Joint Israeli-Palestinian Political Activity in Jerusalem: Characteristics and Challenges

Hillel Cohen

On the night of 22 September 2010, a Palestinian by the name of Samer Sirhan was killed in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan (see Figure 8.1). Sirhan, a 35-year-old father of five, was shot by a security guard employed by the Jewish settlers living in the Palestinian neighbourhood; the guard opened fire when the jeep that he was riding in was attacked by stone-throwers. Silwan is a local Jerusalem friction point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it is adjacent to the southern wall of the Old City and close to the al-Aqsa mosque/the Temple Mount; many of the neighbourhood's thousands of Muslim-Palestinian residents live in overcrowded, abject conditions; the area is of supreme importance for the historical and archaeological study of Jewish/Biblical Jerusalem; and it was the first site outside of the Old City walls where settlers affiliated with national-religious organisations began to settle — accompanied by armed security guards - in the midst of a Palestinian population.2

Although fatal shootings such as this one are hardly everyday occurrences in Jerusalem, Sirhan was not the first Palestinian to have been killed in the city by settlers, their security personnel or the Israeli security forces. Nor was he the last. Eight months later, in May 2011, another Palestinian resident of Silwan, 16-year-old Milad Ayyash, was shot dead — apparently also by a security guard employed by the Silwan settlers. He was killed during a violent demonstration mounted by young Palestinians against the Jewish settlement in their neighbourhood. The cases remained open and went to court due to pressure from Israeli and Palestinian human-rights organisations. In neither instance were the shooters brought to justice by the Israel's Attorney General until June 2012.3 In both instances the funerals evolved into demonstrations. In both instances the streets of East Jerusalem teemed with young people, some of whom threw stones at the homes of Jewish settlers (see Figure 8.2). When the Israeli police arrived they proceeded to fire tear gas on the Palestinian demonstrators and houses.4

Figure 8.1 Greater Jerusalem Source: Conflict in Cities 2012 ©.

Not a unique case

Figure 8.2 Not a unique case: clashes in Silwan, summer 2011 Source: Guy Butavia 2011 ©.

Scenes of this kind are not rare in East Jerusalem. Peaceful rallies and violent demonstrations (including stone-throwing and the use of Molotov cocktails) have both been features of the city's political landscape ever since its eastern portion was captured by Israel in 1967, particularly in those areas where settlers have made their homes. However, there was a new dimension to these latter demonstrations: when the violent protests broke out in Silwan, Israeli antioccupation activists rushed to the scene and stood side by side with the young Palestinian demonstrators. They refrained from throwing stones due to their ideology of non-violence, but they did serve as human shields in an attempt to keep the police from firing at the demonstrators. They inhaled tear gas along with their Palestinian counterparts; they escorted village schoolchildren, fearful of passing by the armed Israelis, to their homes; and they expressed solidarity with the Palestinian residents of Silwan.5 This kind of activity, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians vis-a-vis the Israeli security forces, represents a new stage in Israeli anti-occupation activity, and is a salient feature of the new activist Israeli left.

It goes without saying that the settlers and their supporters — and, indeed, large swathes of the Israeli public — regard this joint activity of confronting the settlers and the security forces, though non-violently, as the crossing of a red line. Some view them as traitors, or argue that it is precisely the Israeli activists who urge the Palestinians towards violence.6 However, even those unpersuaded by this judgemental analysis will agree that the form of activity described above signals a major change of approach for the Israeli left, which until recently supported Israeli sovereignty in greater Jerusalem but now advocates ending Israeli control over the Palestinian neighbourhoods in the city. The fact that leftist activists are now working side by side with the Palestinians in order to advance this objective is particularly noteworthy. But before describing and analysing this phenomenon, let us start with an introduction to Jewish-Arab relations in the city and the role of Jerusalem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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