Let's pretend – no Israeli violence, no Palestinian right to act for themselves

sheikh jarrah
Regular demonstration against the take-over of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, E.Jerusalem

Structural Violence on Trial: BDS and the Movement to Resist Erasure

By Noura Erakat, Jadaliyya
March 25, 2014

Walking to Rifqa (Umm) Al Kurd’s home is a journey into violence. To visit the 92-year-old matriarch, one must enter through a narrow walkway past a dwelling she owned until 2009. She built a concrete two-bedroom home for her eldest son and his family adjacent to her own. She envisioned a residential space for her family adorned by green grass, a garden of plants and flowers, and an outdoor patio. Today that grass is mostly dirt with yellowed shrubs, the walls are splashed with threatening graffiti demanding that she leave, and the patio furniture is soiled with feces and urine.

In 2009, a group of Jewish-Israeli settlers walked into Umm Al Kurd’s home and declared it their own by divine decree. They were dressed as if they were going on a camping trip, but they were not going camping. Funded by the Israeli state and protected by its police forces, they were taking over Umm Al Kurd’s home, in the East Jerusalem suburb of Sheikh Jarrah, one inch at a time — expanding and entrenching Israel’s settler-colonial project.

Umm Al Kurd is originally from Haifa but was forced to flee her home after Israel was established in 1948 — an event Palestinians regard as their Nakba, or catastrophe. In 1956 Jordan built residential dwellings in Sheikh Jarrah for Palestinian refugees atop an olive grove, and she has been living there ever since. Sheikh Jarrah, along with Beit Safafa, Isawiya, Silwan, Beit Hanina, Wadi al-Joz, and Jabel Mukaber, are all Palestinian suburbs of East Jerusalem that stand in the way of Israel’s master plan: to Judaize the city and complete its de facto annexation in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions, the International Court of Justice’s jurisprudence, international humanitarian law, and even the diplomatic dictates of the United States.

In this video of the takeover, Umm Al Kurd musters all the energy her aged body and spirit have to scream for the men to “get out!” She tugs on the shirts of the settler men who see her as an insignificant obstruction, a puddle to step over in order to reach her door’s front steps, where they will plant themselves and expand Israel’s exclusionary jurisdiction. Umm Al Kurd’s male relatives hold her to make sure she does not fall as she commands the settlers to leave with futility. The Palestinian men dare not intervene themselves because should they do so much as touch the settlers, the Israeli state — which deems them as trespassers in their own homes — will criminally prosecute them. There is no police force to protect Umm Al Kurd; there is no state that recognizes her claims; there is no law on which to depend, or morality that will prevail.
rifka al-Kurd
Rifka al-Kurd aged 89 when she was first attacked by settlers – who were never charged. Ma’an images

In all of the uproar since the American Studies Association’s (ASA) endorsement of the academic boycott, not a single article has been written about the thousands of Palestinians like Umm Al Kurd. Mainstream media outlets, since long before the boycott resolution, have failed to record this grotesque condition of displacement and dispossession — endemic features of Palestinian life. Western audiences only hear about or see Palestinians during intermittent episodes of kinetic violence, while on a daily basis Palestinians endure structural violence that threatens their lives, families, and livelihoods. The erasure of this violence, and of Palestinian subjectivity more broadly, has had a profound and devastating impact.

Such erasure facilitated Israel’s original colonization of Palestinian lands, which Zionist mythology continues to recall as “a land without a people for a people without a land.” It also accelerates the ongoing forced population transfer of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and Area C (roughly 62 percent of the West Bank), and within Israel itself — most prominently in the Negev region. A vehement campaign is being waged against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement because it threatens this erasure. The movement exposes the realities of this ongoing violence, and also another feature of Palestinian life: the ongoing attack on their political agency.

E. Jerusalem; in this 2005 B’Tselem map, Sheik Jarrah is to the east of the Green Line where it bulges eastward at the centre of the picture. It is coloured brown for its then Palestinian population. The blue patches are settlements – increased in the nine years since. To see it more clearly, click the link.

The US-based discussion about BDS, and about the Israel-Palestinian conflict generally, is framed as either one about US national interests in the Middle East or as an intra-Jewish conversation about the future of Zionism. To the extent that Palestinians are discussed at all, they are depicted as hapless victims, nominal tokens, or looming terrorist threats. But the settler takeover of Umm Al Kurd’s home is not an outlier; it is a central feature of Israel’s aim to forcibly remove Palestinians from their homes and implant Jewish settlers in their place. By centralizing Palestinian claims, the BDS movement scrutinizes the legitimacy of Israel’s structural violence.

That is why the recent response to the ASA boycott resolution has not challenged the allegations made against Israel, but has sought to shut down and censor the conversation all together. Legislators within the New York, Maryland, and Illinois state assemblies proposed rescinding funding from American Studies departments at public universities that endorsed the boycott. University provosts and presidents across dozens of campuses unilaterally condemned the boycott resolution without so much as consulting their respective faculties. Most recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closed his address at the AIPAC conference by decrying BDS as a manifestation of anti-Semitism rather than a grassroots political tactic aimed at applying pressure on a state where diplomacy has failed.

Not surprisingly, and notwithstanding this national fervor, no state assembly, no university president, and no heads of state have called for a debate or dialogue. They have simply sought to suppress a Palestinian-centered narrative and to incapacitate a movement. Surmounting these silencing tactics is critical to understanding Palestinian claims.

East Jerusalem is a microcosm of the forced population transfer that characterizes Palestinian life. It is unique, because unlike other Palestinian cities Israel annexed in 1948, it was returned to Jordanian rule until occupied in 1967, when it was designated to be a part of the inchoate state of Palestine — specifically to be its capital. But unlike other cities in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel later unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 and has steadily worked to remove it from the purview of political contestation. It has tried to make it another “fact on the ground” to be dealt with pragmatically without the cumbersome and distracting reference to law, rights, or morality. East Jerusalem thus illustrates the historical transformation of Palestinian cities like Safed, Haifa, Jaffa, Lod, Lifta, Ramla, Iqrit, and Kafr Bir’im whose indigenous peoples have mostly become exiled refugees; whose remaining Palestinian communities are second-class citizens, whose histories have been rewritten in Israeli text books to elide the presence of Palestinians before Israel’s establishment, and whose future is beyond the reach of the peace process despite the fervent claims of Palestinian refugees seeking to return.

I examine East Jerusalem both to show the legal and policy mechanisms used to diminish and marginalize the Palestinian population as well as to demonstrate why BDS is an insufficient but necessary tactic.

Colonizing Jerusalem and Forcibly Removing Its Palestinian Population: 1948 to the Present

Protest placard outside Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, 16.03.2009.Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills

Since its inception, Israel has considered the Palestinian population in areas adjacent to Jerusalem as an obstruction to the territorial contiguity between the Jewish populations in Jerusalem and those in the coastal areas. Within months of the collapse of the UN Partition Plan, the western areas of Jerusalem were transformed from a place with a mixed population to one where Jewish predominance was absolute. To achieve this dramatic transformation, Zionist armies evicted nearly 80,000 Palestinians from West Jerusalem, reducing their original size by half.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war and the occupation that followed, Israel issued the Municipalities Ordinance (Amendment No. 6) Law that effectively annexed approximately 70 square kilometers of the West Bank and integrated it into the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem. Israel sought to incorporate the maximum amount of Palestinian land with the least number of Palestinians. The state thus bestowed East Jerusalemite Palestinians the legal status of foreign permanent residents rather than citizens, with the aim of undermining their ability to remain in the area.

Permanent residency, indicated by blue identity cards, is a special category of permit-holders that affords residents the right to vote in municipal elections, but not in national elections, and whose residency is in a permanent state of temporariness. By legislative means, Israel made Palestinian residency in Jerusalem a privilege rather than a right and transformed their status from an indigenous population to a foreign one. Palestinian Jerusalemites have thus been at extreme risk of arbitrary removal.

In December 1995 and without forewarning, the Israeli Ministry of Interior issued a “center of life” policy directive and revoked the residency of all Palestinians who had not lived in Jerusalem for seven consecutive years. Until then, Palestinian Jerusalemites had cohabitated seamlessly with the rest of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

In 2008 alone, and based upon this directive applied to Palestinians only, Israel revoked the residency permits of 4,577 Palestinian Jerusalemites, part of the more than 14,000 revoked between 1967 and 2012. Though this policy, which amounted to “quiet deportation,” has abated since 2008 it remains in force. It has significantly altered the demographic composition of Jerusalem in the furtherance of Israel’s demographic policy goals.

In its most recent municipal master plan, “Jerusalem 2000,” Israeli authorities expressed a desire to maintain a balance of 70 percent Jews to 30 percent Arabs in the city. Moreover, because trends project a balance of 60:40 by the year 2020, the plan proposed a number of measures aimed at maintaining a “Jewish majority in the city while attending to the needs of the Arab minority.” These policies take on two dimensions: the privileged treatment of Jewish nationals and citizens and the discriminatory treatment of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents. Such discriminatory treatment is evidenced in zoning and planning policy, home demolitions, inadequate municipal services, and a lack of due process within Israeli courts.

The Jerusalem municipal government rejects Palestinian applications for planning schemes almost as a matter of policy. While Israel provides the services of urban planners to its Jewish residents free of charge, Palestinian neighborhoods must hire and pay them to develop plans municipal authorities can review. In its report “Separate and Unequal: Israel’s Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Human Rights Watch notes that municipal authorities have never approved such plans.

The State deliberately limits the land eligible for zoning for Palestinians — one-third of East Jerusalem’s population — to 13 percent of all available land. Building permits are often impossible to obtain. In 2008 Israeli municipal authorities only issued 125 building licenses out of 400 requests, forcing Palestinian Jerusalemites to build residential and commercial structures without permits. Israel then destroys all property built “illegally” without a permit, displacing thousands of Palestinians. Between 2000 and 2008, Israeli authorities demolished 670 Palestinian homes for lacking a building permit.

Jewish-Israeli citizens also build without permits, but Israel’s review of housing laws disproportionately harms its Palestinian population. From 1996 to 2001, 82 percent of building violations in Jerusalem were in Jewish neighborhoods, compared to 18 percent in Palestinian ones. Yet 80 percent of enforcement actions were taken in Palestinian neighborhoods while only 20 percent were taken in Jewish ones.

The disproportionate resources the State affords its Jerusalem residents, based on national and religious origin, further evidences Israel’s blatant discriminatory planning policy. In June 1967 Israel annexed 70,500 dunams (17,500 acres) of East Jerusalem land, one-third of which was privately owned Arab property, to develop residential construction. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, “by the end of 2001, 46,978 housing units had been built for Jews on this land, but not one unit for Palestinians who constitute one-third of the city’s population.” Additionally, 1,000 parks, 34 public swimming pools, and 26 libraries serve Jerusalem’s Jewish population. In contrast, Palestinians living in the east of the city have 45 parks, no public swimming pools, and two libraries.

The State also works hand in hand with Jewish settlers to intimidate and remove Palestinian families where it seeks to expand its colonial jurisdiction. Such has been the case with Umm Al Kurd and at least five other Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. In most cases, removal of Palestinian Jerusalemites from their homes begins with a court proceeding seeking eviction of the family for failure to provide original land deeds, failure to obtain building permits, or failure to comply with arbitrary laws applied disproportionately against Palestinian Jerusalemites. Once the court has issued its decision, it is only a matter of time before Israeli police forces forcibly remove the Palestinian families. To prevent the families from returning and/or remaining in their homes, the State supports Jewish settlers willing to live in them. Israel dedicates $19.2 million (70 million NIS) for the security of its settlers in East Jerusalem alone, where they enjoy complete legal impunity for any harm they inflict upon Palestinians. The Al Hanoun and Al Ghawi families were driven from their homes and lived in makeshift tents in front of their former residences for months before finding more suitable shelter elsewhere. Today, settlers have taken over part of Umm Al Kurd’s home and the Shamasneh, Sabbagh, and Hijazi families have been issued eviction orders.

Like Umm Al Kurd, these families have challenged their evictions in Israel’s highest courts and lost. The decisions all turned on a dubious agreement reached in 1982 wherein an Israeli attorney named Yitzhak Toussia-Cohen, who represented 17 of Sheikh Jarrah’s 28 families, failed to challenge two Jewish groups who claimed the land belonged to them based on religious and historical claims. The Toussia-Cohen agreement permitted the families to stay in their homes as “protected tenants” of the two Jewish groups. The Israeli High Court refused to nullify this agreement despite its questionable origins and the families’ inadequate legal representation.

Israeli courts, its police forces, and its armed civilian settler population work in tandem to alter the demographic composition of East Jerusalem. The forced population transfer of these Palestinian families is thus inevitable.

BDS: Resistance and Narration

Umm Al Kurd’s legal challenge fits within a mosaic of equally futile legal and diplomatic efforts to thwart Israel’s ethnic cleansing campaign in East Jerusalem. In response to Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 476 reiterating, all such measures which have altered the geographic, demographic and historical character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem are null and void and must be rescinded in compliance with the relevant resolutions of the Security Council.

In protest to the annexation, no state, not even Israel’s benefactor and strongest ally, the United States, moved its embassy to Jerusalem. But Israel suffered no real consequences and continued its settler-colonial expansion without pause.

Far from helping to resist it, the Oslo peace process enabled Israel’s expansionism. Oslo’s elision of international law conveniently shelved Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting settlement activity, Article 147 deeming it a war crime, and numerous UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting the transformation of East Jerusalem. Governed only by politics of the strong, Oslo considered 54 percent of Israeli settlements Jewish “neighborhoods” and thus legal at the time of its 1993 signing. Not surprisingly, and under the veneer of a peace process, the settler population in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, tripled from 200,000 in 1993 to nearly 600,000 today.

In February 2011, the Palestinian leadership drafted a UN Security Council Resolution to condemn the settlements using language that mirrored US policy on settlements. The Obama Administration issued its first veto in the Council to block the measure. Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations at the time explained:

For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region […] Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties and threatens the prospects for peace […] [but the adoption of the resolution would risk] hardening the positions of both sides.

In its capacity as peace broker, the United States has acted to systematically protect Israel from rebuke, thereby providing it no incentive to thaw its position or reevaluate its colonial logic. Even in those exceptional instances when the United States has objected to Israel’s activities, its domestic political landscape has impeded its efficacy. During Vice President Biden’s 2010 visit to Israel, he urged a freeze of settlement expansion for the sake of renewed peace talks. In the same visit, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office announced plans for 1,600 new settlements. An embarrassed Biden issued a statement objecting to the timing and substance of the announcement and emphasized that “[u]nilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations on permanent status issues.”

In response to its public reprimand, no less than 23 members of Congress publicly chastised the Obama Administration on the House floor and dozens of others issued statements and signed open letters expressing similar disapproval. Representative Todd Tiahart described President Obama’s public row with Israel as “disrespectful.” Representive Mike Pence explained,

The American people consider Israel our most cherished ally and we her closest friend and guardian […] As I just told the Prime Minister [Netanyahu], I never thought I’d live to see the day that an American administration would denounce the State of Israel for rebuilding Jerusalem […] The American people and the American Congress in both parties support the State of Israel.

The incident significantly chilled the Obama Administration’s interest and investment in resolving the conflict.

On July 9, 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an Advisory Opinion on the “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Israel began building the wall in 2002. By the time it is complete in 2020, 85 percent of it will run through the West Bank, confiscating 13 percent of West Bank lands. The meandering route not-so-coincidentally circumscribes East Jerusalem and its mammoth Jewish-Israeli settlement enterprise. The Court held that while Israel could build a wall on the 1949 armistice line, the route of the wall, insofar as it altered the territorial integrity of the occupied territory, was illegal. In a vote of 13 to two, the Justices held that

All States are under an obligation not to recognize the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction.

In essence, the ICJ had called for international sanction of Israel in regard to its settlement enterprise. Then White House spokesperson Scott McClellan dismissed the decision and explained, “We do not believe that [the ICJ is an] appropriate forum to resolve what is a political issue.” No state responded to the ICJ’s call, and the Palestinian leadership, under the tutelage of the United States, dropped the watershed decision like a heavy brick.


On the one-year anniversary of the Advisory Opinion, July 9, 2005 and after nearly 16 years of a counterproductive peace process, the largest swath of Palestinian civil society organizations, individuals, and political parties took their lives into their own hands. The Boycott National Committee (BNC) issued a call for global solidarity to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel until and when it ended its occupation of Arab lands; it afforded equality to its Palestinian citizens; and it promoted the right of return of Palestinian refugees. The call circumvents the intransigence of the US’s unequivocal support for Israel as well as the consequential impotence of the international community.

In its short existence and without a central leadership and barely any funding, the global BDS movement has achieved significant milestones: Denmark’s largest bank blacklisted the Israeli bank Hapoalim for its involvement in settlement construction; Netherland’s largest pension fund company divested from Israel’s five largest banks; South Africa’s University of Johannesburg severed its ties to Ben-Gurion University; Naomi Klein, journalist and author of The Shock Doctrine, refused to allow sales of her books to benefit the Israeli economy; Musician Elvis Costello refused to perform in Israel; Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous scientist, refused to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference; British film director Ken Loach declined an invitation to the Haifa Film Festival; and most recently in the United States, the Association of Asian American Studies, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the American Studies Association have all endorsed the academic boycott of Israel. These are but a few of the BDS victories achieved in less than nine years of the movement’s existence.

While none of these victories have changed the reality for Palestinians on the ground, they have changed the decades-long attitude that Israel can act with impunity. And as this BDS forum illustrates, they have helped put Israel’s structural violence on trial. More importantly, the BDS call restores a sense of political agency for Palestinians.

Umm Al Kurd cannot use force to resist the takeover of her home because the State has delegitimized her claims and criminalized her protest. She cannot avail herself of juridical justice because the State privileges the narrative and well-being of her Jewish counterparts as a matter of law. She cannot rely on international relations or legal processes because of the United States’ vested interest in Israel. By remaining in her home and withstanding the daily assault of the settlers and the State that supports them and renders her invisible, she has been engaging in one of the most deeply entrenched form of resistance among Palestinians: sumoud or steadfastness. Beyond her resilience, her limited options include asking for solidarity. This places her fate in the hands of others, who may or may not choose to believe her story, who may or may not choose to empathize with it, and who may or may not choose to do something about it on her terms.

Liberal Zionist supporters of BDS, for example, insist that the tactic should only target Israel’s occupation but not the State itself, thereby truncating the BNC’s tripartite call. What these fair weather friends fail to note, however, is that this harrowing tale of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem happens within the state, as well. Between 1948 and 1953, for example, Israel established 370 new settlements for Jews only; of those, 350 were located on land confiscated as “absentee” property that belonged to exiled Palestinian refugees. Today, Israel seeks to remove 70,000 Bedouin Palestinians from their homes in the Negev region to build a Jewish-only settlement and plant a forest.

The BDS call represents the interests of all Palestinians, and not just the one-third of their population resident in the occupied territories. It is a Palestinian call made on behalf of a Palestinian nation. The campaign to negate its legitimacy is driven by those who aim to usurp Palestinian agency and undermine their ability to define themselves and their aspirations for themselves.

Perhaps this is the best-case scenario. In the worst case, detractors like Cary Nelson insist that supporting BDS is politically misguided because it “hardens the extremists on both sides, and moves us further away from peace.” Nelson’s appeal not only equates the messianic settlers who took over Umm Al Kurd’s home with Umm Al Kurd herself, but it also disingenuously suggests that he and others like him have been working tirelessly to thwart Israel’s forced population transfer of Palestinians and simply take issue with boycott as a tactic. In fact, Nelson is simply an ardent supporter of Israel using academic freedom as a proxy for his protest.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explains that the fundamental violation of liberty is the deprivation “not of the right to freedom, but the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion.” Israel’s matrix of control together with US hegemony has denied Palestinians the right to action. The attack on BDS threatens to further restrict Palestinians’ right to act in their own behalf.

Umm Al Kurd and thousands of other Palestinians like her from Al-Araqeeb, Jaffa, Hebron, Sidon, and beyond would like to do something for themselves to effectively remedy their condition, but cannot. Condemning BDS risks sending them the message that they cannot even appeal for international support. Undermining it would force Umm Al Kurd and her counterparts to capitulate and accept their condition as part of a normal order. BDS may be insufficient on its own to realize Palestinian freedom, but it is a form of resistance nonetheless; I do not know who said it first, but to resist is to exist. Palestinians choose existence.

Graffiti on the separation wall

This essay was originally published by the Los Angeles Review of Books as one of eight essays from a forum on “Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott.”

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