In recent weeks, the ongoing weekly protests in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah have succeeded in making headlines both in Israel and abroad. Sheikh Jarrah is one of the most contentious neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, where Israeli settlers are gradually moving into the homes of Palestinian families, with the full backing of Israeli court decisions. In East Jerusalem, Jews can return to pre-1948 Jewish properties - but Arabs cannot return to pre-1948 Palestinian properties. This asymmetry creates not only great human suffering to the Palestinian families losing their homes, but also expresses unfathomable irresponsibility in the handling of a sensitive issue at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unilaterally creating facts on the ground while violating the human rights of Palestinian families is cruel, shortsighted, and reckless.
In recent months, dissenting Israelis have been staging growing, weekly protests at Sheikh Jarrah; these protests have resulted to date in more than 90 arrests of demonstrators by the Jerusalem police, who seems, for reasons known only to the police, to be making an orchestrated effort targeting this ongoing protest. Perhaps the most revealing quote suggesting an explanation for the police's actions is the following remark, made by a police prosecutor to human rights attorneys representing some of those arrested: "Jerusalem is not Bil'in and the Jerusalem police will not allow for Jerusalem to become Bil'in".
If the police are steadfast to "not allow" for Jerusalem to "become" Bil'in by preventing a peaceful weekly protest from taking place, then they have encountered a group of activists well aware of their free speech rights. The frequency of protest vigils is not a matter for police consideration. The measure of expressing dissent, outrage at what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah, and solidarity with the Palestinian families is prohibited by police. The case is clear: Israeli law states that protest vigils simply do not require a police permit.
Following several weeks of arrests, a magistrate judge in Jerusalem finally ruled after a midnight hearing on Jan. 16 that the police had no legal basis to declare the protest illegal, nor did they have one for arresting any of the demonstrators. Because one of the 17 arrestedarrested and falsely detained for close to 36 hours happened to be the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) - that's me - the arrests received broader media attention.
The following week, on Jan. 22, the protest in Sheikh Jarrah was the largest to date, with several notables attending for the first time, including former minister of education Yossi Sarid, former Knesset Speaker Avraham (Avrum) Burg, Prof. Moshe Halbertal, and others. Below you will find a translation of the articulate interview on IDF radio with Burg, following his participation in the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration. (By the way, if you're looking for an opportunity to hear Burg and other great speakers on a variety of contemporary democracy issues in Israel, consider this forthcoming Jan. 31 New Israel Fund Town Hall meeting and webcast.
Alas, one magistrate judge's decision was not sufficient. The police again declared the protest illegal. ACRI's chief legal counsel Dan Yakir, Yesh Din legal counsel Michael Sfard, and other human rights attorneys were back in court. This morning (Jan. 28), a judge once again stated in the clearest of terms that the Sheikh Jarrah protests are legal, that freedom of assembly is a basic right which the police must protect, and that indeed no permit is required for the weekly vigils.
Following two consecutive court decisions in as many weeks in which the police's position was fully rejected, the police are now "studying" the situation.
The next protest in Sheikh Jarrah is scheduled to take place tomorrow, Friday Jan. 29 at 3pm Jerusalem time.
Transcript of IDF Radio interview with former Knesset Speaker Avraham (Avrum) Burg:
Anchor Razi Barkai: How long has it been since you last took part in a demonstration?
Burg: Many, very many years.
Barkai: The last famous demonstration you attended was the one in which you marched alongside Emil Grunzweig, who was killed then by a hand grenade.
Burg: That is possible. I do not remember, but it must have been decades since I last attended a demonstration.
Barkai: What made you show up last weekend?
Burg: I came because I felt something was evolving here in Jerusalem that is of much greater significance than a single building and a few tenants. This is a huge symbol of Jerusalem as a powder keg that is about to explode right in everyone's faces here. A man cannot stay at home when this is happening.
Barkai: There are two formalistic arguments that you have to deal with. First, the fact that this demonstration was staged without a permit and you, who have observed the law for many years and as former Knesset speaker, must be aware of that. Second, the buildings you were protesting against were bought by Jews in a completely legal deal.
Burg: Regarding the legality or illegality of this demonstration, the way I understand the law, when people stand around and no speeches are made, it is a rally and people may assemble and rally all they want. Still, I would not want to debate this question because a normal, reasonable state should know that when such a burning issue is on the agenda, it cannot silence it with technicalities. This issue is too urgent, too troubling to be swept under the rug with formalistic arguments.
Barkai: Who do you think made the call and decided that the demonstration was illegal - the Israeli Police or, as Yosi Sarid wrote in Haaretz this morning, the Israel Beitenu police?
Burg: The police did. The police officers, whether they are simple cops or the police commissioner, are not my enemies. The person on the other side is actually the Israeli prime minister. I feel that two systems failed here. First, the legal system, the justice system. There are rules in Israel and the citizens have citizens' rights.
Barkai: Just a second. I still want you, Avrum Burg, to address the second argument too.
Burg: The Jewish property issue?
Barkai: That's right.
Burg: I will address it very briefly. There are open cases of Jewish property that was in Arab hands and Arab property that was in Jewish hands. When Jerusalem one-sidedly contains the return of Jewish property to Jewish hands, and having a normal justice system and courts, it would be impossible to reject Arab claims to their houses in Talbiya, Katamon, and Tel Aviv.
Barkai: Are you saying that, actually, the right-wing arguments actually uphold the [Palestinian] right of return?
Burg: Of course they do. With his flaccidity, escapism, and keeping away from the issue, Benjamin Netanyahu is actually absent from it, even though it is a burning issue from both the humanitarian and political perspectives. He dumped the concept of two states for two nations on our heads, but by promoting Jerusalem, Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, and Shimon Hatzadik, he is actually promoting the Arab claims that we want our property where the Palestinians want to return. We cannot allow an anecdotal situation where a single house and a few settlers, or a judge who fails to see the big picture, or who is trapped because, when applied to East Jerusalem, the law is distorted, discriminating, and aggressive. I cannot accept a situation in which an incident that comes from below dictates the strategic policy of the State of Israel.
Barkai: Listen, you mentioned the fact that a court had handed out a ruling in this matter, which makes the remarks you are making a bit problematic. You were there with Yosi Sarid and Uri Avneri, veteran warriors and demonstrators who have always fought for the rule of law and for the independence of the courts, but only up to the point, only until court rulings conflict with your worldviews. Suddenly, you make different arguments.
Burg: My struggle is against the law - [I'd explain this] if we had time, which we don't - because this is the nature of a plan that introduces wrongs that the law allows in Jerusalem. In de jure terms, the very legislation would have shocked us and we would cry against such discrimination among us, but we will address the judicial system too. The judicial and law-enforcement systems are so selective. Jonathan House in Silwan will never be evacuated, but a house in Sheikh Jarrah was evacuated immediately, and its residents, who are now second-time refugees, live in a tent outside their home. When settlers move in and are not evacuated, it means that the law or its application is discriminatory. The law cannot be applied this way. This is wrongdoing.
Barkai: As one of the tribe elders - and forgive me for giving you this title - I would say that you are experiencing a second wind. I wish to address the cynical remarks that Yosi Sarid made in his Haaretz article this morning. He spoke about the absence of MKs, those who were supposed to pick up your struggle. He even mentioned names of MKs who are mainly involved in social struggles, which he cynically qualified, and are not involved in the Palestinians' struggle. What do you think about that absence?
Burg: Yosi Sarid is 100% right. His Haaretz article expressed what many people feel. All that was once the Israeli left, the peace camp, from Haim Oron down, the three Meretz MKs and the Labor leftover MKs who fail to stand up and show up there and in other places that the civil society has taken upon itself, are practically making themselves redundant. Presently, these parties represent none of us. If they returned to the streets, rejoined the struggle, stopped fearing of making a stand wherever it is needed, and start backing up the detainees, the people on the streets, my children, my family members who have been demonstrating there for many weeks, and all of us who go there and are not protected by immunity or anything else - then they would be parties that represent us. Otherwise, they have no meaning.
Barkai: Avraham Burg, thank you very much.