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Young people led the 2021 Palestinian protests in Jerusalem

Four things to know about the Sheikh Jarrah clashes.

- May 12, 2021
Jerusalem, by rquevenco via canva

Editors’ note: In this archival post from 2021, Dana El Kurd  explains the protests across Israel in support of families facing expulsion in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood  of Jerusalem. The piece originally appeared in the Washington Post on May 12, 2021.

In May 2021, tensions flared in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in the eastern part of Jerusalem. Palestinian families facing the loss of their homes to Israeli settlers called on people to join them in their protest. This quickly escalated into mobilizations across Jerusalem and more than 20 cities, including Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth, and Um Al-Fahem, as well as in cities across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hundreds of protesters have been injured in clashes with Israeli forces, and one Palestinian citizen of Israel was killed. Across the border in Gaza, Hamas militants launched long-range rockets, striking western sections of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other cities, something that hasn’t happened outside of major invasions of the Gaza Strip. Airstrikes by Israeli forces on Tuesday reportedly killed 28 Palestinians in Gaza, including many children.

Do the clashes in Sheikh Jarrah mark a new Palestinian strategy, linking communities beyond Jerusalem in protest? Here’s what you need to know.

What prompted the initial protests?

The families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood bought their land and built their homes, residing there for decades, following their expulsion from other parts of the country in 1948. But now eight Palestinian households face expulsion, part of several legal challenges from a U.S.-based settler organization that disputes who owns the land.

The current crisis ignited when Israeli settlers, along with Israeli police, reportedly ramped up their harassment of the families last month in anticipation of an upcoming court decision, which has now been postponed. The families began staging sit-ins in protest.

The Sheikh Jarrah protests mobilized young Palestinians. Youths from this neighborhood have grown up under the threat of displacement, and have taken the lead in the protest campaign. They used social media to provide around-the-clock reporting of every altercation and act of violence, connecting with Palestinian citizens of Israel to a degree we have not seen in recent years — see examples here, here and here.

Many Palestinians in Israel drove hours to join the sit-ins in Jerusalem, and residents of Sheikh Jarrah also joined the protests elsewhere. Protesters quickly organized solidarity marches in other Palestinian communities throughout Israel, despite police crackdowns. In one incident, protesters coordinated to close down the major highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem after Israeli police blocked citizens traveling to Jerusalem to pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque in solidarity.

Holidays created a perfect storm

Israeli forces had initially banned Palestinians from congregating in public spaces — an unpopular move during the month of Ramadan, when Muslim Palestinians often meet in places like the Damascus Gate. The ban turned the Old City of Jerusalem into a daily battleground between Palestinians and Israeli police. Videos of security forces attacking Palestinian protesters, overturning food carts and arresting young people prompted more Palestinians to join the protests.

An April 22 march led by the right-wing Israeli organization Lehava brought armed young men through Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, shouting “Death to Arabs.” The prospect of a repeat of this violence during a Jerusalem Day march, in celebration of Israel’s 1967 conquest of the eastern part of the city, prompted further protests and police crackdowns. Hundreds of Palestinians were injured as police tried to dispel protests, and city officials were forced to cancel the event.

How Palestinian protests in Jerusalem challenge the Israeli government

My research explains how Palestinians in Jerusalem have opportunities to mobilize and directly challenge the Israeli government, unlike Palestinians in the territories. The Israeli blockade of Gaza has cut Palestinians there off from the rest of their community and the wider world. The Great March of Return protests in Gaza in 2018 and 2019, weekly demonstrations against the blockade and the displacement of Palestinian refugees from Israel, led to many Palestinian deaths and left hundreds with lifelong disabilities.

A sophisticated system of political and geographic fragmentation in the West Bank makes protest movements hard to sustain. Activists often face the double repression of Palestinian Authority forces as well as the Israeli occupation. In Jerusalem, however, the Palestinian Authority and its security forces are not allowed to operate.

Palestinians in Jerusalem also faced distinctive forms of repression. Since the 1993 Oslo accords, the Israeli government has taken active steps to deny political representation to Palestinians in the city. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently postponed elections in Gaza and the West Bank, allegedly because he did not receive guarantees that Palestinians in East Jerusalem would be allowed to take part. Israel also shut down Palestinian cultural institutions in Jerusalem and cut off Palestinian neighborhoods from other parts of the city using the separation wall.

Despite these barriers, social cohesion in Jerusalem facilitated short-term mobilizations. Examples include the 2017 protests against the al-Aqsa Mosque restrictions, or the protests over the brutal murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager, in 2014. People relied on word of mouth and organic strategies to launch protests — organizing around Friday prayer, for instance. Broad participation coupled with specified demands resulted in successful campaigns, garnering concessions from the Israeli authorities.

Palestinians in Jerusalem gained mobilization experience

Repeated mobilizations in Jerusalem have built an organizing capacity among Palestinians in the city, free of Palestinian Authority intervention and outdated strategies of the Palestinian political parties. The Sheikh Jarrah families, in fact, are uninterested in political party intervention, and their calls to action seem to transcend Palestinian political fragmentation — and reinforce the idea that their struggle was symptomatic of the existential struggle of Palestinians throughout Israel. It’s worth noting that political party leadership from both Hamas and Fatah have been completely irrelevant in the recent protests.

Many protesters involved in the Sheikh Jarrah campaign — or elsewhere, in solidarity — have been engaged in advocacy for Palestinian rights for many years. But many have not. The calls to action in Jerusalem have thus activated a large number of young Palestinians and helped facilitate unparalleled connections with Palestinians in communities within Israel, in cities and towns that have not seen protests for decades. It’s likely these connections will build capacity for longer-term strategies and sustained mobilization efforts.

Dana El Kurd is an assistant professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. She is author of “Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine” (Oxford University Press, 2020). Follow her on Twitter @danaelkurd.

Note: Updated Oct. 10, 2023.