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One year on, Palestinian activists reflect on the May uprising

In May 2021, Palestinians mounted a challenge against the Israeli regime in a historic and powerful uprising

This article was published by DAZED on 16 May 2022

It was around this time last year, on a Ramadan night, when Omar Al-Khatib, a Palestinian youth from Al-Isawiyya village in Jerusalem, was brutally beaten and arrested by Israeli police in Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem. Like all Palestinians who went to Sheikh Jarrah that night, Omar went to protest in solidarity with the Palestinian families who faced forced displacement from their homes following an Israeli court order to forcibly evict them in order to make way for Israeli settlers.

Israeli police stormed the neighbourhood and began attacking and arresting protesters and spraying putrid skunk water at them. “As I stood, an Israeli soldier came up to me and pushed me,” Omar recalls. “More soldiers came closer, so I tried to move away because I knew they were targeting me. Then more soldiers followed me until we were almost ten metres away from where I was standing.”

“They pushed me into a corner and one soldier violently pinned me to the ground with his knees and hands. I tried to escape, but I did not succeed.”

The pressure of the policeman's knee against his head and the lack of air as people gathered around him made Omar suddenly run out of breath. “It was a very hard and frightening moment,” Omar continues. “The people around me were screaming, I was suffocating, and my face started bleeding.”

But Omar believes his experience was not unique. “This is the norm in Jerusalem,” he explains. “There are hundreds of Palestinians throughout Palestine who have been subjected to even more violence, who have been seriously injured, who have been detained for longer periods of time, and who are deeply traumatised.”

The events in Sheikh Jarrah were the starting point for the May 2021 uprising in Palestine, known in Arabic as “Habbet Ayyar”, which means “May uprising”. Sheikh Jarrah is believed to have been the “catalyst” for the mobilisation of Palestinians throughout the West Bank, Yafa, Lydd and other cities within the Green Line.

Palestinians in Eastern Jerusalem face Israeli policies and measures aimed at displacing Palestinians. According to BADIL, “this system results in the creation of a coercive environment that induces forcible transfer, both of which are acts strictly prohibited by international law.” Some of these measures include withdrawing citizenships, demolishing Palestinian homes, denial of building permits, arrests, and other forms of oppression.

“I see our activism as Palestinians as a way to survive and live in this city,” Omar adds, “which inevitably brings us into confrontation with colonisation.”

There are many forms of activism and resilience that Palestinians in Jerusalem have practised, including participating in protests, steadfastly remaining in Al-Aqsa Mosque, and using social media to educate the world about Jerusalem. All forms face suppression by Israel.

Alaa Dayeh, a 24-year-old Palestinian filmmaker living in the Old City of Jerusalem, has witnessed Israeli aggression in her neighborhood all her life. As a result, she took on the responsibility of documenting the events around her at a young age.

When she was 18 years old, she took photos of the settlers’ so-called “Flag March” near Damascus Gate – an annual display of aggressive ultra-nationalism. The police broke her camera and beat her brutally.

“They pushed me to the ground and kicked me," Alaa recalls. “Then they took me to the police station, where they interrogated me, beat me, yelled at me, and humiliated me in every way possible.”

“I tried to hold back my tears because I didn't want them to gloat. But what hurt me the most was losing my camera, which I had bought with my long-saved pocket money.”

A year later, she was sentenced to three months of community service. But this incident did not stop her from going to Sheikh Jarrah to support her best friend Mohammad Al-Kurd, a writer and activist, and his family when they were facing forced displacement in May 2021. “Despite all the violence and attacks we faced,” Alaa continues, “I went to Sheikh Jarrah almost every day to support my friends and document what was happening.”

Alaa and all the other Palestinian youth who were in Sheikh Jarrah felt a sense of belonging and supported each other. “We made a bonfire and gathered around it,” she continues, “we created a warm atmosphere, and even when the police closed [in on] Sheikh Jarrah, we jumped from roof to roof into the neighbourhood.”

Alaa was arrested again during the May uprising last year, but that hasn’t stopped her from documenting the reality all around her.

Many Palestinians in Jerusalem have used their social media platforms to keep the world informed. When journalists do not have access to certain areas when something is happening, residents take on the role of communicating these events through social media.

Like many Palestinian activists who use their social media platforms to inform the world about the latest events in Jerusalem, Adnan Barq creates creative visual stories in English on Instagram. Adnan, who is one of the most influential Palestinian content creators, started vlogging on Instagram in 2016 but came to international attention last May.

“I started my activism by posting Instagram stories from my daily life,” Adnan says. “I posted about things like the separation wall or how I pass through a checkpoint every day on my way from Jerusalem to my university in Bethlehem.” He says he uses “dark humour” to help navigate the trauma of being a victim of settler colonialism, adding that creating content and vlogging has acted as a form of therapy for him.

Despite the continuous unlawful policies and measures practiced by the Israeli regime to displace Palestinians and suppress their resilience in Jerusalem, Palestinian activists have successfully brought Sheikh Jarrah and Palestine to international attention and prevented the displacement of Palestinian residents. And though hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested and dozens killed over the course of the past year, Palestinian activists continue to fight for freedom.

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