Conflict in Israel and Palestine is escalating in ways that we have seen before. Provocations have lead to armed violence, with the logic of escalation so far ruling the day.
But what distinguishes this latest iteration of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that violence is spreading within Israel. Over the last several days there have been multiple incidents of mob attacks between Jews and Arabs in towns in Israel with mixed populations between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jews. The threat of widespread communal violence is now very acute. Meanwhile, the bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli military is ongoing as are rocket attacks fired from Gaza into Israel.
On the line with me to help me understand the events leading up to this latest conflict is Dana el-Kurd. She an assistant professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and a researcher at the Arab Institute for Research and Policy Studies.
We kick off discussing how an attempt to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem sparked uniquely widespread protests by Palestinian citizens of Israel. She then explains how and why this crisis escalated so quickly and where it may be headed next.
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Dana el-Kurd [00:03:07] Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood in the eastern part of Jerusalem. It was invaded in 1967, so it’s now under Israeli occupation. The western part of the city was taken in 1948 and in 1967. These neighborhoods were also subsumed under Israeli occupation. And Sheikh Jarrah is a very strategic neighborhood in terms of its location -Sheikh Jarrah particularly, and Silwan, and Wadi Joz -so these kinds of different neighborhoods that ring the old city. They have had severe settlement activity -unlike in other places where it’s like they kind of bulldoze land or seize land and then build on top of it. In these places, they’re going house by house. The idea is that they can establish basically geographic control and cut off Jerusalem entirely from its Arab population.
[00:04:00] And they’ve done this in a couple of different ways by either pushing Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem out of “Jerusalem proper” (quote un-quote) by using the separation wall or by doing things like this, you know, going house to house and trying to push Palestinians out. Essentially, the issue is that there are eight families who are a settler organization called Nahalat Shimon targeted- this organization is based in the U.S.- it targeted their homes for a home-ownership dispute case in the Israeli court system. And essentially, they’re alleging that these homes belonged to Jewish families before 1948. But most of these families not only either has deeds preceding the state, or they bought the land and built the homes themselves following their original 1948 expulsion. So like, for example, the el-Kurd family -no relation, by the way, just a distant you know-
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:05] I was going to ask that because, you know, this young man was named Mohammed el-Kurd has been sort of a spokesperson for this cause. So good, thank you for clarifying that.
Dana el-Kurd [00:05:17] Yeah, Mohammed el-Kurd and Muna el-Kurd, his younger sister, have been -we’ll get to it later in the podcast- but they’ve been amazing on social media. But so essentially, their branch of the family was in Haifa. And just as an example of the eight families- so their grandparents were expelled in 1948. They found themselves in East Jerusalem and through coordination with UNRWA, the UNRWA refugee organization, and the Jordanian authorities at the time -what they did was, they gave up their refugee status to be able to purchase land and to build their homes and just try to resettle, you know, and hope that they don’t get displaced again.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:04] As you mentioned earlier, it has been a long-standing practice of the Israeli government, at least this current iteration -this kind of right-wing Israeli government- to seek to expropriate Palestinian land around Jerusalem. Why has this incident, Sheikh Jarrah, and the potential expropriation of these eight families been such la spark bigger than we have seen in times past, it seems?
Dana el-Kurd [00:06:30] Yeah. So Sheikh Jarrah, honestly, it’s been ongoing. I mean, the first time Mohammed el-Kurd, -because you mentioned him- he came on to global attention was in 2009 when he wrote a letter to Obama. So, the first time that half of his home was seized. So, it’s been ongoing. However, why this happened now -why this has been such a spark now- is because, one, these kids are grown. They’re using social media very effectively. Mohammed el-Kurd, before he was on Twitter, he and his sister were on Instagram, they’re highly effective. They know how to get the word out. Other people also, not just them. But other activists have been using social media like Instagram and Instagram Stories and TikTok and things like this to bring attention to this. But also, there was kind of a perfect storm of antagonization, I think, at this moment in time.
[00:07:19] First, there were the Israeli authorities, -the Israeli security and border police that polices East Jerusalem- inexplicably, banned Palestinians from gathering in public spaces during Ramadan. So that caused ongoing tension aside from Sheikh Jarrah. Every night, almost, in the Old City, we would see videos of Palestinians being arrested for simply sitting or food carts being overturned, and things like this. So, that really agitated people. It became kind of like a meeting point for people who wanted to challenge the occupation and show defiance. So even, you know, we had Palestinian citizens from within the green line -Palestinian citizens of Israel- were coming to sit in front of Damascus Gate, in front of the Old City to kind of challenge and say, like, “no, we’re allowed to sit in these public spaces.”.
[00:08:12] So they’re antagonizing on that end, the Sheikh Jarrah protesters, the families, are calling on people to protest with them and sit in with them. There’s an upcoming court date and they’re using social media quite effectively. So they’re agitating and antagonizing Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and people who are following that closely. And then there’s also the right-wing provocations -I mean, the whole government is right-wing- but particularly like these organizations like Lehava, and these extremists that marched through the city and shouted “Death to Arabs” and tried to beat people up. So all of this is happening in a very short time span, one after the other. The Sheikh Jarrah protesters and very validly, are saying on social media and in their calls for people to come and join them, “we are a symptom of what will happen to you.” If Sheikh Jarrah falls, Silwan and Wadi Joz and all of these places will also fall. And the fact that the Israeli authorities were, you know, upsetting people in all of these different ways at the same time, lent legitimacy to this argument. Which is, of course -I do believe it’s a valid argument- but, you know, it really sparked urgency in people because, on all of these fronts, we’re being attacked.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:30] For all the reasons you just described, Sheikh Jarrah seems to like be this kind of perfect storm of antagonizations, but things seem to have escalated, just, so quickly. I mean, we are recording this on Thursday. By the time this is published, there may be an Israeli ground incursion in Gaza, for all we know. That’s the latest news, that that is very much a real possibility. How did this escalate, just, so quickly in such a short period of time?
Dana el-Kurd [00:10:03] Yeah, so the final domino to fall was the planned Jerusalem Day marches. Jerusalem Day is on May 11th and. This celebrates Israel’s conquest of the eastern part of the city in 1967, where, marchers, extremists oftentimes, will march through Arab parts of the city. Palestinians have to close their doors or not open their businesses. There are often skirmishes and attacks and things like this. So the backdrop of this entire Ramadan has been these antagonizing incidents and then Jerusalem Day is planned. Activists on the ground have gotten a little bit of momentum, people are joining. It’s not just a few people. A lot of people are coming in and joining these protests and sit-ins- and so the Palestinians vowed that this Jerusalem Day march was not going to happen because it culminates in the marchers going to the Al-Aqsa compound, which is a sacred place and marching through it, essentially.
[00:11:11] So they refused. And so they wanted to basically do a sit-in at the Al-Aqsa compound and they barricaded the doors. And we saw basically like a day-long battle -maybe battle is not the right word because one side was armed and one side was not- but, you know, a daylong struggle where from the beginning, like from Fatiha prayer at like 5:00 in the morning -I remember because I was I had pulled an all-nighter-
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:40] You had this perfect storm where you had Palestinians staging a sit-in and trying to prevent these Jewish extremists from marching through the streets in the same contested area that contains the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And then you had these wild scenes of flash-bang grenades and tear gas tearing through the Al-Aqsa mosque. And then later, in the evening, you had these wild scenes of these Jewish nationalists, kind of dancing and praying at the Western Wall with smoke from the mosque in the background. It was “breathtaking” in a terrible way. And then, you have rockets being fired by Hamas into Israel and Israeli rockets being fired back into Gaza. Like how did that domino fall?
Dana el-Kurd [00:12:29] So, yeah, it actually happened the same day. So the Palestinians got the march to be rerouted so that they would not pass through the Damascus Gate and they would go from a different entry point to the Western Wall, so that they don’t go through and get into skirmishes with people, essentially. So they succeeded. They succeeded in their sit-in. They succeeded in getting the march rerouted. Then, you know, I’m not an expert necessarily on Hamas and its internal decision making, but the argument goes that there was still a threat that the Israeli authorities would go back and re-attack the people sitting on Al-Aqsa, and Hamas basically made an ultimatum -I think it was like by 6:00 p.m. they would launch a rocket attack. And they did. I, personally, didn’t quite understand that decision-making process but the rockets were launched-
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:34] I was going to ask you about that -the strategic logic of Hamas, there. At least to me, it doesn’t make sense. But from, perhaps, the point of view of Hamas, if you’re seeking to provoke an Israeli response and you see political gain in provoking that Israeli response, then you would want to do something like this.
Dana el-Kurd [00:13:52] I mean, there are the people who say -there’s one element of Palestinian society, one element of Palestinian public opinion that says Hamas parachuted itself to try to gain legitimacy, in this moment or make themselves relevant. Another not insignificant part of -I mean, we don’t have any polling, but just from anecdotal evidence -I’m sure there will be polling -in June that’s set to happen, so I’m sure we’ll have a question on this -but for now, anecdotally, I can see that there’s another segment of Palestinian public opinion that says, “well, no, they needed to raise the cost.” They needed to raise the cost of what Israel was doing so that Israel thinks twice about this kind of repression. I mean, I’m not going to adjudicate that necessarily, but yeah, I’m not a strategic thinker.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:37] And one thing you know, I learned from reading your piece in The Washington Post is that to a large degree, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority were irrelevant to the protests at Sheikh Jarrah. It was organic and had nothing really to do with the Palestinian Authority or Hamas or established Palestinian political systems.
Dana el-Kurd [00:15:00] Yeah, the political parties -like the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by Fatah, you know, was really quite irrelevant. In fact, we had these funny videos coming out of the Al-Aqsa compound, before and after the day-long struggle on Jerusalem Day where people are cursing the Palestinian president and saying, you know, “nice of you to wake up” and “nice of you to say something.” I mean, completely irrelevant, really. The Sheikh Jarrah families weren’t asking -also just to note, the Palestinian Authority not allowed to function in Jerusalem. But even the political parties like Fatah and Hamas, they’re not responsible at all for the organization of those sit-ins, how they escalated, why the protest became a ground swelling of support, how the Palestinian citizens of Israel joined. They had nothing to do with calling for these things. They had nothing to do with organizing these things. Like I said, completely irrelevant. The families, in Sheikh Jarrah, were not calling on either political party. Now, not to say that there weren’t people at the Al-Aqsa compound that day where they fought off the Israeli occupation forces -it’s not that like I’m not saying that maybe some of them didn’t support Hamas. I’m sure there are Fatah supporters and Hamas supporters present, but it’s not their doing. You know, this was quite an organic moment of anger.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:22] That helps, I think, people understand why one might say that Hamas is trying to parachute themselves into this situation, insert themselves into something in which previously they were irrelevant.
Dana el-Kurd [00:16:34] Yeah, I mean, that’s one explanation some people have said. I mean, some people on the ground have said some people. Yeah, if Hamas is going to insert itself at this moment -the Palestinians of Israel- that complicates their involvement because they’re citizens of Israel. What does it mean that they’re joining protests…? You know what I mean? So, on that level, it complicates things. But then others say -some people called for them to get involved and wanted them to raise the stakes, you know? So I can’t really -I would have to wait until public opinion comes out. Even public opinion is really quite problematic because it’s just a point in time -people’s anger showing in a public poll -not necessarily the reason that things happened. So I can’t really say why Hamas did what they did, but that’s why the rockets were launched. And then Israel, within a few hours had retaliated with airstrikes killing, in the first night, I think twelve people, three children. And then now, I don’t even know the death toll.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:43] To a large extent. It seems that we’ve seen this movie before where you have, you know, Netanyahu -who is politically on the ropes to an extent he hadn’t been in a long time- perhaps, seize this moment of right-wing anger over something happening in Jerusalem or in the occupied territories or the West Bank, somehow seized upon it, fomented this crisis. You’ve had a violent response by Hamas, a violent response by Israeli -by the IDF and the Israeli army. We’ve seen this a few times. What, to me at least, distinguishes this moment are levels of communal violence that we’re now seeing in areas throughout Israel in which there are large mixed populations between Arabs and Jews. How do you explain that current iteration of what’s happening now? Which seems really almost dystopian and terrible in a way that we haven’t seen before.
Dana el-Kurd [00:18:48] Yeah. So I think before we get to the levels of violence we’ve seen in the last couple of days within the Green Line, within 1948 Israel, one thing was unprecedented before this moment -which is the level of support and participation from Palestinian citizens of Israel in the West Bank sorry, in the East Jerusalem protests. So they were coming to Damascus Gate. They were coming to Sheikh Jarrah. There was this amazing moment where busloads of Palestinian citizens of Israel were trying to come to Al-Aqsa to pray in solidarity and were stopped by the police for no reason given. So they started to walk on the highway and then the Jerusalemites drove their cars, blocked the other side of the highway so that they could pick them up.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:35] And just to emphasize, in general, we have not seen this level of participation in these kinds of political moments of activism by Israeli Palestinians or Palestinian citizens of Israel before is what you’re saying.
Dana el-Kurd [00:19:47] Yeah, obviously during the second intifada -we have moments where there are solidarity protests- they pay heavily. You know, there are people who die in those solidarity protests. But to this degree, we haven’t seen it in decades, let’s just say. So that was what was happening. Then the Jerusalem Day struggle, the Hamas rockets, the airstrikes on Gaza that are very indiscriminate, that really angers people. Palestinian citizens of Israel start to protest in their own cities. Like cities we have not seen show protests, again in decades, are now protesting. They’re raising Palestinian flags in some cases. There are burned cop cars and things like this.
[00:20:32] So I think the response really alarmed not only the Israeli state but Israeli citizens who either have the sense that there’s coexistence -you know, the liberal element of society that thinks, oh, everything’s fine here, it’s just the occupation that’s the problem. And then it also alarmed the people who thought these people were thoroughly dominated when clearly they were not. When clearly there’s still some element of solidarity with -not just some element they clearly see that their circumstances of repression and discrimination within Israel are intimately tied to Israel’s character and Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So that was quite alarming, I think, to the Israeli public, of all of its elements. And then we saw the mobs that we saw in the last day or two. You know, time kind of blends together now.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:36] Yeah. I mean, this is obviously a very fast-moving situation. But as we’re speaking now, there seems to be this kind of cycle of mob violence that is taking hold in areas, as you said, of Israel, where we hadn’t previously seen this kind of thing happen before and to the point where, you know, I think an Israeli official even threatened that this could descend into a civil war of sorts, befalling Israel.
Dana el-Kurd [00:22:04] Yeah, I would push back on the term civil war because there was definitely Palestinian protest and some of them kind of had a riot element. These terms can be overlapping in some places. So, not every city had property destruction, but some did. And then there were some instances of -there was a synagogue that was torched. So there were definitely elements of violence when the Palestinians protested. But the difference is that it’s not a civil war because Palestinians don’t have any defense. They don’t have any military weaponry. They don’t have a military representing them. What we saw when the is when the Israeli marchers, when the Israeli riots happened in response the next day in Haifa, in Tira in the south of Tel Aviv, Bat Yam, and all of these places the cops -the Israeli police, the Israeli authorities- were either not intervening, or participating.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:09] I guess there’s a lot of uncertainty, obviously, in terms of how this crisis will play out over the coming days and weeks. But are there any inflection points that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you how this conflict, this crisis will proceed?
Dana el-Kurd [00:23:32] So that’s a tough one honestly. I, at the risk of sounding unprofessional- I study this, but I also have family there and this has been -I’m just trying to keep up, you know, with some of the things that have been happening. But in terms of what I’m concerned about or like what I’m going to be looking for, is now Netanyahu has announced -or the Israeli government has announced- that there will be administrative detention used against Palestinians who protest inside Israel. This is a tactic that’s used in the West Bank and occupied territories, generally, where you can be detained indefinitely without charge. And it keeps people off the streets and in prisons and things like this. And this hasn’t been used against Palestinian citizens of Israel since the lifting of the military rule on their cities. But now it’s going to be used.
[00:24:35] That strikes me as -if they go through with that, if they redeploy the Israeli Defense Forces to Palestinian towns within the green line- it strikes me that that would indicate that there’s going to be much greater repression. So the Israeli government is not trying to cool things down, necessarily. We might see more violence. Now, that’s on that front. On the Jerusalem front, I do worry about, the settlers in those neighborhoods -which often, they use violence against the families. And if the court date were delayed by a month or something, as we near the court date again- what could happen in those in that space, might have ramifications for the rest of the unrest. And then in Gaza, if they do decide to go through with a ground invasion, we’re going to see harsher violence like we saw when they attacked on the ground, I think, in 2014. And it’s going to become much more of an intractable affair.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:59] And possibly more internationalized at that point, which is what happened the last time there was a ground invasion.
Dana el-Kurd [00:26:05] Yeah, perhaps. But, I mean, internationalized… I mean, I don’t know. We didn’t see much out of the Biden statement. There’s not really anything happening on the international front that can even slightly change Israeli behavior. There are some of the statements from Congress and things like this. But it’s congressional members not all of Congress. But, I don’t know that the international front is going to change Israel’s behavior. I think that there’s going to be a lot more internal pressure if you know what I mean. They’re going to have to contend with multiple fronts at this point. And even -by the way, we haven’t spoken about West Bank. In the West Bank, there are escalations and violence, in some of these camps, they’re conducting arrest raids in major Palestinian cities in the West Bank. And so, you know, I don’t know what that means but the PA doesn’t look very good right now. People are very angry. This is yet another nail in the coffin. I don’t know how many nails it’s they’re going to be able to sustain. I don’t know if that was a good answer to your question. It’s just a lot of moving parts.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:17] Well yeah, it is a lot of moving parts. But you helped me understand many of them. Thank you, Dana.
Dana el-Kurd [00:27:22] Yeah, no worries. Thanks.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:25] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Donna el-Kurd. And as I mentioned at the outset, of course, this is a fast-evolving situation. But I did appreciate her perspective on the context and background that led to this latest, sad conflagration. All right. We’ll see you next time. Right.