“Do you think we should stand towards the back?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t carry signs.”
“You’re not going to take pictures, are you?”
This was the nervous chatter of me and my friends, a few Americans and a couple Europeans and by and large newcomers to the Israeli protest scene, as we gathered with a crowd of an estimated 4,000 Israeli, Palestinian and international activists at the Jaffa Gate to the Old City last Friday. We would be marching in solidarity in support of Palestinian statehood and the Palestinian bid at the UN in September. This “March for Independence” would take us from West Jerusalem to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where several Palestinian families, former refugees who were housed in the neighborhood by the UN and Jordan in the 1950s, have recently been evicted. Their homes have since been occupied by Jewish settlers.
Admittedly, I was disproportionately anxious for the event. I imagined the headlines about my detainment or deportation, wondered what I would say if I was questioned, strategized about how to deal with tear gas, and prayed I wouldn’t end up on some blacklist. But around me were old women, children with their parents, and enthusiastic twenty-somethings smoothly dancing to drum beats, a staple of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement weekly protests. I erased the headlines flashing in my mind, grabbed a banner reading “Only Free People Can Negotiate”, and found a place right in the middle of the crowd as the march started. People carried banners in English, Arabic and Hebrew and some wore shirts that read “No to the Occupation” in Arabic and Hebrew.
Israeli soldiers lined the route and admittedly I initially had an adverse reaction to their presence. Then one of my friends commented, “Wouldn’t it be awful if that was your job and you actually agreed with the march? You would know what people were thinking of you as they marched by.” She was right. They weren’t our enemy. Nothing is ever that black and white in this place.
Every few hundred feet there was either a drum circle or a leader with a megaphone leading chants, seamlessly switching in and out of the three languages.
“They say Apartheid. We say fight back!” (English)
“From Silwan to Bili’in. Freedom, Freedom Palestine!” (Arabic)
“No to the Occupation” (Hebrew)
“The people want an end to Occupation.” (Arabic)
I met some middle aged Australian women carrying a banner reading “Aussies for an End to Occupation.” They had come as part of the flotilla, been detained for three days at the airport, and, with a very good lawyer, had won their case and made it into the country.
I walked for a half hour next to a group of Palestinian youth, another half hour with Israeli students, and another chatting with fellow Americans. This was truly solidarity.
Towards the end of the march, as we entered the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to gather for a few speeches, a counter protest of 20 or so people, presumably Jewish residents of the neighborhood appeared ahead of our group waving Israeli flags. The young leaders of our march calmly formed a human chain to keep our marchers from approaching the other group and to prevent any escalation or confrontation. They were determined to keep the show of solidarity completely nonviolent.
I left the march with a bit of sunburn and a bit of hesitant optimism mixed with doubt. Can 4,000 people marching through the streets with poster boards and megaphones really make a difference? To be honest, I am not sure. But maybe if 4,000 people turn up every Friday, maybe if those people bring friends and 4,000 can somehow become 40,000, maybe if journalists start to cover this story and give it the attention it deserves….maybe it can change something. I don’t know for sure, but I am glad I was there. One more pair of hands to hold a poster and one more voice to chant with the crowd has to count for something.