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“We Are Witnessing the Unification of Palestine”: A Palestinian Activist on the Sheikh Jarrah Uprising

An interview with Fayrouz Sharqawi of Grassroots Al-Quds on why the current crisis started in Jerusalem—and why she’s optimistic about the struggle for Palestinian liberation.

Alex Kane

(Photo by Ahmed Salahuddin/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The current crisis in Israel-Palestine has engulfed the region. In Israel, Israeli mobs have beaten Palestinians in the streets. In Gaza, Israeli airstrikes have flattened entire apartment buildings, displacing Palestinians. The Israeli strikes have killed over 100 people, and Palestinian political groups firing rockets into Israel have killed seven people. In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers have killed eight Palestinians since the May 10 start of the assault on Gaza, with five of them gunned down on May 14 during protests against Israeli aggression.

But it all began in Jerusalem. The crisis started in April, when Israel barred Palestinians from gathering on Ramadan nights at Damascus Gate, the popular plaza in Jerusalem that leads to the Old City. Incidents of Palestinian harassment of Israeli Jews soon went viral on social media, leading to far-right Israeli mobs walking the streets of Jerusalem, chanting Death to Arabs.” The crisis came to a full boil in early May as Israeli settlers advanced plans to evict four Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem and take their homes. The violence exploded when Israeli forces invaded Al Aqsa Mosque beginning on May 7, shooting rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades on Muslims’ most important site in the holy city. Following the Al Aqsa invasion, Hamas fired rockets into Israel, and the crisis developed into a war.

To learn more about the current crisis, In These Times spoke to Fayrouz Sharqawi, global mobilization coordinator for Grassroots Al-Quds, an organization in Jerusalem that works to combat Israel’s attempts to fragment and encircle the city’s Palestinian population, who make up 40 percent of Jerusalem but live with sub-par infrastructure and services when compared to the wealthier, Jewish-majority area of the city. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Alex Kane: Why do you think this current assault began in Jerusalem?

Fayrouz Sharqawi: The conditions in Jerusalem have been ready for this uprising to start because in recent years in Jerusalem, Palestinians have seen much more vicious and aggressive colonial projects and policies implemented against them. Israeli policy towards Jerusalem since 1967 has been to displace as many Palestinians as possible from the city. So this [recent] displacement has been more aggressive, [with] land confiscation, home demolitions, the mass incarceration of Palestinians, the oppression of Palestinians in public space, the subjugation of the Palestinian economy, and even a very severe attack on the Palestinian education system by imposing the Israeli curriculum, forcing schools to adopt the Israeli curriculum if they want to have any budget to survive. 

The ground has been ready and prepared for this for a long time, especially following the Covid-19 crisis. The situation became harder and more challenging for Palestinians. And so I think that the combination of a crisis and colonialism has had very harsh effects on the Palestinian population in Jerusalem. And then in the midst of all this [came] the story of Sheikh Jarrah families facing the imminent threat of being expelled from their homes. The people of Sheikh Jarrah managed to draw attention to their case, and to their struggle, and they succeeded in using media in the right way. Also, [there was] the mobilization on the ground in Jerusalem — many people came and joined the process and showed up in backing up the families in their neighborhood. 

Any type of Palestinian practice of belonging or ownership of Jerusalem is reflected when Palestinians stand up together and support each other. You see people coming from different neighborhoods to translate their belief that the story of Sheikh Jarrah is not just the story of the families in that specific neighborhood. It’s our story in Jerusalem in general. 

All of these factors have led to the very harsh crackdown on the protests in Sheikh Jarrah by the occupation authorities.

And this all happens within the context of the holy month of Ramadan, which is usually the month where worshippers in Aqsa Mosque are attacked by the Israeli forces. And this is exactly what we saw happen during Ramadan this year, especially the last 10 days of Ramadan. Worship is another way for us to practice that belonging to the city and that is why even worship is considered a threat to the colonizer. The colonizer does not like that we practice this belonging to Jerusalem, and that’s exactly why, whenever we do practice this belonging, just like sitting outside of Damascus Gate, drinking coffee or sipping tea at the stairs, it’s considered a threat by the occupation. 

People sitting outside of Damascus Gate were attacked by the police, also during Ramadan, because the Israeli occupation authorities always want to show us who the boss is, who controls the city. And this year, as a result of all of these different factors, we the Palestinians could not take it anymore. There was a moment of realization that it’s either we say no” right now, or we are going to lose our city. 

AK: And what’s your response to the court decision that delayed the displacement of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah? How significant is that? 

FS: The decision to postpone the court ruling was a strategic move to give the uprising time to cool down and for people to lose their breath. But I think what’s good to see, and what makes me optimistic, is that people are aware that this is a move that aims to make us forget and leave the people of Sheikh Jarrah alone. And people have been saying over and over again, this trick will not pass. It’s an old trick. It will not work on us. And we will remain here in Sheikh Jarrah supporting families until the decision to expel them from their homes is canceled, not just postponed. 

AK: What kind of organizing work on the ground have you and Grassroots Jerusalem been doing in response to all of this? 

FS: We have been part of speaking up about it. We have been organizing events to speak about Sheikh Jarrah, but we have not as an organization led community organizing

You know, sometimes it feels like it’s spontaneous. Sometimes I am asked in interviews whether political parties are involved, are they the ones that are coordinating the protests? No. It has been a grassroots mobilization. Again, I think that the community organizers here in this case were the families of Sheikh Jarrah. They are the ones who managed to bring people in to support, to have the Ramadan fast-breaking meal in the neighborhood. They are the ones who have been mobilizing the media locally and internationally. When there is a threat to our land, the people answer and the people show up.

AK: This crisis started in Jerusalem and then spread to uprisings in Palestinian cities, in Israel itself, and then in Gaza. But it started in Jerusalem. What makes Jerusalem so important that it can mobilize millions of Palestinians from near and far?

FS: Jerusalem is our symbol for Palestine. Jerusalem is not just a holy city. Regardless of where you are, whether you are in the Gaza Strip, or you are in Ramallah, or in Haifa, people all over have this appreciation for Jerusalem in common.

Following the news in the last few days, I heard so many people from different places saying all of this is for Jerusalem. I mean, people losing their homes in Gaza in the bombing would say, I would sacrifice my house for Jerusalem.” And the same happened when people came to Jerusalem from 48 [the name Palestinians use to refer to historic Palestine before 1948, when Israel was established]. When people came to pray in Al-Aqsa and the Israeli occupation police stopped the buses on Road 1 coming up to Jerusalem, people got off the buses and started marching to Jerusalem. I don’t think that is only their religious emotions. I think that is their religious emotions and their patriotic or national emotions, or the political love for Jerusalem is equal to the religious one. And so I think that everyone sees in Jerusalem as a symbol of their own story. 

Losing Jerusalem means losing our own hometown, and it also means losing our own identity and unity and Palestinian-ness. That’s exactly why many people see Jerusalem as the most important place that we need to protect. Let’s not forget, it is our capital. I know that we don’t have a state right now. But it’s still our capital, it is still our most important city. And it’s also one of the places where there is a vicious attack on the Palestinian identity of the city.

I think that many people see how dangerous it is symbolically to lose Jerusalem and how harsh and severe the Israeli attack on it is. So Zionization and Israelization of Jerusalem is happening faster than in any other place. 

AK: What do you think needs to happen to make Jerusalem a place where Palestinians have equal rights?

FS: Equal rights? 

AK: Yeah.

FS: I don’t think that Palestinians want equal rights. I think that people in Jerusalem want freedom, they want self determination. They want to decide their own future. They want to build their own destiny. Asking about equal rights implies that we demand equal rights under an existing system. People don’t want to become equal citizens. People don’t want to become equal residents in Jerusalem. It’s very dangerous to frame our struggle as a struggle for rights. Palestinians are struggling for liberation. Palestinians are struggling for self-determination. And Palestinians know that to achieve our rights, we need to be free.

I’m not only talking about Jerusalem. The happenings of the last few days or weeks in Palestine is a great opportunity for us to reflect and to see [what happens] when we stand united, when we support each other, when we back each other up, when we protect each other, and when we work together. And I am talking about Palestinians all over Palestine, the divided and conquered Palestinians, 48 Palestinians, 67 Palestinians, divided into West Bank, Gaza, the eastern part of Jerusalem. I think what we are witnessing these days is the unification of Palestine.

This is a great moment to think together: How do we organize our communities? And how do we strategize and build popular infrastructures for these uprisings to be prolonged, to hold longer and to eventually succeed? What we have now is a great moment of realization that all is not lost, that we are still here, that our identity is still very clear to us.

Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
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