Jerusalem’s last decade of revolt

Israeli Border Police and Palestinians clah outside the Damascus Gate - April 2021 (Marihan al-Khalid - APA Images)

Fayrouz Sharqawi

Mondoweiss  /  November 21, 2022

During the past ten years, Jerusalem has reemerged as the spark that sets off Palestinian revolt, culminating in the Unity Intifada of 2021.

Palestinians have led many uprisings in the history of the Zionist colonization of Palestine, from the 1936 Great Palestinian Revolt, to the First and Second intifadas, to the Unity Intifada of 2021. Yet these grand revolts are only significant in how they have encompassed all the other revolts that have preceded them.

For the past ten years, I made my home in a small apartment in Shu’afat, just north of Jerusalem’s Old City, after having lived in Jerusalem for more than two decades. Shu’afat is one of only 18 small and heavily policed areas afforded to Palestinians in Jerusalem.      

I can see Al-Sahel (the meadow) area west of my balcony. Most of it remains empty, untainted by construction. Yet it is also a strange scene for a community that suffers from discriminatory restrictions in housing opportunities.

The policies of displacement of the Israeli colonial authorities targeting the Palestinian presence in the city systematically prevents us from gaining building permits. If we build without them, our houses are demolished. In some cases, we are even forced to destroy our own homes. 

Throughout my ten years in Shu’afat, hardly any Palestinian homes have been built in Al-Sahel. Yet year after year, just a few hundred meters further to the west, the buildings of the Ramat Shlomo colony grow a little taller and expand ever outward, slowly devouring Shu’afat’s lands. 

Palestinian lands are confiscated and handed over by Israeli colonial authorities for the building of more colonies, more colonial roads, and more industrial zones.      

Some lands are declared as national or municipal parks. These are intended by design to act as green barriers, meant to stunt the Palestinian community’s  capacity for growth. 

It’s almost ironic. This past decade has enforced a paradoxical and warped realization — where in Jerusalem, trees take on a new meaning, becoming an instrument of displacement rather than flourishing. 

Colonial development creeps into intimate spaces      

Near my home on the main road of Shu’afat, the Jerusalem Light Rail stop is visible and obtrusive. 

To an unfamiliar eye, the tram, which was inaugurated in 2011, may seem like a harmless development project for Jerusalem residents, even Palestinians. But one look at a map illustrates that the Jerusalem tram has been used to complement the roads and public transportation servicing settlements in and around Jerusalem. 

The network is designed  to solidify connections between the city center and the colonies around the city. It also connects Jerusalem to the rest of the colonies sprawled across the north, south, and east of the West Bank. 

More than a decade later, the construction persists. This year, four new JLR lines are under construction, to expand the colonies’ access to the city.

Yet the travesty is not simply in the architectural engineering of colonial cities and towns — it is in the way colonialism creeps into our most intimate spaces. 

During the 2014 Abu Khdeir uprising, when Palestinians were enraged after Jewish settlers kidnapped a 14-year-old boy and burned him alive, protests targeted the Tram’s stops in Shu’afat.  

Muhammad Abu Khdeir was 14 years old when he was burned alive. All the children and youth of Jerusalem knew of his story. They intimately knew the street where he was kidnapped, and were all too aware of the colony from which the settlers came. They were not only denied justice, but denied their grief and anger. 

The ugly killing of Abu Khdeir happened just a few days into an Israeli assault on Gaza, “Operation Protective Edge.” The killing sparked an uprising in Jerusalem against the occupation.   

Not too far from Abu Khdeir’s family home and my own, Shu’afat’s main road became a battlefield. It was the holy month of Ramadan, and the mosque in Shu’afat became a battlefield, as well as a refuge for youth to rest, eat, drink water, and find solace and an inkling of protection during confrontations, which were brutally suppressed with a violence that is common to settlers and their armed forces. 

A decade later, we still see the same haunting and creeping annexation, the displacement and shrinking of living spaces, the settler violence and impunity. 

For ten years, that balcony became somewhat of a kaleidoscope of scenes across the years. Just down the hill to the east, near the military checkpoint by Shu’afat Refugee Camp, I can still hear the sound of the muwajahat (confrontations) to this day, as Palestinian youth attempt to thwart Israeli repression.  

I still feel the burn of teargas in my lungs. It would often creep up towards my balcony during the clashes. The burn came with the sound of explosives as sound grenades were fired in tandem.

Shu’afat Refugee Camp, Al-Issawiyya, Silwan, and Al-Tur are neighborhoods in Jerusalem where this is a common occurrence. Most Palestinians in Jerusalem know this by experience, not through secondhand testimonies. 

The banality of everyday colonialism

The ways in which Israeli colonialism impacts and controls our lives is overwhelming. Daily living becomes a grand gesture of defiance. 

Since my office used to be located near the Old City, I would often take a bus to Damascus Gate

One of the most beautiful and architecturally impressive of the Old City’s eight gates, in Arabic it is called Bab al-Amud (the Pillar’s Gate), referencing the stone pillar that used to stand by the gate several hundreds of years ago.

Even though the pillar itself is long gone, Palestinians still use this name in a beautiful expression of our collective memory, as old as our roots in the city. 

Bab al-Amud is where we practice our belonging to Jerusalem. It is often the only gate with which Palestinians visiting from other parts of Palestine are familiar. And it has also become a central flashpoint for confronting the occupation

It was largely due to this significance that many of the attacks during the 2015-2016 Al-Quds Uprising — when individual “lone wolf” attacks were carried out by Palestinians against Israeli occupation forces or settlers — were concentrated around Damascus Gate. Up to today, Bab al-Amud remains central to confrontation with the colonial authorities and to the reclamation of the city’s Palestinian identity.

From Damascus gate, I would walk to the east towards Herod’s Gate, or as we more commonly call it, “Bab al-Zahira” (originally pronounced in Arabic as “Al-Sahira,” meaning “the gate of those who stay up at night,” referring to the guards that used to guard it at night). In the past, it used to be the only gate in the wall that would be kept open during the night, to keep the Old City protected from intruders while ensuring that late-comers were able to enter the city. 

Bab al-Sahira, the gate that never closed, is today often closed by the Israeli colonial police, preventing Palestinians from reaching the Old City. Jerusalem, a city denied of its people quarter by quarter, has been taken over by settlers.

Erasing the dead and controlling the living

Walking east, far from Bab al-Zhira, Al-Yusufiyah Cemetery still stands, despite having parts of it unearthed by the colonial authorities with the purpose of turning it into a park. In 2021, Palestinian families with loved ones buried in the cemetery were at once pained and outraged, recognizing that even in death there is no mercy or respect to Palestinian human life. Israel also tried to destroy and replace a 200-year-old Muslim cemetery in the city of Yaffa just a year before.

Al-Yusufiyah, one of the most important Islamic cemeteries in Jerusalem, had been subjected to systematic Israeli attacks, excavations, and bulldozing. In Jerusalem, Arab history, whether Muslim or Christian history, is being systematically erased — as part of a failing attempt to deny and erase the city’s Palestinian identity.

Al-Yusufiyah cemetery is also known as the Bab Al-Asbat Cemetery. Bab al-Asbat, or the “Lions’ Gate/the Gate of our lady Mary,” became a symbol of people’s will over violent conquest. In 2017, after Al-Quds Uprising, more than 255 Palestinians were killed by police and armed settlers, and 40 Israelis were killed by lone wolf operations. Yet 2017 also ushered with it a demonstration of Palestinian will in influencing their realities. 

 In the summer of 2017, the colonial authorities attempted to solidify its dystopian surveillance of Palestinians by placing metal detectors inside the Old City, in preparation for placing them at the entrances to Al-Aqsa Mosque.

In response, thousands of Palestinians gathered to protest at the gate, night after night. Palestinians from different areas of historic Palestine, including the West Bank, came to support. Worshippers refused to enter the mosque under the new restrictions, and thousands prayed in the street in protest. I recall the energy of the city, those that prayed and those that didn’t — we were all protecting the sanctity of protected worship, not only as Muslims, but as Palestinians. 

Unsurprisingly, the occupation forces violently attacked protesters and worshippers with beatings, shootings, and arrests. A holy place of worship was desecrated, holy books were stepped on, and even children and the elderly were not spared, not to mention journalists or medics. 

These attacks did not deter Palestinians, however, who continued to gather outside the gate for many consecutive days, until the colonial authorities conceded and removed the metal detectors

The Bab al-Asbat uprising was an important reminder that despite the systematic oppression and violence, the people of Jerusalem were ready to protect their city and preserve its Palestinian identity. 

United in separation

Amid the ugliness of colonial plunder and internal fragmentation, Palestinians have tried to come together, in ways that are both inspiring and flawed. 

Filled with moments of revolution and resistance, this last decade was crowned by the 2021 Unity Intifada. The uprising got its name from the underlying reality of fragmentation that the revolt was suddenly mending, engaging the entirety of occupied Palestine, from the lands taken in 1948, to those taken in 1967 (the West Bank and Gaza). Transcending territorial demarcations, the Unity Intifada also engaged Palestinians in forced exile (who constitute more than half of the Palestinian people), and even Syrians in the occupied Golan Heights.

The uprising’s first spark was in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where Palestinian residents were fighting to remain in their homes despite judicial harassment, settler violence, shootings, and systemic targeting of residents and visitors by occupation police and authorities. Sheikh Jarrah, just a short distance from Damascus Gate, was emblematic of the ways in which settler organizations worked hand in hand with formal Zionist institutions to expel Palestinians and take over their lands and homes. 

In April 2021, six families were facing the imminent threat of expulsion from their homes. They knew what every Palestinian knows, that it is never a threat, but a warning that terror will reign until they are driven out. Steadfast and committed to the protection of their homes and community, the neighborhood started organizing protests that were joined by many Palestinians from Jerusalem, as well as Palestinians with nominal Israeli citizenship who come from historic Palestine — the lands known today as “Israel.” 

Palestinians from historic Palestine have been subjected to policies aiming to erase their Palestinian identity and to disconnect them from the rest of the Palestinian people in the lands occupied after 1967. Yet their rootedness and sense of identity in the face of violent settler-colonialism refuses to be erased.     

The Unity Intifada took place during the holy month of Ramadan, when tens of thousands of Palestinians practiced their belonging to Jerusalem by praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Not unlike other colonial powers, Israeli authorities saw such practices as a threat to their sovereignty over the land.

They attacked worshippers inside the mosque, as well as people simply sitting on Bab al-Amud’s stairs. This sparked protests and confrontation at the gate.

It did not take long for other parts of Palestine to join the uprising. From everywhere in our occupied land, we took to the streets, raised our voices and flags, organized our communities in an inspiring model of takaful — which can be loosely understood as a form of mutual aid. 

This decade has witnessed ebbs and flows, repression and re-birth. But on a more basic level, as Palestinians this decade is not made up of the major events, but of the minute details that make up our lives, every day adding to the one before it. 

It was a decade of weaving, threading, and re-imagining. It was a decade that rejuvenated our courage to dream of a free Palestine, and to etch it into the spaces we inhabit. 

Fayrouz Sharqawi is the Director of Grassroots Al-Quds