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Israeli repression of Palestinian celebrations in the heart of Jerusalem

17 December 2009

A spectacular and proud celebration of Palestinian and Arab culture in Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday, December 17, 2009, was brutally repressed by Israeli military and police.

A rare celebration of Palestinian and Arab culture in Jerusalem’s Old City started around 10:30am on Thursday, December 17, 2009, with a group of musicians leading a march from Damascus Gate to the very center of the Old City, attracting marchers and cheers from merchants and shoppers along the route. Thursday’s celebrations served not only as a reassertion of Palestinian identity in occupied Jerusalem, but also as a local closing event for Jerusalem as Capital of Arab Culture for 2009. The official closing ceremony, however, was held in Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, that afternoon, since the Israeli government has prohibited such expressions of Palestinian identity and culture in the areas under its immediate military control, which include Jerusalem.


Out of eight buses transporting Palestinian who were planning to contribute to the festivities in the Old City, six were intercepted by Israeli forces before reaching their destinations.

At about 11:30am, the group of musicians was joined by a group of mostly young men and women simulating a traditional Palestinian wedding, and they together made their way toward the celebration’s planned end-point, Damascus Gate. Chanting wedding songs and throwing candy in the air along the way, the considerable crowd arrived at Damascus Gate at 12:15pm.

Only a few minutes before the activities would have ended and attendees dispersed, the celebrating Palestinians were cut off by a large group of Israeli police and Border Police, who had blocked their entry into the plaza in front of Damascus Gate. Half-way through chants, angry voices and voices in despair broke through, as parts of the crowd suddenly started pushing to move back, others to move forward, thus putting a bitter end to the amazing celebration.


The crowds would soon be allowed to pour through the gate, filling the square before it, in the midst of massive military and police presence. What ensued was marked by Israeli forces’ apparent desire to disperse the Palestinians, despite their wholly non-agressive stance. Flash arrests using exaggerated force were presumably meant to scare and humiliate the rest of the crowd from persisting in the plaza.

The first such violent arrest occured at 12:24pm, of a young Palestinian man. Just after, a British citizen was brutally apprehended, with large numbers of Palestinian women and men trying to prevent the police from taking him away, only to spur violent backlashes from the Israeli forces. The Palestinians’ attempts at nonviolently blocking the Israeli forces’ path, clinging on to the arrestee, or launching into verbal attempts at persuasion continued for the next hour, during which seven more Palestinian men would be arrested. The sudden and intense Israeli police aggression included the participation of a large number of undercover police who had infiltrated the preceding celebrations. Omar Ash-Shabi, secretary-general of Fatah in Jerusalem, was among those arrested.

So extreme was police brutality that several enraged officers had to be restrained by their own colleagues, in their blatant assaults on Palestinians. The formerly celebrating Palestinians, meanwhile, displayed utmost restraint through their nonviolent responses, including attempts at dearrest, to Thursday’s aggression by Israeli forces in the heart of Jerusalem.

In other places in the city, the French Cultural Centre and British consulate in Jerusalem were barricaded by Israeli forces, as they had each issued invitations for receptions marking the close of Jerusalem as 2009 Capital of Arab Culture. Meanwhile, several schools and a kindergarten in the area, planning to participate in the celebrations, are said to have been shut down, while several organizers and participants in the celebration later in the day reported that they had been stopped for questioning by Israeli forces when returning to their homes or workplaces.

Both Palestinians and experienced international solidarity activists expressed astonishment at the level of brutal and arbitrary nature of the Israeli police agression. The sweeping suppression of the events by Israeli forces far exceeded that of the Capital of Arab Culture in March, when three Palestinians were detained.

While a large show of foreign, Israeli and Palestinian press gave coverage to the Israeli police-military repression and Palestinian cultural resistance, very few had covered the preceding celebrations. Jerusalems’ status as the 2009 capital has suffered since the opening festival, when the event and all future celebrations were banned by the Israeli government, which refuses to recognize Jerusalem as a capital for all its citizens. The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from East Jerusalem encompasses not only the thousands of house evictions and demolitions in the city, but also Israel’s ongoing campaign to overwrite Jerusalem’s Palestinian history and culture with solely that of the Jewish people.