The Nation / February 15, 2022
It began, neighbors say, when an ultra-nationalist Israeli politician “moved” his office onto one of our lawns.
For some Israeli lawmakers, a Palestinian’s home is the perfect place to set up a makeshift office. All it takes is a tent, a plastic folding table, and an entourage of armed Jewish settlers. That’s what happened over the weekend when Israeli member of parliament Itamar Ben-Gvir decided to “move” his office from the Knesset to a yard in Sheikh Jarrah, my neighborhood in occupied Jerusalem. The yard belongs to the Salem family, which is threatened with forced expulsion in the coming weeks.
Ben-Gvir’s résumé reads almost like a caricature of itself. A lawyer for two of the settlers who participated in the 2015 firebombing of a Palestinian household that killed all but one of its members, he has represented a “‘Who’s Who’ of suspects in Jewish terror cases and hate crimes.” Just last year, he helped organize the notoriously racist “flag march,” during which thousands of Israeli settlers marched through the Old City of Jerusalem—some shouting “Death to Arabs”—celebrating the 1967 occupation; pulled his gun on two Palestinian parking lot workers; and demanded the expulsion of “disloyal Arabs” to other Arab countries during his—very successful—election campaign. He also has a habit of attempting to storm the hospital rooms of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners. Until 2020, he proudly hung in his living room a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the American turned settler turned mass murderer, who massacred 29 Palestinians as they prayed in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron/Al-Khalil in 1994. Ben-Gvir, it should be mentioned, is himself a settler in Hebron.
Ben-Gvir has a history of setting up shop in Sheikh Jarrah. In May 2021—at the height of the Unity Uprising—he accompanied Benzi Gopstein, the chairman of the Jewish supremacist Lehava party, as they pulled the same stunt and set up office at the entrance of the Ghawi family home, which was taken over in 2009 and is now inhabited by Zionist settlers.
This time, Ben-Gvir said he had come “to support the Jews living in the neighborhood,” after a settler’s house caught fire. Israeli forces arrested two men for allegedly firebombing the house; local sources in the neighborhood claim it was a short circuit.
Ben-Gvir’s arrival sparked precisely the protest and despair you’d expect from families under constant threat of violent expulsion. In quick turn, the police showed up, as did other settlers, inflicting escalating violence on Sheikh Jarrah’s residents, similar to that of last summer. Since Saturday, Israeli forces injured at least 35 Palestinians, including two photojournalists and one medic, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Fatima Salem, who was born in Sheikh Jarrah in 1952 and whose yard Ben-Gvir claimed as his office space, was pepper-sprayed by a settler on Sunday night, as she was entering her home, CCTV footage showed. The next day, she was brutalized by both settlers and Israeli forces and had to be hospitalized. “They hit me, they sprayed us with gas, they hit my son,” she said in an interview. “Look what they have done to me!” She remains indignant, saying, “As long as there is a soul in my body, I’ll defend my home and my children.”
Tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and skunk-water cannons—all were among the tools used by Israeli forces to repress protesting residents. Social media was overflowing with videos of Israeli soldiers assaulting and brutally detaining Palestinians, whom Israeli forces said were arrested for “violent riots.” One video shows a Jewish settler pushing and pepper-spraying two Palestinian women shortly before he was smacked in the face with a plastic chair.
The Jerusalem Post (formerly The Palestine Post), whose editor in chief served as an adviser to Naftali Bennet before he became prime minister, reported that Palestinians were arrested for using fireworks against Israeli police in the confrontations.
Others came out against Ben-Gvir’s stunt, if tepidly. The official Twitter account for the European Union Delegation to the Palestinians tweeted that it is “concerned,” saying that “settler violence, irresponsible provocations and other escalatory acts in this sensitive area only fuel further tensions [and] must cease.” (Notably, many EU diplomats live in Sheikh Jarrah, suggesting that their ability to see said settler violence from their balconies should prompt them to do more than tweet).
Ben-Gvir has a long history as a provocateur, and his action was clearly intended to incite outrage and promote fear—but that’s not all. With nearly a quarter-million followers on Facebook and Twitter combined, Ben-Gvir is one among many Israeli politicians whose political fortunes rely on broadcasting their racist stunts in Palestinian neighborhoods.
A lawmaker setting up a political office in someone’s private property might seem like surrealist performance art. But to Palestinians, it is neither shocking nor new. It is the perfect metaphor for how the Israeli state came to be. It is also not that uncommon.
One of my early memories growing up in Sheikh Jarrah is of Jerusalem’s then–deputy mayor Nir Barakat trying—but failing—to set up his office inside the part of my house that had been taken over by an army-backed settler organization called Nahalat Shimon. That was in 2010, and such actions have not abated. Most recently, in June of last year, Bezalel Smotrich, another member of the Israeli Knesset, barged onto my family’s property and filmed himself alongside the director of the Nahalat Shimon.
For years, the settler-activist turned Jerusalem councilman Yonatan Yosef has harassed the Sheikh Jarrah community, sometimes walking around screaming things like “You are against the Bible,” “God says this area belongs to the Jewish people,” and “Mohammad [the Prophet of Islam] is dead.”
Yosef—a man who has repeatedly livestreamed himself vandalizing murals in Sheikh Jarrah—now handles building permit applications submitted by Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem and explicitly boasts about blocking them. Over 94 percent of such applications get rejected in Jerusalem, according to Grassroots AlQuds, an organization dedicated to mapping the displacement policies affecting Palestinian communities. (In the occupied West Bank, 98 percent of applications get rejected.)
Fatima Salem described in a recent video interview how Yosef came knocking on her door with the current deputy mayor of Jerusalem, handing her an eviction order—all while he videotaped her devastated response to the news. Yosef, who apparently owns every house in Jerusalem, said to her, “This is my home.” (Forced transfer of occupied people is a war crime under International Law).
For years, I heard Yosef say “this is my home” to my late grandmother as he handed her expulsion orders and court summons, and I saw her walk the tightrope between defiance and heartbreak, until his visits became a nagging—even boring—reminder of her destined sleeplessness, waiting for the settlers to arrive.
While the Israeli regime has long managed to conceal its practices of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and colonial expansion behind a mix of complex legislation, Hasbara, and the rhetoric of “war and peace,” politicians like Ben-Gvir increasingly do not bother to play that game. And they are not so fringe.
Palestinians know that Ben-Gvir’s eliminationist rhetoric is cemented, albeit in more polished form, in Israeli policies of mass transfer. His office stunt is merely a more explicit version of the Zionism that Israeli leaders have governed with for the past seven decades—one predicated on replacing Palestinians with settlers.
As I write this, colonial violence continues in my neighborhood and across colonized Palestine. Israeli forces have shot and killed Nihad Barghouti, a Palestinian teenager who was protesting in occupied Nabi Saleh, Ramallah; attacked protesting students with tear gas canisters at Abu Dis University; assaulted a disabled activist in Sheikh Jarrah while providing protection for Ben-Gvir’s entourage; and demolished a Palestinian’s home in the South Hebron Hills, shortly before brutally detaining him.
As the injuries and arrests mount, it’s hard not to see the parallels between today’s events and the events that sparked last year’s Unity Uprising and the devastating assault on the besieged Gaza Strip. Many hold their breath, anticipating the repression that accompanies resistance, the steep price of revolt.
Mohammed al-Kurd is the Palestine correspondent for The Nation; he writes primarily about dispossession in Jerusalem and colonization in Palestine; his debut book is a volume of poetry, Rifqa (Haymarket Books)