Twenty arrested at Sheikh Jarrah protest

Left-wing activists, Arab demonstrators try to break into Jewish houses, hurl rocks at praying men.

Police arrested twenty demonstrators in eastJerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood on Friday, in a rally thatactivists said was the largest and most energetic they had seen in thecontested area.

Demonstratorsnumbered well over three hundred and included Arabs, Jews, tourists,and a multitude of foreign press, in addition to a virtual who's who ofIsrael's left-wing, including former lawmakers Yossi Sarid and AvramBurg.

When a number of protesters attempted to break intoJewish-owned houses, police used riot dispersal means to quell thedemonstration. According to security forces, the protesters also triedto attack Jews who were on their way to pray at the grave of Simon theJust. One man was said to be lightly hurt after a left-wing activisthurled a rock at him.

The arrested demonstrators were transferred for questioning as the protest began to die down.

Sarid, a former minister and one-time Meretz party leader, told The Jerusalem Postthe rally was the first protest he had attended since retiring frompolitics in 2006, saying he came after reading about "what is happeningto the [Arab] families in Sheikh Jarrah" and that it was his duty as acitizen to attend the rally.

Israeli Arab MK and Hadash party Chairman Mohammed Barakeh alsoattended the protest and said the issue of Sheikh Jarrah "is not abouta house or family, it's about the peace process."

Barakehadded that the move to "purge" east Jerusalem of its Arab residentssaddens him not only on a personal level but also because he feels"there is no peace process, no two-state solution without eastJerusalem as the Palestinian capital."

Haggai El-Ad, the director of the Association for Civil Rightsin Israel (ACRI) and one of 17 arrested in last week's demonstrationcalled the Sheikh Jarrah protests "the defining free speech issue inIsrael in recent years" adding that it represents an issue where "thesuffering of Palestinian families and the persecution of Israelicitizens exercising their democratic right to protest converge."

El-Ad added that he sees police actions against the protestersas "nothing more than political theater." El-Ad was released lastSaturday after 36 hours in custody, when the Jerusalem District Courtruled the arrest of activists was unlawful, even though they weredemonstrating without a permit.

Early on, the protest had a rather festive air, withdemonstrators blowing whistles, waving signs, and chanting songs,including one with the refrain "Sheikh Jarrah, Jarrah" sung to the tuneof 'Que Sera Sera.' Throughout the first hour of the protest, a youngArab man navigated the crowd with a tray of Turkish coffee, handing outcups to the protesters, journalists, and onlookers, many of themchildren, who dotted the traffic island across from the policeposition. At one point, a man drove by slowly and in American-accentedEnglish shouted at the protesters "you people are Nazis," a refrainthat was greeted by cheers from the crowd.

Police were heavily outnumbered by protesters and the cadenceand atmosphere of the event seemed to be largely dictated by thedemonstrators, many of whom came to Sheikh Jarrah for the first timefollowing last Friday's arrests.

Demonstrators had been told before the protest that policewould disperse them at 4pm, and shortly after the hour passed, a wallof border patrolmen and Yassam riot police began to push forward, as asenior police officer with a megaphone ordered the demonstrators toleave, his words drowned out by whistles, jeers, and chanting.

Protesters began to move towards the barricaded entrance to thestreet in Sheikh Jarrah where two Palestinian families were evictedfrom their homes in August 2009 before Jewish settlers moved in. Atthis point, police began the first of their arrests, dragging off atleast four protesters, including Didi Remez, a human rights activistwho was also arrested at last week's protest.

Activists remained crowded outside the barricade as policecontinued to bar their entry. On repeated occasions, the police clearedthe way to allow ultra-Orthodox Jews, most carrying young children, topass through to the contested area, as protesters crowded in theirfaces yelling "thieves!," "shame!," and "Thou shalt not steal!"

As the sun went down and the arrests continued, police broughtin reinforcements of riot police and border patrolmen, with dozensforming a line in front of protesters and intermittently pushing themacross the street to the traffic island. Within an hour, police haddispersed the remaining protesters and journalists out of theneighborhood.

Nassir Ghawe, a Palestinian man who has been living in a tentsince his family was evicted from their home in August, watched therally and the police intervention as he sat atop a wall on the marginsof the protest.

Ghawe told the Post that as he watched the protest, whathe called the largest he'd ever seen in Sheikh Jarrah he "sees thatthere is justice among some Israelis, the left-wing," adding "I hope it[the protests] grows and puts pressure on the government to return usto our homes."

Earlier Friday, El-Ad appealed to Attorney-General MenahemMazuz demanding that he order law enforcement authorities to allowfreedom of expression in the region and curb the "violence" usedagainst the activists in recent demonstrations there.

In one such demonstration last week, the ACRI head was among 17 left-wing activists arrested for what police said was an illegal gathering.

"The protests carried out in the last few weeks have beenpeaceful and in keeping with the law," El-Ad told Army Radio on Friday."The only ones who went out of control were the police, who broke thelaw. It would be better if police knew the law, and that is my hope."

Authorities continue to maintain that there is no authorizationfor the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations, and the Jerusalem District Policehave stressed that the situation between Jewish and Arab residents ofthe neighborhood is "particularly explosive."