New generation: Israel crackdown spotlights Palestinian ‘icons’

Activists Muna and Mohammed al-Kurd were arrested and later released by Israeli authorities in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood (Ahmad Gharabli - AFP)

Anchal Vohra

Al-Jazeera  /  June 9, 2021

Israel’s detention of Palestinian activists and journalists is reinvigorating peaceful resistance, launching a new generation of Palestinian activists.

It is not the first time that Israel has detained or arrested Palestinian activists. But the mass arrests undertaken since a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas – agreed upon to end the recent cycle of violence – may backfire.

The detentions of Palestinian activists and journalists this time around are re-energizing a long-simmering peaceful resistance and launching a new generation of Palestinian icons fighting to protect their homes, as well as advocating self-determination.

In a statement, Israeli police said it launched “operation law and order” to bring rioters to justice and to “maintain public peace”. It added so far, “2,142 detainees have been registered”.

Palestinians, however, said Israeli police arrested those who had been peacefully protesting with the unstated but obvious aim to crush the momentum of their movement, which has picked up pace over the last month.

The Israeli police might have proved the Palestinians right as they arrested Muna al-Kurd. The 23-year-old activist had been highlighting an Israeli court’s order that her family, and several others, be forcibly evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah – a neighbourhood in the heart of East Jerusalem. Her twin brother, Mohammed al-Kurd, was also summoned and questioned by police.

Their arrests came a day after a journalist for Al-Jazeera Media Network, Givara Budeiri, was briefly detained while reporting from Sheikh Jarrah.

While the siblings were later released, their arrests will only add impetus to their struggle. Their story mirrors the tale of dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and is getting much more prominence now.

Muna and Mohammed were barely 11 years old in 2009 when Jewish settlers moved into their home in Sheikh Jarrah and took over half of it as per another court order back then.

Her father had been forced out of his ancestral home in Haifa in 1948 and was resettled in Sheikh Jarrah in 1956 by Jordan and the United Nations’ refugee agency in exchange for giving up his refugee status.

Muna and Mohammed not only inherited generational trauma but were forced to share their home with strangers. They had been campaigning against the Israeli settlements since they were children, filming tensions between Palestinians and settlers, and interviewed often by international filmmakers.

But in March this year, as the court ordered their eviction from the other half of their home, the siblings put up a fiercer fight on social media. They are seen to be behind #SaveSheikhJarrah that has been trending on Twitter.

A video clip of Muna challenging a Jewish settler, reprimanding him for “stealing” her home, went viral online while Mohammed was interviewed by several American broadcasters, among other international networks.

Asked in an interview about whether he supports “violent” protests taking place in support of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, Mohammed succinctly asked a question in return: “Do you support the violent dispossession of me and my family?” That clip went viral, too, hitting a chord with Palestinians at home and in the diaspora.

Muna and Mohammed are examples of a new generation of influencers in Palestinian society with a large following on social media. They effectively used the medium to organize dissent and spread their message to both local and international audiences.

Anwar Mhajne, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at Stonewall College, said the sophistication of the siblings’ activism in utilizing social media, their young age, and persistence to fight for the Palestinian cause has mobilized momentum among more activists, who also have hundreds of thousands of followers.

“Muna and Mohammed al-Kurd have been at the forefront of spreading awareness of the threat of expulsion that Palestinian families face in Sheikh Jarrah,” Mhajne told Al-Jazeera. “Social media users rallied to the support of the siblings following the release of a video posted by their friend showing Muna being detained from her home in the presence of her father.”

Outside the police station, a dozen peaceful protesters were threatened with stun grenades  by the police force.

“The Arabic hashtag #الحرية_لمنى_الكرد, which translates to freedom for Muna al-Kurd, as well as #FreeMunaElKurd, have been widely circulated online as thousands reacted to the arrest of the prominent activist,” Mhajne added.

The internet, and effective use of social media, has enabled Palestinians all over the world to transcend geographical separations and make themselves heard. But for those inside Israel and the occupied territories, expressing your opinion is still full of risk for Palestinians.

“They are an easy target for harassment by Israeli security forces and extremists,” said Mhajne, but, “their public visibility and a significant following on social media make it more challenging for the state to suppress their voices.”

According to legal experts, 65 Israeli laws discriminate against Palestinians. Several of these are designed to discourage them from protesting or organizing as activists on the ground.

“All sorts of meetings of more than a few people, all organizing, all demonstrations, or any raising of Palestinian or party flags, has been banned in the occupied territories since 1967,” said Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian and professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at Columbia University.

“These acts are considered ‘terrorism’ and are punishable by imprisonment and fines via a system of military injustice where the judges and prosecutors are from the occupation army, and conviction is virtually automatic.”

A renaissance

Fadi Quran, a West Bank-based community organizer and a campaigns director at a nonprofit organization called Avaaz, said while arrests seek to shift the energy on the street from “proactive action to a space of defensiveness and fear”, they are also adding credibility to some of the youth leaders.

“Palestinian youth activism is having a renaissance as this generation feels a deep sense of agency,” said Quran. “The recent events have only added to the momentum and growth, and that’s why Israel’s security forces are going into overdrive to try and kill this energy through mass arrests, as well as increased use of violence.”

It remains to be seen how much success the young Palestinian generation will have in achieving its goals. But as their popularity increases, both inside Palestine and in the West, it is clear Israel’s arrests campaign may have scored an own-goal.

It would be hard for Israeli forces to convince the world that Muna or Mohammed al-Kurd or the Al-Jazeera journalist it assaulted and detained carried out or promoted violence.

Anchal Vohra is a multi-lingual foreign correspondent covering the Middle East