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Issue #1717      February 3, 2016

Uprising about more than knives

When the “intifada of the knives” set off in October last year, Western reporters flooded into Jerusalem to cover the new “escalation,” interview people from “both sides of the conflict” and raise several variations of the old question: “Is this the beginning of a third intifada?”

An interfaith prayer vigil in Jerusalem.

Inevitably, once the journalists left a massive crackdown significantly reduced the number of deadly attacks against Israelis in the city. It is an all too familiar pattern for Palestinians, who know by now that it’s only “escalation” when there are dead or wounded Israelis. Deaths, injuries, arrests and home demolitions inflicted on Palestinians by Israel are deemed business as usual, not worthy of further inquiry.

The daily acts of collective punishment suffered by Palestinians in Jerusalem and their slow ethnic cleansing are too routine to be considered newsworthy.

The temporary checkpoints, closures and concrete blocks imposed during the crackdown may have gone and the numbers of Israeli troops on the streets may have been reduced. Yet the Israeli repression – and Palestinian resistance – remains.

Holding the dead hostage

One of Israel’s most troubling tactics is its withholding the bodies of slain Palestinians. In mid-October the Israeli security cabinet endorsed several measures to quell the unrest. One involved reviving a decades-long policy of withholding the bodies of Palestinians accused of carrying out attacks.

Since then, more than 80 bodies have been withheld. Israel began gradually releasing the bodies in late December after weeks of mass protests, most notably in Hebron, but the bodies of 10 Palestinian Jerusalemites remain in Israeli morgues.

The families of Bahaa Alayan, Thaer Abu Ghazaleh, Hassan Manasra, Alaa Abu Jamal, Ahmad Abu Shaaban, Mutaz Uweisat, Omar Iskafi, Abd al-Mohsen Hassouna, Musab al-Ghazali and Muhammad Nimer are still battling for the right to lay their children to rest.

Exploiting the geographic and political isolation of Palestinians in Jerusalem, Israel has attached repressive conditions to the release of the bodies. Their families must bury them on the opposite side of the wall Israel has built around the city, limit the number of mourners present at burial, bury the dead only at certain late hours and pay a surety in lieu of those conditions.

International apathy

Bahaa Alayan’s father Muhammad has led the popular campaign in Jerusalem protesting these measures.

“We are being deprived of our right to mourn and Israel is using the dead bodies of our children to break us,” Alayan told The Electronic Intifada. “Yet the issue is not receiving a fraction of the coverage and attention it deserves.”

The 60-year-old lawyer believes that the families of Jerusalem’s martyrs have been completely abandoned by the Palestinian Authority. He struggles to understand the apathy of the Western media.

None of the Western journalists who had approached him following his son’s killing to ask why such a bright young man should carry out a knife attack have bothered to come back and ask about Bahaa’s body, Muhammad said.

Had they done so, they would have found the Alayans sleeping in a makeshift tent next to the rubble of their house. The Alayan home is one of several demolished by Israel in retaliation for individual attacks. The policy of punitive home demolitions was also contained in the package of measures approved by Israel’s security cabinet in October and has been endorsed by Israel’s high court.

Pushed to mobilise

The policies to withhold bodies of alleged attackers and demolish their families’ homes constitute some of the most egregious human rights violations against Palestinians in Jerusalem. But they have also pushed the community to mobilise.

On December 1, youth held a concert at the Palestinian National Theatre – also known as El-Hakawati – in support of parents with children in prison and those waiting for the release of their children’s bodies. The theatre’s largest hall was filled to capacity; revenues were allocated to home reconstruction.

The communal solidarity organised by residents in Jerusalem’s Shuafat refugee camp following the destruction of Ibrahim Akari’s home was replicated throughout the West Bank, notably in Ramallah and Nablus.

There has been direct action, too. Inspired by Bahaa Alayan’s idea of forming a reading human chain back in March 2014, Palestinians did just that on December 26. The chain encircled the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, with participants demanding the return of martyrs’ bodies before the peaceful protest was violently dispersed by Israeli forces.

Mobilising mass protests in the face of Israel’s extreme repression has become even harder for Palestinians in Jerusalem since October. Israel has deliberately targeted leading activists in the city by jailing them, putting them under house arrest, threatening arrest, or handing down orders to expel them from the city.

These measures did not stop Hijazi Abu Sbeih and Samer Abu Eisheh from setting up a protest tent in the yard of the International Committee of the Red Cross building in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. While the tent was initially erected to provide the two with shelter when they rejected Israel’s order to banish them from Jerusalem, it was soon transformed into a vibrant space of civil disobedience.

Moment of freedom

For nearly two weeks, the tent brimmed with energy and revolutionary spirit free of factional divisions. Concerts were held there along with public lectures and discussions.

More than providing support for the two protesters, those who attended were imbued with a rare sense of genuine, if short-lived, freedom. Here they were able to sing, raise their voices against Israeli oppression, chant “I am not leaving,” immerse themselves in debate and organise.

Palestinians are often asked about the alternative to their corrupt and failed leadership. Those who visited the tent could get a glimpse of what that could like.

On January 6, both Abu Eisheh and Abu Sbeih were arrested by special Israeli police units on the Red Cross premises. The two have been charged with defying military orders and inciting violence via Facebook, Abu Eisheh’s lawyer, Mahmoud Hassan, told The Electronic Intifada.

The protest tent, and Israel’s arrest raid there, did not capture the attention of international journalists, even though these non-violent forms of resistance and Israel’s crackdown on them are at the heart of Jerusalem’s story.

One cannot yet speak of an organised mass movement among Palestinians, but this current uprising has much more to it than knife attacks waged by individuals. And Israel’s repression goes far beyond bullets and checkpoints.

The Electronic Intifada

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