot
by David Shulman
It may sound unlikely, but we’re in ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan Street in Sheikh Jarrah and, together with Salah and other Palestinian friends from the neighborhood, we’re building a succah. The Succot holiday, my favorite, starts tonight. Religious Jews build little booths covered with palm fronds and eat and sleep in them for seven nights, a memory of the forty years of wandering in the desert and a reminder of the precariousness of all that exists, all that we value and love. You’re supposed to be able to see the stars through the fronds that provide a make-shift roof; honored guests, beginning with the Patriarchs and ending on day seven with King David, are invited to visit each day.
But why build one in Sheikh Jarrah, in the street where the al-Ghazi and al-Kurd houses have been taken over by Israeli settlers and the Palestinian owners driven out? Mr. Al-Kurd, dignified and calm as always, is watching over the construction. New and surprising forms of Palestinian-Israeli friendship have sprung up in this neighborhood in the course of the ongoing struggle, with its weekly demonstrations—often violently suppressed by the police (over a hundred demonstrators have been arrested during the last eight or nine months).
The demonstrations are usually on Friday afternoon, but last week’s was cancelled because of Yom Kippur. Two nights before the fast, however, there was a joint prayer session in Sheikh Jarrah, and the exquisite texts of the Selichot—supplications for forgiveness—were read out together, in Arabic and Hebrew, by the activists and the evicted families, standing on this same tortured street, with the settlers jeering at them. I heard that many of our people had tears in their eyes.
There’s no question that the Jews have a lot to ask forgiveness for. There’s something shocking to me, still, in the High Holiday time in Israel. I live in a mixed neighborhood that has, over the years, like most neighborhoods in Jerusalem, becoming increasingly right-wing. Many of my neighbors are religious and, of course, strident nationalists, and some of them are even what I would call soft-core racists. They find it convenient to hate Palestinians, or Arabs in general, and they feel no compunction whatsoever about the Israeli settlement project and the ongoing theft of Palestinian land, on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, proceeding apace day by day.
So how is it, I ask myself—you have to forgive my stubborn innocence—that these same neighbors can spend Yom Kippur praying for forgiveness for their sins without even noticing that we, the people of Israel, are guilty of terrible crimes against our Palestinian brothers and sisters? Why bother going to the synagogue at all if you are so blind to the suffering of others, if you are living a lie? I know I’ll never understand.
So here we are building together a succat shalom, a Succah of Peace—another resonant phrase from the prayer book—and the police are, of course, here in force together with the Jerusalem municipality’s building inspectors, and they’ve given us notice that what we are doing is illegal and they will destroy the succah as soon as it’s built. You should know that the city is absolutely filled with succot, thousands of them, many of them built (without permits, of course) on sidewalks and other public thoroughfares (in some areas, such as Nahlaot, you can barely negotiate your way along the street), and none of them, it goes without saying, is in danger of being demolished—since they are good Jewish succot, after all, respectable appurtenances of the tribe. But a Palestinian-Israel Peace Succah, that’s clearly another matter. There’s no way the police will let it stand. It’s a public menace.
It might disturb for a few moments the proper order of a world in which
Palestinians can be ruthlessly driven from their homes, and those who protest against this cruelty will be thrown in jail. It might even make some ordinary person stop and think when he or she reads the inscription on the cloth panel forming one of the succah’s sides: “The Sheikh Jarrah Succah of Peace.” Who knows what unsettling thoughts this rickety structure of poles and tinsel decorations might engender? Besides, we’re building it right outside the houses the settlers have stolen, and the pious settlers might take offense.
It’s somehow comforting to engage in these doomed, purely symbolic actions; it feels right. The very futility of it all makes it all the better, all the more necessary, even fun; in fact, the more absurd the better. Credo quia absurdum est. And there is the friendship infusing this moment and giving it meaning. We were here ten days ago for a joint ‘Id al-Fitr/Rosh Hashana party, and Mr. Al-Kurd spoke with his usual gracious forbearance, thanking us for standing beside them, and a little Palestinian girl took the microphone and said, “We are tired of the settlers’ stealing our homes and our toys.” I have to confess, though, that today, as the afternoon wears on and the succah is destroyed, not once but twice, I’m also feeling very angry. This has been a tough day. In the early hours of the morning, a security guard employed by the Jewish settlers in Silwan, under the walls of the Old City, shot and killed a 32-year-old Palestinian man, Samir Sirhan, a father of five. I wasn’t there
to see it, I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I can say with confidence that if there were no Israeli enclave planted by force in the heart of Palestinian Silwan, with an armed mercenary militia to “protect” it, Samir would probably still be alive.
Another two, at least, were wounded (the police have clamped down a news blackout, no one knows for sure how many were hurt). Amiel got there early and was, of course, arrested. (You can be quite sure that nothing will happen to the security guard who shot and killed.) Silwan, meanwhile, has erupted in violent protest. It wouldn’t take much to spark off another Intifada, especially the way things are going, with Netanyahu refusing to renew the “freeze” on building in the settlements.
If the talks collapse over this, as they may, or over some other piece of wicked foolishness, another round of violence is all too likely: that was the Chief of Staff’s assessment, as of yesterday. You have to remember, too, that every single housing unit that goes up in the territories is a crime under international law as well as a crime against ordinary human decency and against God, if there is a God.
So our succah is also planned as a Booth of Mourning for Samir, as is customary among Palestinians—another reason, no doubt, for the authorities to attack it. The Sheikh Jarrah protest, perhaps the most hopeful development in the Israeli peace movement in recent years, is closely allied with grass-roots Palestinian protest in Silwan. Three weeks ago we held a medium-size demonstration in Silwan against El’ad, the settler organization that effectively rules the village and that has been given responsibility for the archaeological site there, which they call the City of David, the most sensitive such site in the country (another unthinkable outrage, possible only in Israel). Every year El’ad runs an archaeological conference and tour in Silwan, open to the public, and we were there to protest.
We managed to make ourselves heard, at considerable cost; Daniel, standing right beside me, was brutally battered, kicked, and trampled by the police, without provocation, and taken off, bleeding profusely, his glasses shattered, to jail; Ram was seriously wounded in the foot by a border policeman; several others were also hurt, and eight arrested. I found it more depressing than usual, though in our terms these days the demonstration counts as a success. I had just returned from India, and the renewed encounter with hard-core monotheists was something of a shock.
For the record, and in brief, here is how the Succah comes crashing down. It’s standing there on the sidewalk, miraculously held together by strings and poles, as a Succah should be, and gaudily decorated with paper cut-outs and bright paintings and shiny flowers which we prepared together with the Palestinian children. Looks not bad. Nissim says we should apply to the annual competition for the Most Beautiful Succah prize. It huddles under a large fig tree whose branches spill over the courtyard wall; indeed, the Succah could easily be taken as no more than a slight extension of this beautiful tree.
We’re rather proud of it. We stand inside it as the police advance, and of course it’s not very sturdy so within about three minutes it’s been ripped apart, the poles strewn over the street, the palm fronds snapped, the decorations mangled and torn. At just this moment one of the settlers walks into the courtyard of his stolen house carrying a large palm frond for his succah,
which, I assure you, no one will demolish; he wishes us a happy holiday. I can also assure you that ours is the only succah to be destroyed by the municipality this year.
Silan is arrested during this short altercation. As soon as it’s over, we start again. This time we forget about the poles on the sidewalk; we will hang the cloth panels down from a few wooden rods resting on the enclosure wall and reaching into the fig tree. There’s even room for a few more decorations. Salah works happily, defiantly, at making this half-succah fit the classical model, more or less, and after half an hour or so it is, indeed, a passable specimen, and even less of an Obstruction to the Public than its noble predecessor. However, it quickly shares the former’s sad fate.
Before the police move in the second time, I take my stand inside this lovable little booth; it’s where I want to be. Hillel is standing beside me; he knows Jewish law inside out, so when I say that I’m afraid that this is not quite a kosher succah—for one thing, you definitely can’t see the sky (to say nothing, in theory, of any stars)– he laughs and at once confirms this thought. Still, I decide that since I’ve helped build it, and I believe deeply in the almost hopeless idea that it embodies, I might as well say the holiday blessing.
You’re supposed to utter it sitting down, but there’s nowhere to sit in the Palestinian-Israeli Succah of Peace in its final moments, so I change the formula just a little: “Blessed art Thou, Lord of the Universe, who has commanded us to stand in the Succah.” You know what, maybe He does, after all, exist. Hillel, who knows I’ve been away in India, asks me if I’m back to stay a while, and I say yes and, a little bitterly, quote the old Zionist song: “I’ve come up to the Land to build and be built.” I wave my arms at our fragile, tacky, quixotic creation. “As you can see,” I say, “so far it’s not going very well.”
Jewish Peace News editors:
Sarah Anne Minkin
Lincoln Z. Shlensky