While the peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians stagnate protestors gather on a rather unbureaucratic level: Jews, Arabs and foreigners demonstrate together in an act of solidarity.
A few thousand people show up at Jaffe Gate on Friday 15th of July, 2011, the initial meeting point of the march. Despite the torrid sun the crowd around us is cheerful; perhaps because the participants are aware of the uniqueness of this encounter: I see elderly ladies from Australia, young students from the US and Europe, Jewish families with their children, an Israeli professor with his golden retriever.
A young man wearing a kippa tells me in German, which he learned in Berlin: “Our goal is to create a common voice of Israeli and Palestinian people. We demand independence for Palestine now – then we can negotiate further!” A few minutes after 2 pm the masses start to move on the Green Line of 1967 towards the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The young man is one of the organizers and therefore jumps back and forth to make sure the crowd does not step out of the route agreed upon with the municipality. He is part of an activist group which calls itself Sheik Jarrah Solidarity movement - named after that prominent Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem where Jewish settlers live.
Some cheerful Americans around me compare this march with the protest of the American civil rights movements in the 1960s. This march indeed gains significance as the Knesset recently passes more and more laws, clipping people’s rights to demonstrate.
Among the protesters I spot an icon of the lefties: Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and personal advisor of Shimon Peres.
Before the march I pondered about the outcome of the event: The negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to go nowhere. From a cynical viewpoint I might even suggest that the negotiations are dead – there is just no one to admit it. In September Palestinians will go before the UN and demand the acceptance of their own sovereign state. It is an attempt, to bring back life into the gridlocked situation. Avraham Burg is a supporter of this idea, like all participants who slowly make their way alongside the walls of the old city. Some of the demonstrators hold up signs quoting Nelson Mandela’s famous slogan: “Only free people can negotiate!”
I overhear a conversation of an Israeli woman explaining to foreign students: “We tell our government that September is not a threat. It is not a Tsunami and no catastrophe. September will be a great chance. If the resolution passes, then there will be two sovereign states between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. And only then we will have the possibility to take up bilateral negotiations between the two peoples.”
In another conversation I hear an American university professor say proudly: “This is a pro-democratic movement. What we want are civic rights for everybody: Jews and non-Jews!”
At Damascus Gate the march comes to a short stop. The crowd is chanting. The protestors peacefully raise their signs over their heads to make them visible to car drivers stuck in traffic. One of them sticks out his arm folding out his middle finger in a well-known gesture. Others that pass honk their horns in support.
A few steps further we mount a hill. On the opposite side is the ultra-orthodox quarter of Mea Sha'arim. We are ‘welcomed’ by a small counter-demonstration. Finally the march ends in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood. Policemen in daunting uniforms secure the street. Everything stays peaceful.
What can be changed by a march like this? A chanting girl next to me smiles at me: “It is a beginning. Today a thousand came. And who knows, maybe in the next month there will be more? I think the fact of a diverse group sends out great meaning!”
The demonstration ends at a soccer field. The participants sit down in the shade to discuss their impressions. Suddenly gun-fire-like sounds appear. Many instinctively duck – but the noise proves to be fireworks. Everything stayed peaceful.
On my way back I overhear two teenagers debating: “All in all, Palestinians and Israelis have to find a solution to this situation. We can ask people from all over the world for help, but in the end we are responsible!”