Israelis and Palestinians Marching in Step for Peace

OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM — For the first time in over 20 years, thousands of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists marched peacefully together on Friday to support the Palestinian drive for statehood expected to be endorsed at the UN General Assembly in September.

“Only a declaration of Palestinian statehood can prevent bloodshed,” said Hillel Ben-Sasson, a spokesman for the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, part of an alliance of left-wing civil society organizations that called for “marching toward independence.”

“Negotiations have been manipulated by [Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, who’s doing everything in his power to bury any peace hope, not to advance peace,” the activist added.

Many demonstrators carried a poster that read “only free people can negotiate,” a paraphrase of Nelson Mandela’s words when the former South African president was the imprisoned leader of the anti-apartheid struggle. “If the UN recognizes an independent Palestine, then negotiations could restart from a completely different standpoint,” Ben-Sasson noted.

“You’d have peace negotiations between equals, not between occupied and occupier. That’s been the case till now, and it never succeeded.”

The half-mile-long procession snaked along the walls of the Old City, on the old no-man’s-land that used to divide Jewish West and Arab East Jerusalem before Israel occupied the oriental part of the city during the 1967 war.

The route taken by the demonstrators nowadays constitutes the symbolic, yet barely visible, seam that demarcates the Israeli-occupied part of the city which, since 1967, has been engulfed by a ring of Jewish suburban settlements, home to over 180,000 Israelis.

And for the past five years, an 8-meter-high security wall of concrete slabs, which both Palestinians and the Israeli radical left call the “apartheid wall,” separates East Jerusalem from its occupied West Bank heartland.

“Two cities for two people, independence for Palestine, one peace” read another placard carried by an international activist who’d managed to sneak through the police blockade at Israel’s international airport against last week’s “flytilla” attempt to break the Gaza blockade. The message itself carried the forlorn dream of a two-state solution. “It might already be too late,” acknowledged Galit Hasan-Rokem, an Israeli veteran activist.

The choice of Jerusalem as venue to celebrate Palestinian independence was no accident. “Jerusalem is not only the heart of the conflict, but also the core of a solution to the conflict,” said Ben-Sasson.

Indeed, beyond the declaratory display of good intentions, it was clear to all here that the celebration of Palestinian independence without sovereignty will remain in the realm of unfulfilled aspirations for now, and even after September.

After all, the demonstrators may aspire to declare Al Quds, the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, as the capital of a sovereign state, but that state is also an aspiration at least as difficult to achieve in absence of negotiations and with the persistence of the occupation. Not to mention the assurance of a U.S. veto on Palestine at the Security Council.

But the march was also unique because, for the second time in 44 years and two generations of peace activism trying to correct the wrongs of the occupation, it brought together Israelis and Palestinians, even though most participants were Israelis.

Since the second Palestinian Intifadah uprising (2000-2005), Palestinian civil society organizations have been reluctant to participate in joint events. Fakhry Abu-Diab, a community activist from the embattled Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, which is home to a stronghold of ultra-nationalist settlers, explained that “co-existence of this kind condones and legitimizes Israel’s policies as it shows the ‘pretty face’ of the occupation.” Yet he was there, marching.

For Muhammad Abu-Ayyash, an activist from the joint Bereaved Families organization, if East Jerusalem Palestinians didn’t show up in big numbers, “it’s because we live under Israeli control. We fear we’ll suffer if we demonstrate our support for our state and against the occupation of our capital. Besides, West Bankers cannot come to Jerusalem without an Israeli permit. And permits are hard to get.”

The last time such peaceful and festive event took place in Jerusalem was in December 1989, in the midst of the first Palestinian Intifadah uprising (1987-1993). Then, over 20,000 Israelis and Palestinians had formed a 2.5-mile-long human chain for peace around the walls of the Old City.

Violence had burst briefly when a group of Palestinian youths had waved Palestinian flags, then an outlawed action, and hurled rocks. The police responded with water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets at the crowd, injuring scores of Palestinians and a few Israelis. Tens of demonstrators were arrested. Yet the jolly human chain had gone unperturbed. You could see Palestinians handing flowers and olive branches, symbols of conviviality and peace, to Israelis.

During Friday’s demonstration, Palestinian flags were plentiful. Holding the red, black, white, and green banner is now tolerated.

So, times are changing, but the conditions on the ground are not — so long as the ingrained reality is one of exclusive national dreams, and mutual suppressions of such dreams, by spoilers on both sides.

The atmosphere was both lively and anachronistic, a carnival for statehood and independence… on paper and banners — with drummers rapping out their samba beat, accentuating the “free, free Palestine” chanted at full throat, in one voice.

“Sure, it’s not peace yet, but we carry the seeds of peace,” admitted Abu-Ayyash while the march stopped at the final station, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, another of the city’s flashpoints. In 2009, four Palestinian refugee families were forcibly evicted from their homes while settlers moved in their stead.

“But we want them to hear that that there are Israelis who recognize our rights to a state,” Abu-Ayyash said as young Sheikh Jarrah settlers waving the blue and white Israeli flag chanted “Israel, Israel.” “Inshallah, God willing, it’d be great if Israel accepted Palestine before any other state in the world.”

(Inter Press Service)