From Child Displaced to International Activist
Mohammad El Kurd and the Settler Takeover in the East Jerusalem Neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
The first time I ever travelled through the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem I was on a tour bus. More than a decade ago, it was a Friday afternoon and I witnessed firsthand Jews, Palestinians, and internationals standing in solidarity — holding signs and calling out for “Freedom for Palestine” and an end to the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes by Israeli settlers. More than a decade later, the situation has only worsened and in fact, the current protests look eerily similar as solidarity demonstrations continue on behalf of the dozens of Palestinians facing eviction from their homes.
A few weeks ago, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that at least six families must vacate their homes in Sheik Jarrah by Sunday, May 1, 2021. In total, 58 Palestinians living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, including 17 children, are being displaced so that Jewish settlers may take possession of their homes. The ruling of the court was the culmination of the decades-long struggle for Palestinians to stay in their homes that I witnessed on that tour bus back in 2009.
In 1972, Jewish settler organizations, mostly funded by donors in the United States, filed a lawsuit against Palestinian families living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, alleging that the land originally belonged to the Jews. In 2002, 43 Palestinians were displaced by settler organizations as well as other families in 2008 and 2017.
In 2012, the advocacy organization Just Vision released a film where you can watch first hand what the encounters are like between settlers and Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarah. In a riveting short (less than 30 minutes) documentary film, My Neighborhood follows the story of Mohammed El Kurd, a Palestinian boy growing up in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. When Mohammed was only 11 years old, his family was forced to give a part of their home to Israeli settlers who, according to Just Vision, were “leading a campaign of court-sanctioned evictions to guarantee Jewish control of the area.”
I would encourage everyone to watch the film and to be moved by the struggles of Mohammed’s family. While watching, it is hard to not laugh as his Teta (grandmother) scolds him for making a mess in the kitchen while he’s trying to cook eggs. At the same time, tears came to my eyes the first time I watched and saw Jewish settler extremists shouting outside of Palestinian homes, “In blood, in fire, we will kick out the Arabs” (10:55).
So what is happening today in response to the most recent court rulings? As of May 5, 2021, protests led by Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and solidarity activists continue. The Middle East Eye reported that “Israeli military police stormed Palestinian houses in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jersualem on Tuesady evening, attacking activists taking part in a sit-in solidarity protest with residents facing imminent eviction.”* Several news outlets reported injuries to protestors, the use of skunk water and other violent dispersal mechanisms employed by Israeli police, and the arrest of three Palestinians.
Mohamed El Kurd – the same young man featured in My Neighborhood – now 22, is one of the people being evicted. He owns one of the homes set to be taken over by settlers. An activist since even before he was a teenager, El Kurd successfully lobbied 81 UK lawmakers to sign a letter that calls on Israel to stop the dispossession of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.** Mohamed was one of the three Palestinian activists arrested as his sister called for “international and Palestinian activists to stop the eviction and to stand against the Israeli settlers and police.”
What’s happening in Sheikh Jarrah is a part of a larger effort by the Israeli government to consolidate control over Jerusalem. According to Zakariah Odeh, director of the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem “Sheikh Jarrah is but one example of what is happening to Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem regarding forced displacement.” Odeh asserts, “Last year was the highest rate of settlement expansion in the East Jerusalem on record – about 4,500 units. The year 2020 also saw 170 Palestinian structures demolished, including 105 homes, which resulted in the displacement of 385 people.”***
How can you stay informed and advocate against these unjust displacements? Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) provides opportunities for you to take action and contact your members of Congress today. Ask them to call on the State Department to strongly condemn the displacement of Palestinian in Sheikh Jarrah and across the West Bank immediately. Direct pressure from the State Department and other U.S. officials could go a long way in helping to stop the displacement as the families in Sheikh Jarrah await a possible halt to the eviction by the Israeli Supreme Court. Watch “My Neighborhood: with your family or small group to learn more about the history of the current situation and Mohamed El Kurd’s story. Get active on social media and tweet this story and others you read about the situation using the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah. These are just some of the steps that can begin to be taken to advocate for an end to the displacements and the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian people in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.
This article was originally published on the Christian Reform Church’s Do Justice. blog
* Lubna Masarwa and Mustafa Abu Sneineh, Middle East Eye, “Sheikh Jarrah: Israeli police storm Palestinian protest over Jerusalem evictions”, May 5, 2021. Viewed May 5, 2021. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/israel-palestine-sheikh-jarrah-jerusalem-police-storm-protest
** Council for Arab-British Understanding. “Over 80 UK Parliamentarians Call on Israel to Stop the Dispossession of Palestinian Families in East Jerusalem, or Face Diplomatic Consequences.” Accessed May 5, 2021. https://www.caabu.org/news/news/over-80-uk-parliamentarians-call-israel-stop-dispossession-palestinian-families-east
*** Tahhan, Zena. “Israel’s Settlements: Over 50 Years of Land Theft Explained.” Accessed May 5, 2021. https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2017/50-years-illegal-settlements/index.html.