Since the start of Ramadan last month, Palestinians living in Jerusalem wishing to assert their right to practice worship were met by a brutal clampdown: Jerusalem police barricaded in an Israeli-annexed area of East Jerusalem, effectively banning Palestinians from holding evening gatherings. After the restrictions imposed last year, when Palestinians were unable to congregate as customary due to covid-19, many looked forward to returning to the plaza outside Damascus Gate to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan together. Instead, they were met by another cruel reminder that their world is demarcated by the Israeli State.
The official justification for the new set of restrictions was Covid-19. Yet it must be noted that when thousands of Orthodox Jews breached pandemic-related social gathering restrictions, police did not retaliate with force – or in fact at all. By contrast, for Palestinians, the pandemic has been used simply as an excuse to legitimise brute force.
In response, Palestinians asserted their right to worship and protested the barricades at Damascus Gate. In response, police officers fired stun grenades, used water cannons, sprayed skunk water and conducted arrests. Against the backdrop of police violence, right-wing ethno-nationalist group Lehava called their supporters to take to the streets. On the night of 24 April, three hundred people associated with Lehava marched toward Damascus Gate while chanting ‘death to Arabs’, coming within a few dozen meters of Damascus Gate.
News outlets referred to this event as a ‘clash’. But a clash presupposes forces of equal strength in a violent moment of encounter. Yet, the hundreds of Jewish Israelis storming the streets, attacking Palestinian children, disturbing the holy month of Ramadan, are anything but an equal force to those they seek to harm. Make no mistake – this is a modern-day pogrom. A targeted, violent persecution of Palestinians, with the aim of causing harm and, ultimately, to drive them from their homes. The violence was so extensive one Palestinian who was caught nearby described it as a warzone.
In addition to the usual scenes of police brutality, other violence unfolded: a mob was caught on camera attacking a Palestinian family in their Jerusalem home. Another stopped cars to check whether the drivers were Palestinians. In one instance, a mob smashed car windows of a driver they mistakenly thought was Palestinian. Upon realising he was Jewish, they collected money to compensate him for the damage.
Among these brutal, horrific scenes, Israeli political leadership remained largely silent. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Binyamin Netanyahu, who is presently working on establishing a new coalition following the 2021 elections, has spent his years in power espousing racist rhetoric against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Considered in the context of the current climate, with rising violence including physical assault and property destruction by Israeli settlers on Palestinians, some of which has even been recorded by the perpetrators on TikTok – the violence unfolding in Jerusalem isn’t a ‘riot’: it’s policy.
It is in context of the broader treatment of Palestinians and the rise of ethno-nationalist parties in Israel’s 2021 election that we should consider the events in Jerusalem and the participation of Lehava. While news services reported that Lehava is a group of ‘Jewish extremists’, this framing misrepresents the mainstream appeal of their views.
Lehava is associated with Otzma Yehudit, one of the biggest winners in the 2021 elections. Otzma Yehudit, a far-right Kahanist party, and the anti-LGBT Noam Party joined to form the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionist Party. Its leader, Bezalel Smotrich, previously served as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, and Itamar Ben Gvir, the head of Otzma Yehudit party who called Meir Kahane a ‘hero’, has already been tapped by Netanyahu to join his coalition as he negotiates the composition of his new government.
The fact that this party could be a senior partner in the next government is an indication of the state of Israeli politics. Critically, the Religious Zionism alliance gives these rioters a renewed sense of legitimacy. We should all be concerned for what’s down the line. This riot, or pogrom, is not an aberration. The demonstrators are the true face of liberal Zionist reality. It is settler-colonial violence manifest.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Martinique-born psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote:
The settler owes the fact of his very existence, that is to say his property, to the colonial system.
The settler’s relation to land is through colonisation, which brings to the fore relations of power and domination with the Indigenous (or native) community. Take for example Jerusalem, the site of this recent violence. Since 1967, the State of Israel has annexed the city, meaning its Palestinian residents (which comprise roughly 40 per cent of the total population) live within enclaves under Israeli military control. Palestinian residents of occupied east Jerusalem need to apply for Israeli citizenship, which the State can accept or reject, leaving them in a bureaucratic limbo.
For decades, Israel has razed Palestinian homes and taken over Palestinian land. The settler-colonial logic described by Fanon was evident last week in the words of a young woman wearing a ‘Kahane was right’ sticker, who – interviewed while participating in the violent events, said of Palestinians:
I don’t say that we burn their villages, I just say they get out from it and we take over their land.
Simply put, Palestinians are disposable and displaceable – this is also the logic that the liberal Zionist project hinges on.
The scenes unfolding in the streets of Jerusalem, disturbing as they may be, should be seen and understood in context of decades of continuous dispossession and dehumanisation of Palestinians. A violent rhetoric of displacement and replacement whereby those who are Indigenous to place and land can simply be replaced, erased, and removed without hesitation. Make no mistake: this is not a fringe movement. Settlers, backed by the authorities, seize Palestinian homes and expel their residents. We see this in neighbourhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, where Palestinian families are being displaced and their lands stolen by the State.
The current violence in Jerusalem, with protestors backed by the Religious Zionism alliance and other politicians remaining silent in the process, signifies to us that the masks are off: this is not a case of political extremism, and those participating in the pogrom of Palestinians are not part of a fringe movement. Rather, this violence is an integral part of Israeli politics. This week’s events are the product of Israel’s political leadership ongoing, regular vitriol about Palestinians. What’s clear is that we’re not witnessing the exception. This is the dispossessing logic that has been the foundation of the Israeli State.
Image: Cole Keister