How #SheikhJarrah rose to global social media prominence

Activists faced uphill battle for online platform access.
Monday 07/06/2021
Palestinian activist Mona el-Kurd, 23, talks to reporters at home in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem after being released from an Israeli police station, on June 6, 2021. (AFP).
Palestinian activist Mona el-Kurd, 23, talks to reporters at home in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem after being released from an Israeli police station, on June 6, 2021. (AFP).

JERUSALEM--For decades, Sheikh Jarrah was just another neighbourhood in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, but its story has gone viral online since protests flared against the planned expulsion of Palestinians from houses there.

“We have managed… not just to shed light on settlement in Jerusalem but also on the rights of Palestinians to defend themselves, their right to resist the occupier and their right to their own narrative,” said Muhammad el-Kurd.

The 23-year-old poet and writer, one of those facing the loss of their homes, has worked tirelessly to publicise the issue and in the process gained more than 180,000 Twitter followers and more than half a million on Instagram.

“From the beginning of the campaign our discourse has been extremely clear,” Muhammad el-Kurd said. “We are talking about colonialism and settlement, not just about human rights abuses.”

He was speaking days before Israeli police detained him and his twin sister and fellow activist Mona el-Kurd for several hours on Sunday.

Both siblings were later released and returned home amid renewed protests.

While in detention, Mona had been “threatened in an attempt to stop her carrying on with her legally permitted activities”, family lawyer Nasser Odeh said.

The protests in Sheikh Jarrah spread early last month to the city’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, sparking a crackdown by Israeli security forces against Palestinians there.

That triggered an 11-day war between the Jewish state and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, which in turn sparked protests in many countries in support of the Palestinians.

The hashtags #SheikhJarrah and #SaveSheikhJarrah went viral.

Celebrities from actors Mark Ruffalo and Viola Davis to Manchester City footballer Riyad Mahrez have posted about the neighbourhood on social media.

Opinion shift 

While Palestinians and their backers see the issue as a microcosm of the wider conflict over land, Jewish settlers and their supporters have labelled it a mere property dispute, to be decided by Israeli courts.

Israel occupied east Jerusalem in 1967, later annexing it in a move never recognised by the international community.

Under Israeli law, Jewish groups can claim land that belonged to Jews before the foundation of Israel 1948, even if Palestinian families have been living there for decades.

Palestinians whose ancestors became refugees in the 1948 war have no means to retrieve their homes or land in modern-day Israel.

Kurd said, “Everybody was able to see that we are up against a racist legal system that was written to protect and support settlers,” he said.

Israeli right groups Ir Amim says up to 1,000 Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and the nearby Silwan district face being displaced.

Kurd, highly articulate in English and studying for a Masters’ degree in the US, spoke to AFP outside his house, half of which was taken over in 2009 by a Jewish settler.

Behind him, Israeli flags fluttered on a home taken over by settlers after his neighbours were evicted.

Despite that, “we’ve seen an unprecedented change in public opinion worldwide,” he said.

“People have started to understand the Sheikh Jarrah case and about colonialism in general in Jerusalem … Even if we don’t manage to save the homes, we’ve done something bigger.”

 Restricted access 

Kurd said the huge uptick in viewership and followers showed there was a “thirst for the Palestinian reality”.

Palestinian families in the neighbourhood say they were given the keys to their homes by the UN Palestinian refugee agency and Jordan, which controlled east Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967.

Last month, as tensions in Jerusalem mounted during the build-up to the Gaza fighting, the Israeli supreme court postponed a hearing in the Sheikh Jarrah cases until further notice.

But Kurd said he had no faith in the Israeli judiciary.

He also warned of social media platforms’ apparent attempts to silence Palestinian activists, including when they post footage of Israeli security forces using violence against protesters.

Digital rights group Sada Social says it has documented more than 700 instances of such networks restricting access to or removing Palestinian content in May alone.

“At one point we weren’t able to publish anything about Sheikh Jarrah without it being taken down,” Kurd said.

“We received many warnings that our accounts would be deleted and sometimes our views would drop from a quarter of a million to 90,000 or just 5,000.”

Despite such barriers, he said the impact of the campaign had surprised him.

“I didn’t believe that a post or a picture could change anything in reality,” he said. “But I discovered that our first and last battle is one of words, the battle of narratives and the battle of public opinion.

“We don’t have the luxury to drop the issue,” he added. “As soon as we do, our homes could be stolen at any moment.”