The small weekly demonstrations of radical Left Israelis joined by Palestinian activists and sometimes backed by supportive foreigners attracted little local or global attention. The protesters objected to Jews moving into homes there, which in each case would require Palestinians currently occupying those structures to move out – with the High Court of Justice ruling the properties in question rightfully belong to the Israeli associations, which acquired them from the Jewish trusts that owned them until dispossessed by Jordan in the 1948 War of Independence.
For Judith Oppenheimer, CEO of Ir Amim, a left-wing NGO that according to its website “focuses on Jerusalem within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the sudden large-scale media coverage is a surprising but happy change.
“For years it didn’t attract the attention of the world, and look what is happening now. This story is news not only in Israel, but across the world,” she begins in a phone conversation earlier this week. “Finally this case, which for Palestinians in Jerusalem is no less than a continuation of the Nakba [Palestinian view of ‘The Catastrophe’ of the creation of the State of Israel] is getting the attention of the world and also of many Israelis who realize that the normalization we see in the city between Arabs and Jews tells only a part of the story.”
Ir Amim, seeking “an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future,” was founded in 2000 and became active as a nonprofit in 2004, heavily funded by foreign sources. It views its mission as “exposing developments on the ground and informing the policy debate in Israel and across the globe.”
And yet, until the violent events of the past few weeks in and beyond Jerusalem, Oppenheimer admits that the issue failed to raise much attention. She continues, “The trends we’ve seen in the past few years, which include more opportunities in employment and more integration in the west side of the city – including the public, general and business spheres – are just one side of their reality. The other side is the ongoing lack of rights of these residents of Jerusalem in many aspects. This is what we see, hear and learn through talking with them.”
Oppenheimer is very cautious not to attribute to her organization the success she welcomes and emphasizes that “the determination of the residents not to surrender and to fight back the attempts to throw them out of their homes makes them the only ones to praise.” However, she admits that the work done by Ir Amim, and what she describes as the adamant dedication of Israelis and Palestinians to continue to demonstrate every week, mostly at Sheikh Jarrah, made the difference.
“After our warnings all these years – that the evacuation of Palestinians from Silwan and from Sheikh Jarrah could not enable integration but would instead remain as a non-healing wound that will inevitably burst out one day – finally came true. What did we expect after all the mistakes of the police? What could we do? The police expelled the Palestinians from their favorite place at the Damascus Gate – during Ramadan of all times – stormed al-Aqsa Mosque and more. We warned about it but nobody listened.”
”Yes, I know there is no such official plan but we at Ir Amim are aware of the ongoing erosion on the matter in public opinion among Israelis,” counters Oppenheimer, adding that talk about the rights of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount esplanade is in her eyes and that of the Palestinians in Jerusalem a serious threat to their rights on their holy site.
Asked how a religious request of Jews to pray at their holiest site can be taken as a threat, Oppenheimer responds that she, her staff and the Palestinians they work with and for, see it very differently.
“We all understand that the ultimate goal is to duplicate the model of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron: a division between Jews and Arabs in the space with times to share. What is this if not a threat to the last Palestinian spot they consider their most important place and part of their identity? So of course we at Ir Amim understand their fear.”
As for the near future, Oppenheimer says she believes the daily routine will somehow resume.
“We will again see Palestinians walking in the Mesilla Park and other public spaces – it’s inevitable. The problem is that as long as they feel threatened by Israeli authorities, we will witness a reality that tells only a part of the story. Inside, there is a wound, and that means that it can explode again at any moment.”
Asked if the involvement of NGOs and of Israelis can make a difference in what she describes as a long path to awakening empathy for Palestinian Jerusalemites, Oppenheimer gives the example of what happened during the past few months – as activists of Ir Amim and other organizations managed to establish a link between the Palestinians of Silwan and the protesters on Balfour Street.
“We knew something was changing when we saw Israelis – Jews – marching to Silwan and coming back all together, Jews and Palestinians, to Balfour, to demonstrate not only against the prime minister, but also to raise the attention of the public there to their condition.
“That was a great moment for us at Ir Amim, for the residents of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah and for all our supporters.”