On 5 May, a video went viral of an Israeli occupation soldier kneeling on the neck of a Palestinian protester in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The protester could be heard crying out: “I can’t breathe. You are suffocating me”. The following day, in mass protests held in the courtyard of Al-Aqsa mosque, Palestinians held placards bearing the words “We can’t breathe since 1948”. The slogan has been widely used in Palestine since the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd last year.
The parallels are obvious. The police murder unleashed riots and the largest wave of mass protest in the United States since the late 1960s.
The Israeli occupation forces’ violent attempt to evict Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, and their storming of Al-Aqsa on four occasions in five days during the holy month of Ramadan, injuring hundreds of demonstrators seeking refuge within the mosque, provoked a mass uprising on a scale not seen since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada (“uprising”) two decades ago.
Unprepared for the explosion of popular anger by a people who have endured decades of evictions, home demolitions, racism and discrimination in all its forms, Israeli Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai hurriedly redeployed West Bank paramilitary police to Jerusalem’s Old City. Yet this attempt to disperse Palestinian protests and obstruct worshippers’ access to Al-Aqsa proved spectacularly unsuccessful.
On 8 May, the holy night of Laylat al-Qadr, 90,000 Palestinians defied police road blockades to reach Al-Aqsa. After prayer, many remained to show their solidarity with the Sheikh Jarrah families facing eviction. Some defiantly tore down police barricades and threw stones, while mounted police in riot gear fired at them with rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades.
These scenes were repeated two days later as 30,000 Israeli settlers prepared to march towards the Damascus Gate (the entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City). Yet with Palestinians valiantly defending the mosque compound in the face of settler attacks, the apartheid state was forced into an embarrassing backdown.
First, the Israeli attorney general intervened to postpone by a month the High Court’s impending ruling on evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, fearing an international outcry. Second, on the advice of the intelligence agencies, the occupation forces rerouted the Israeli nationalist march away from Al-Aqsa and then denied it entry through the Damascus Gate.
These concessions could not quell the intifada that has followed. From the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and Nazareth in 1948 Palestine (Israel), protests have erupted like a volcano.
For years, the Zionists have proclaimed that in “mixed” towns inside Israel, such as Lydda, Ramleh, Jaffa, Acre and Haifa, “Israeli Arabs” (Palestinians) and Israeli Jews live in a state of “peaceful coexistence”. Yet walls separate impoverished Palestinian ghettos from gentrified Jewish neighbourhoods. Israeli troops watch on as settler vigilantes savagely attack Palestinians.
In the Palestinian city of Umm Al-Fahm, in northern Israel, in Lydda, in central Israel, and in the Bedouin city of Rahat, in the Negev, Palestinian youths have burned police stations to the ground and set fire to settlers’ cars, fed up with the discrimination and brutality they face. In Lydda, thousands of Palestinians joined a protest following the funeral of Moussa Hassouneh, who was killed on 11 May. One defiantly climbed a lamp post to replace an Israeli flag with a Palestinian one.
Hassouneh was shot dead by an Israeli settler who was photographed holding a gun in one hand and an Israeli flag in the other. He was initially arrested for the crime, but subsequently freed when the minister for internal security, Amir Ohana, demanded his immediate release, claiming falsely that the killer acted in “self-defence” while aiding police in their duties.
Following the funeral march, the town was placed under a state of emergency, the West Bank paramilitary border police being sent in to roam the streets alongside heavily armed Israeli settlers. An extreme-right member of the Knesset, Itamar Ben Gvir, called for the shooting of any stone throwers in the city. Ben Gvir is a member of the Religious Zionism Party and a political ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On 12 May, in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, an Israeli lynch mob dragged an Arab man from his car and beat him unconscious.
These acts of brutality by Israeli colonisers, and the acts of defiant resistance shown by Palestinians, are painted as “inter-communal violence” in the international media, supposedly rooted in centuries of religious animosity between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Rebutting this colonialist narrative, Sawsan Zaher, deputy general director of the Palestinian rights group Adalah, told Al Jazeera:
“We are talking about organised right-wing settler extreme violence, by settlers that are residents outside of mixed cites and outside of Arab towns, that are organising through social media calling each other to arrange where they will attack tonight and tomorrow, at what time, what to wear, what weapons to bring, and Arab properties that should be attacked. They are being accompanied by the police, they arrive in right-wing buses to mixed cities with police, and they are not being arrested by the police.”
These acts of incitement and violence show the Israeli state responding in the only way it knows: through a campaign of extreme terror. On 13 May, Israel began a massive bombardment of Gaza that has levelled entire apartment blocks. The besieged Palestinian population of 2 million has nowhere to flee.
In scenes reminiscent of the collapse of the twin towers buildings in New York City, on 11 September 2001, a tower block housing both workers and residents was turned to rubble in the blink of an eye. Its top floors contained offices for international media agencies, including Al Jazeera. Netanyahu boasted after launching the attacks: “This is just the beginning. We’ll hit them like they’ve never dreamed possible”.
Yet, for Palestinians in Gaza, this bombardment is not simply “possible”; it is all too familiar. In the winter of 2008-09, in 2012, and again in 2014, a series of Israel missile attacks, some lasting weeks, killed thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of children.
The carnage was replicated again during the 2018 Marches of Return, when tens of thousands of Palestinians marched peacefully towards the Gaza fence. Israeli troops opened fire on each occasion, shooting thousands of Palestinians, many in the head. The casualties were high: 183 were killed, 6,106 were injured, and 136 of those lost limbs.
Israel’s settler colonial project today faces a profound crisis of legitimacy. Its attempt to deny Palestinians their very existence by dividing them into enclaves separated by razor wire and walls has come to nought. Even the conservative Human Rights Watch has been forced to concede what Palestinians have known for decades: that Israel is practising apartheid.
In Washington, London and Brussels, politicians bleat sanctimoniously about the need for restraint on both sides. Yet they share much of the blame. The White House reports that US President Biden phoned Netanyahu to convey “his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians”.
Since taking office, Biden has refused to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a serious provocation in the face of Palestinians’ longstanding claim to East Jerusalem as their national capital.
In 2016, outgoing president Barack Obama promised $38 billion in US military assistance over ten years, the largest military aid package in US history. Biden, like Trump before him, continues to reject calls to make US military aid to Israel conditional. Today that “aid” is raining down on Palestinians in Gaza, leaving bodies buried beneath the rubble.
In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on both sides to “step back from the brink”. Foreign Secretary James Cleverley called for an end to “this cycle of violence” while insisting that Israel “has a legitimate right to defend itself”. In the House of Commons, Cleverley repeated cliches about the UK’s desire for a “two-state solution”, a position echoed by UK Labour’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Wayne David. David urged the British government “to do all it can to prevent further conflict”. Yet neither party has had anything to say about UK weapon sales to Israel, worth hundreds of millions of pounds each year.
On 12 May, a media statement by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne similarly called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to “halt violence, maintain restraint, and restore calm”. No mention was made of negotiations under way between Israel and Australia towards a free trade agreement. Central to those negotiations is a focus on “cybersecurity” (spyware), providing inroads for Australian investors into Israel’s lucrative arms industry.
In reaction to crocodile tears and hypocrisy from our politicians, a global movement of solidarity with Palestine is making its voice heard. Mass protests have taken place from New York to Istanbul, London to Amman and Berlin to Sydney.
In a January article for Middle East Monitor, Dr Amira Abo el-Fetouh urged:
“No one will give us freedom; we must take it back from those who seized it, as we did during the Arab Spring revolutions. It’s a long walk to freedom and the way is full of obstacles, requiring a lot of sacrifice.”
In Ramallah, self-appointed Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas wasn’t listening, promising to return to security coordination with Israel following Biden’s election. The first Palestinian elections in 14 years were supposed to underscore this new normality. Yet, on the eve of the current crisis, Abbas promptly cancelled these elections. Israel’s denial of Jerusalem Palestinians’ right to vote was the pretext; the reality was that a three-way split in the ruling Fatah faction, and dismal polls for Abbas, meant the 85-year-old had no prospect of securing a mandate to govern. Describing the dismal failure of the PA to bring liberation any closer, El-Fetouh wrote:
“Almost three decades have passed since Oslo, and the Palestinians are worse off now than ever before; they have less land and even less of a chance of an independent state. Freedom has been off the agenda for all of those decades. Nobody in the ‘Security Coordination’ PA wants to admit the failure of their chosen path, as they all benefit from the delusion.”
Today an awakening is under way. The chains of oppression that have held Palestinians in bondage for decades are finally being broken as a new generation discovers the power of a new intifada rising in concert with a powerful pan-Arab and international solidarity movement.
On the Arab street, the steadfastness and determination demonstrated by protesters in Jerusalem have been matched by militant protests staring down authoritarian regimes too willing to do Israel’s bidding. We too must demonstrate that sense of defiance. We must bring our cities and our workplaces to a standstill and make our voices heard. Let’s not stop until Palestine is free!
Nick Everett is the chairperson of Friends of Palestine WA.