This paper is the personal account of an expat living in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah during the escalating violence that led to a war in May 2021. It explains the context that caused tensions to boil over and what I witnessed happening in the area during that time.
Throughout this paper, I draw on my first-hand experiences as a resident of Sheikh Jarrah and also from conversations with neighbors, friends, and colleagues, news stories, and social media – all of which shaped my experience. My observations are limited to the factual account of an observer, and this paper does not attempt an analysis or conclusions about the significance of events.
Sheikh Jarrah hit global headlines earlier this year, as problems in East Jerusalem spiraled out of control and resulted in an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas. This political party rules the Gaza strip part of the Palestinian territories.
International news stories may have moved on since the bombing stopped. Still, the problems here are just as grave as ever, and many fear that more violence and the unnecessary loss of life are inevitable unless a dramatic change takes place.
Sheikh Jarrah is an affluent neighborhood in East Jerusalem that sits little more than a kilometer from Jerusalem’s Old City. It is home to wealthy Palestinian families, and most of the diplomatic missions have their consulates here. I have lived in the area for over two years now. I have observed daily the injustice and inequality that prevails as a result of the Israeli occupation.
The geography is complicated and needs some explanation. Technically, East Jerusalem is part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), but the Palestinian Authority (PA) has no jurisdiction here, and a single Israeli city municipality governs both the East and the West side of the city albeit with considerable differences in investment. In the Palestinian parts of the city, there is poor street lighting, potholes in the roads, uneven sidewalks, and rubbish collection centres around open skips on the street.
The complicated governance arrangements cause deeper problems that prevent change. A recent example of which, was seen during 2021 in the plans for Palestinian elections. The PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who has served for more than 15 years, announced he would hold the first elections since 2005 in May 2021. Abbas claimed, however, that Israel was preventing plans for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote, and he canceled the elections. To exclude Jerusalem residents would set a precedent that East Jerusalem was no longer part of Palestine. However, for many Palestinians, canceling the elections was a bitter disappointment that robbed them of the hope of change.
After more than a year of Covid-19 restrictions, tensions that had lain largely dormant during 2020 bubbled up voraciously in Spring 2021, and Ramadan celebrations gave an outlet for these frustrations. During Ramadan, it is customary for Muslims to travel to Jerusalem in large numbers to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound and to celebrate in the city in ways that the police try to control, such as by gathering after the fast is broken in the evenings and on Friday afternoons after the lunchtime prayers.
Palestinians are well used to having all aspects of their lives controlled and restricted. Still, these everyday injustices become more poignant during Ramadan when they impact the expression of religious faith.
Damascus Gate has always been a natural focal point for crowds to gather after the fast is broken in the evening, but at the start of Ramadan (which fell on April 12th this year), the area was fenced off to prevent people from gathering there. Violent clashes occurred over several nights, with reports that far-right Jewish extremists were coming to the area to fight with Palestinians. Several videos circulated on social media of Jews being assaulted by Palestinians, and religious tensions escalated dramatically in a matter of days.
The police liberally used tear gas, skunk spray, stun grenades, and rubber-coated bullets during these clashes to disperse crowds. On April 22nd alone, over 100 casualties were reported in the city, but thankfully, no one was killed. The next morning, Sheikh Jarrah was unrecognizable to me. Huge rocks lay strewn across the roads, several skips were still smoking, and the horrible smell of the unique Israeli invention - skunk spray - hung in the air.
I was fascinated (and a little horrified) to learn that this secret mix, supposedly organic, could linger for months and had been used by Israel as a punishment as well as a crowd dispersal technique. It has been used liberally by Israeli forces in Palestinian areas since 2008 and appears to cause maximum disruption without any long-term medical effects. After that day, the large white skunk lorry with its huge jet sprays became a common sight in Sheikh Jarrah, and friends saw it being used liberally without any apparent provocation or violence from protestors. Despite not being physically dangerous, it felt inhumane and an attack on human dignity.
The mood on the streets had changed, and there was a heavy police presence everywhere. Israeli police were always heavily armed and were often in full riot gear, but now they had taken up position on every street corner, with guns poised. People eyed each other suspiciously, and I now felt less confident to walk on the streets, afraid of being mistaken for an Israeli settler and attacked. Around this time, the epicenter of tension moved from the Old City up to a street in Sheikh Jarrah.
Back in 1956, 28 Palestinian families that had been forced from their homes in Jaffa and other areas had been provided with houses in Sheikh Jarrah by the United Nations Refugee organization (UNRWA). These families now faced the imminent threat of eviction from their homes for over 50 years.
The legal case for their eviction hinged on the fact that they were never given owners’ rights over the UNRWA housing, and Jewish families were now claiming historic rights to the land. The case had dragged on for years but had reached crunch time for six families who were nearly at the end of the legal challenge process. On a guided walk of the area to learn about the issue, we were told that the last time Palestinian families were evicted to make way for Israeli settlers, they had lived for six months on the sidewalk opposite their house. It was only the approaching winter and the threat of violence from the gun-wielding occupiers that forced them to move on. We stood under the fig tree that was their home for half a year, awe-struck at the injustice.
From the start of May 2021, nightly protests took place in the area. They always started when the Ramadan fast was broken around 7.30 pm, and at this time, sirens started wailing, and the loud bang of stun grenades would reverberate around the neighborhood without fail.
Something new was happening in Jerusalem that those who lived through it felt different from previous uprisings. Young people were self-organizing and were taking to the streets in large numbers to call for justice. There was a vacuum of political leadership, and the grassroots were driving events.
Social media had moved on dramatically since the last time there was a major uprising (the ‘second intifada’ between 2000-2005). Events were now being captured live on Tok-Tok, Instagram, and Twitter and streamed worldwide. The #savesheikhjarrah hashtag started to go viral and gained attention around the world. Several young people like the twins Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd, whose family home sat at the centre of the eviction case in Sheikh Jarrah, became local celebrities with an international media following.
During this time, the police tolerance for peaceful protest seemed to evaporate. Every night, the protests that started peacefully ended in reports of people being deliberately hit with stun grenades as they tried to run away and people losing their eyes to rubber bullets. Hundreds were injured.
On May 7th, 2021, we drove through the area around 7.30 pm, and the first people we saw were a group of young women, aged around 18, who were identically and conservatively dressed in what looked like a school uniform. They all wore white headscarves and long coats, and they were singing. Meanwhile, a few feet away, police stood shoulder to shoulder in full riot gear. Were these young women posing a threat that needed such a violent response?
By May 10th, the violence and instability reached a new level. Throughout the day, the police had been trying to prevent Muslims from praying at the Al Aqsa Mosque, which led to clashes within the Holy compound and at several sites across the city. It was Jerusalem Day, and Israel was preparing for a nationalist show of strength. The day marked the ‘reunification of Jerusalem when Israel occupied the East (Palestinian) side in 1967. It was a humiliating display in normal years where Israeli Nationalists were invited to march through the Old City waving flags. I was incredulous that plans for the march to enter through Damascus Gate and head towards the Al Aqsa compound had been given consent to proceed by Israeli authorities despite their highly inflammatory nature.
Streets started being closed around lunchtime, and we were told to collect our kids early from school and to stay indoors for the afternoon. At 6 pm, violence and rioting were still quite widespread, but something very unexpected happened. Sirens started sounding across Jerusalem to signal that the city was under the attack of rocket fire. All new buildings in Israel must have an ‘earthquake proof’ room, and most older ones have identified stairwells or other safe places for emergencies.
Hamas was firing the rockets out of Gaza. Hamas has been the ruling political party in Gaza since they won the elections in 2006. This has caused division within Palestine as the political party Fatah rules the West Bank areas. The EU, the UK, and several other countries have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization using violence. For many people, that is the only sentence they need to hear to make their minds up about who the aggressor was in this situation. Those seeking to defend Hamas might say that it has little option than to resort to force to draw international attention to the severity of the situation within Gaza and across Palestine.
Gaza is essentially an open-air prison where over two million people have been locked into an area that is only 365 square kilometers big, making it the third most densely populated place in the world. All people and supplies in and out are strictly controlled by Israel, resulting in a severe humanitarian crisis.
Israel is very well trained in intercepting rocket fire and of the six rockets fired on Jerusalem on May 10th, only one landed, in the nearby town of Abu Ghosh, 14km outside of Jerusalem. Over the next 11 days, Israel began a bombardment of Gaza, and Hamas continued to fire thousands of rockets into Israel. Tel Aviv came under frequent rocket fire, and serious disruption was caused across the country.
The war lasted for 11 days, and in Gaza, 242 Palestinians, including 66 children, were killed. At least 129 of those killed were found to be civilians. In Israel, 12 people were killed, of which two were children, and all but one was civilians.
During this time, whenever I spoke to my Palestinian friends and colleagues, I asked them how they felt. Inevitably, there was a range of emotions, but one of the strongest amongst those I spoke to was anger. They felt that Hamas’ intervention had lost them the moral high ground and helped the Israeli state to justify its response. News reporting focused on Hamas as a terrorist group, giving weight to Israel’s argument that they were acting in justifiable self-defense. Some people I spoke to were pleased that Hamas was finally standing up for them and creating fear within Israel, but even those pleased saws this as a small compensation for the hardships they continued to suffer under Israeli occupation. Everyone felt devastated that the Palestinians in Gaza would be made to pay the highest price. The high level of civilian fatalities added to Israel’s delayed commitment to a cease-fire was evidence of this.
Another highly unexpected thing that happened during the 11-day war was that Israel was on the brink of a full-scale civil war. As well as Palestinians in the West Bank coming out to protest in solidarity with Gaza, people gathered in protests across Israel. Sometimes this has taken the form of Arab Israelis (Palestinians by another name) protesting that they were treated as second-class citizens within Israel or unprovoked religious attacks on Jews and Muslims. Violence was especially high around Haifa and Akko, where there is a large Muslim population.
Social media was awash with videos of a stabbing here, a lynching there, and a person shot dead, a mass riot, shops and buildings being torched, and it felt dangerously out of control. Almost everyone I spoke to during this time, both within the local Palestinian community and the international residents, felt afraid to speak their native language in public, with some preferring not to leave their house. There was a feeling that Israel was so focused on maintaining the ‘war’ with Gaza that they had taken their eye off the ball in maintaining order elsewhere.
In Sheikh Jarrah, events had become more serious. After Ramadan ended on May 12th, the protests started gathering earlier in the day, and on Friday, May 14th it was reported that armed Israeli settlers were arriving by the busload in the neighborhood and were marauding around brandishing their weapons. The police had also started using live ammunition at this time, and a car-ramming incident in Sheikh Jarrah led to the driver being shot dead at the scene.
People became deeply depressed about the hatred that had surfaced and the deep wounds that had been allowed to fester. No one was confident that the police would take action against the settlers, and the situation felt lawless and out of control. This had been the experience of Palestinians for decades, and the tragedy for them was greater because the international community, the UK, the countries of the EU – those same people like myself, with the nice apartments in Sheikh Jarrah - did not do enough to challenge this.
On April 27th, 2021, Human Rights Watch had issued a 213-page report which examined Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and concluded that there was strong evidence that Israel was committing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. This was most severe in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. It was not the first time the term ‘apartheid’ had been coined to describe the situation here. Still, the detailed report gave a thorough analysis of the legitimacy of the claim by providing a legal and evidence-based case compiled over many years.
All eyes had been on President Joe Biden and the new US administration to condemn Israel’s excessive use of force, but they instead meekly endorsed the approach. Most of my friends living in Sheikh Jarrah, some who worked for diplomatic missions or other NGOs, felt helpless and ashamed that their governments were not doing more. It was so painfully clear to those of us on the ground that this was not a ‘fair’ war, that these were not two sides of a conflict, but instead the tightening noose of an occupation that politicians around the world chose not to stop. Their politicians back home cared more about preserving diplomatic relations with Israel than they did about challenging inequality, and that has been a bitter pill to swallow.
When the cease-fire with Gaza came on May 21st, it was hollow. More innocent people had been senselessly murdered, and Palestinians were no closer to securing their freedom. The hope that this would be the catalyst to break the cycle of oppression seeped away as the following weeks and months passed. Sheikh Jarrah has been much calmer on the ground, but all of the conditions that caused unrest to remain and the future of the families at the centre of the eviction cases remains unresolved. It is also not unique with 85 families from the nearby Palestinian village of Silwan, just outside the Old City walls also facing calls to leave or demolish their homes.
As 2021 marches on, those that have seen the devastating injustice of the Israeli occupation of Palestine first-hand wonder how the world can continue to turn a blind eye to such blatant human rights abuses. It is clear that the story is not over yet and will not be over until everyone living within Jerusalem, Israel, and Palestine can enjoy the same rights to live free from oppression.