by James Markin
Last month the streets of Jerusalem played host to Palestinians protesting in the face of crackdowns by Israeli authorities and intimidation from far-right groups. The seeds of this April uprising lie in the 1980s, when the Israeli government decided to reshape the city of Jerusalem as part of its project to convert the city into a unified capital for the Zionist regime. A key part of this redevelopment scheme included altering the plaza in front of the towering Damascus Gate that forms part of the walls of the Old City. The Israeli municipality of Jerusalem reconfigured the plaza by building a series of steps in the shape of an amphitheater. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were opposed to the creation of the the steps but legally unable to do anything about it, since even though they had lived under Israeli rule since the capture of the city in 1967, they were not citizens of Israel. These steps had been mostly forgotten by the world until last month, when they suddenly sprung to the forefront.
Since the municipality unilaterally had the steps built, Palestinian Muslim residents of Jerusalem have taken to gathering on them during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. This year, on April 12th, as Ramadan was beginning, Palestinian Muslim residents discovered that the Israeli police had put up a series of metal barriers, preventing Palestinians from gathering there. When Palestinian youth protested what seemed like a completely arbitrary decision, Israeli police responded with physical violence, stun grenades, foul-smelling water cannons, and arrests.
In Jaffa, another city with a large Palestinian population under Israeli rule, similar clashes broke out on the same night. This conflict began with the assault of Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, a leader of the settlement movement who organizes Israeli buyouts of Palestinian property owners. Mali was visiting a property in the Arab quarter of Jaffa that he was intending to buy and convert into a Jewish religious school, when two Palestinian residents of a building next door assaulted him. The residents had previously faced eviction attempts in their building, which their family had lived in since 1992, and believed that Mali’s goal was to evict Palestinians from the neighborhood. After the two men were arrested, supporters of Rabbi Mali began to march through the district, and counter-protestors soon gathered chanting “Jaffa for Jaffans, settlers out!” As the situation escalated and the counter-protesters began to throw stones, Israeli police descended on the crowd and beat many of the counter-protestors, arresting three.
Back in Jerusalem, youth continued to battle police over the Damascus Gate for another week. On April 22nd, a new force joined in on the street fighting, as members of the Kahanist organization Lehava marched into the Old City chanting “Death to Arabs”.
The Zionist far right shares a common goal with the center
Lehava is a violent right-wing “anti-miscegenation” group which focuses its recruitment efforts on disaffected Israeli youth. At Lehava training camps, these teens are taught combat skills, harassment tactics to discourage interracial dating, and the ideas of the far-right political leader, Meir Kahane. As a member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) before his political party was banned, Kahane espoused an ideology of Jewish supremacism and called for the complete expulsion of all Palestinians from areas under Israeli control. This policy would have essentially ushered in a repeat of the 1948 Nakba, when Zionist forces carried out an ethnic cleansing of the land that today constitutes the State of Israel.
This program of ethnic cleansing was explicit during the Lehava march in Jerusalem. When one young woman was asked by a reporter if she felt represented by the slogan “may your village burn”, she responded that she preferred to say “you’ll leave your village and we’ll live in it” before explaining that this was exactly the goal of the marchers in the Old City. The reality is that while this kind of open call for ethnic cleansing might be expressed most clearly by Kahanists, it is at the core of Zionism itself. The State of Israel builds its existence on the continued dispossession of the Palestinian people, and it is in this context that the recent violence in Palestine must be understood. As the Palestinian former Member of Knesset Dr. Jamal Zahalka pointed out, the real reason Israeli police shut down the steps at the Damascus Gate was because they could not bear seeing Palestinians gather in large numbers in the city of Jerusalem. Similarly in Jaffa, settlers like Eliyahu Mali have the implicit backing of the Israeli police as they attempt to remove Palestinians from the city by purchasing their homes and evicting them. Both cases demonstrate how Palestinians under direct Israeli rule face extreme opposition just living their daily lives in the land of their birth. This is because the very existence of Palestinians in places like Jerusalem and Jaffa is a challenge to the Zionist dream of a purely Jewish society.
Indeed, the Zionist mirage of a democratic and Jewish state is built upon the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians needed to create an artificial Jewish majority. Lehava’s obsession with opposing “miscegenation” is not just based on their interpretation of Jewish religious law, it is part of their ideology of maintaining Jewish supremacy. Yet, despite all the efforts of the Zionist movement, demographic experts in recent times have concluded that there are roughly equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in Palestine (including the West Bank and Gaza). In the face of this reality, the Zionist right has become fixated on maintaining a Jewish majority, even as plans to annex parts of the West Bank become more mainstream. The only way to gobble up more Palestinian land while keeping such a Jewish majority is to return, as Kahane advocated, to the most aggressive practices of the Nakba: overt ethnic cleansing. Recently, a close ally of beleaguered Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich, alluded to this openly, saying that Palestinian citizens of Israel are citizens only “for now, at least”. This is the driving force behind the recent attacks on Palestinians living within Israel whether they come from the Israeli police or Lehava. While the immediate goal of Kahanist thugs like Lehava is to terrorize Palestinians into accepting Jewish supremacy, their ultimate goal is the complete removal of Palestinians from Palestine.
Victory on the steps of the Damascus Gate
However, while it is easy to focus on the march of the Kahanists, the most important takeaway from April’s events should be the result of the confrontation in Jerusalem. Despite the arrests and the smoke grenades, despite the police support for the Kahanists as they chanted “death to Arabs,” when the smoke cleared, the Palestinian youths had begun to tear down the barricades at the Damascus Gate. Ultimately, the police buckled and gave in, officially allowing the barricades to be removed. Lehava and the Israeli police wanted to keep Palestinians afraid and prevent them from gathering publicly, but Palestinian youth fought back and won. The battle to clear the square at the Damascus Gate for Ramadan might have been a small one, but it is meaningful. Palestinians demonstrated in practice this April that they can fight for their right to live in Palestine and, more importantly, that they can win. The victory at the Damascus Gate shows the impotence of groups like Lehava in the face of the struggle of ordinary Palestinian working people. When Palestinians unite in struggle they have the capacity to win victories against Zionism, and will ultimately be able to defeat the Zionist project in Palestine.
In Jerusalem and Jaffa, Palestinians Fight Back.
by James Markin