Few people had heard of the Sheikh Jarrah families before now. But their plight illustrates the nature of the Israeli state, and why international opposition to Zionism is more important than ever.
The families were driven from their homes in the cities of Haifa and Jaffa during the 1948 war. At the time, the Zionist movement had declared Palestine an exclusively Jewish state, calling it ‘a land without people for a people without land’.
After they defeated the surrounding Arab countries, they engaged in ethnic cleansing, pushing out hundreds of thousands Palestinian refugees.
A small number were settled in Sheikh Jarrah by the then Jordanian government. But in 1967, Israel launched another war and captured territories in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It remains in occupation to this day.
Like many colonial powers in the past, Israel has attempted to settle its fanatical supporters in the occupied territories. It declared that vast swathes of the West Bank were needed for ‘military purposes’. More than 620,000 Zionist settlers then set up fortified outposts in 200 settlements. The Israeli state established an Apartheid Wall that allows the settlers to drive around freely while Palestinian farmers are often deprived of access to their land.
A key strategic goal for the Zionist movement has been gaining full control of Jerusalem but this means ethically cleansing many Arab families who live in the east of the city. The Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah lies in East Jerusalem, and it is here that five dozen Palestinian families are being evicted from their homes to make way for additional Jewish-only neighbourhoods. This began the current wave of protest and serves as a microcosm of the cruel treatment that roughly five million Palestinians endure on a day-to-day basis.
The evictions have provoked massive outrage across the Middle East, but they have also awakened the political consciousness of Arab citizens who live inside Israel. To this day 20 percent of the population of Israel belong to this category and they have faced massive discrimination.
By law, for example, Arabs are blocked from leasing about 80 percent of land which is controlled by the state. Since 1967, 15,000 Arabs have had their right to live in Jerusalem revoked. In 2003, a law was passed which prevents the unification of Arab citizens of Israel with spouses who are resident in the occupied territories. Palestinians are prevented from commemorating the Nakba – the brutalisation and expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians at the foundation of the state of Israel.
In 2018, Israel passed a law defining the country as the nation state of the Jewish people. Hebrew is declared as the country’s national language and the law asserts that the establishment of Jewish communities as being in the national interest. The bill also stripped Arabic of its designation as an official language.
In response to the political wakening of its own Arab citizens, far right mobs have taken to the streets shouting, ‘Death to Arabs’. And the Israeli state is threatening more repression against its Arab citizens. The town of Lod has been declared under a state of emergency and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended police brutality against protesting Palestinians, saying Israel “shall not allow any radical element to undermine the calm”.
Very little of this background appears in the mainstream media. They report on the events as a ‘conflict between both sides’ and pretend that there is a balance. But in purely military terms Israel has overwhelming power to terrorise and intimidate. The rockets fired from Gaza are puny compared the strength of the Israeli military, and most are cancelled out by a state of the art defence system.
One of the reasons for this ‘balanced’ coverage is that Israel frames any criticism of its actions as ‘anti-Semitic’. Yet there is a huge distinction between Zionism, a political ideology which asserted that Jewish people needed their own homeland by dispossessing Palestinian, and the wider Jewish population. Indeed, Jewish people in Israel and around the world have condemned the actions of Zionists recently, and for decades.
We should oppose very single racist manifestation of anti-Semitism, which still mainly comes from the far right, often in coded terms wrapped up in bizarre conspiracy theories.
That should in no way lessen our opposition to Zionism as an exclusivist, colonial project. That is why we should stand with the Palestinians.