The Palestinian uprising of April, May and June 2021—known as the Unity Intifada—is part of a long tradition of revolutionary political activity in which Palestinians have organized, with great courage and creativity, to fight Israeli colonization and apartheid.

Palestinian protesters hurl stones during clashes with Israeli forces in Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood next to the Israeli settlement of Ramat Shlomo, in East Jerusalem on May 14, 2021. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

This renewed protest activity represents the coming of age of a young generation of Palestinians organized largely outside traditional political structures. As well as reigniting the Palestinian cause globally, the uprising succeeded in uniting Palestinians and overcoming the externally engineered geographic and political fragmentation of the Palestinian people. As has happened many times in the past, Jerusalem (in Arabic, al-Quds) has been at the heart of this nationwide uprising

The initial spark for this spring’s protests was Israeli police restrictions on access to the popular public space of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate during Ramadan in April. In May, the attempt by Jewish settlers—backed up by Israeli court orders—to forcibly evict Palestinians from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah inspired more protests, escalating still further after repeated attacks by Israeli police on worshipers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. These incidents are just some examples of Israel’s often-silent daily war against Palestinians. Israel’s discriminatory policies shape virtually every aspect of Palestinian Jerusalemite life—where to shop, where to live, who to marry, where to drive and even where to drink tea in the evening. The Israeli system is intent on squeezing any collective joy out of Palestinian life in Jerusalem and reducing the Palestinian presence to small, isolated neighborhoods stripped of any sense of history or culture in their historic home city.

Israel’s policies of dispossession in Jerusalem have a long history. They were set in motion by the Nakba of 1948—the expulsion of Palestinians from their ancestral land and homes by Zionist forces during the establishment of the state of Israel. Loss of the villages in what is now West Jerusalem became a fait accompli in April of that year with the fall of al-Qastel to Zionist militias on April 8 and the mass murder the next day of Palestinians in Deir Yassin. An eyewitness to the massacre, Aref Samir, described six hours of “systematic slaughter” with Zionist militias going “from house to house…Whole families were slaughtered.” A group of 21 young people were seized by Irgun fighters who “stood them in a row, near where the post-office is today, and executed them.”[1] The Red Cross representative who visited the village a few days later found a scene of carnage and fighters still “cleaning up” with machine guns and knives.[2] When news of the horrific violence perpetrated at Deir Yassin reached neighboring villages, the inhabitants fled in fear, almost completely depopulating the area to the west of Jerusalem. After the 1967 Six Day War, Israel occupied East Jerusalem. Since then, massacres and direct expulsions have been replaced with lengthy legal processes of expropriation that confer a facade of due process, along with complex city planning that creates facts on the ground to make life for Palestinians in Jerusalem untenable.

Israel’s objective remains the same now as in 1948—the expulsion of as many Palestinians as possible and Jerusalem’s transformation into a primarily Jewish Israeli city. Yet in a city imbued with history—and knowledge of conquerors come and gone—stoicism and renewed patriotism, rather than fear or panic, is the overriding emotional response. From the oldest Palestinian in the city to the swaggering youth of Damascus Gate, and across all neighborhoods and religious groups, there has been an upsurge in public expressions—in protest, song, art, jewelry, T-shirts, social media and general conversation—of the Palestinian attachment to Jerusalem. These sentiments are finding political expression in a new generation of Palestinian activism.


Obstacles to Palestinian Unity


Israeli colonization includes a process of what could be called de-democratization, a deliberate project of dividing and weakening Palestinians by dismantling their political structures. For many decades Israel has worked to undermine Palestinian representative institutions, targeting everything from the formerly unifying Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) down to the popular committees operating in Palestinian refugee camps. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 there have been concerted international efforts to promote the Palestinian Authority (PA)—an administrative body originally meant to be temporary that operates in the Occupied Territories—as an alternative to the PLO as a national representative body inclusive of all Palestinians. Western aid money has flowed into the PA, allowing for the creation of new ministries and the expansion of its powers. Instead of a broad national liberation movement, Palestinians are left with a quasi-sovereign security state completely dependent on Israel, Western and Arab states for its economic and political survival. Palestinian political parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) meanwhile, are subject to routine harassment with arrests, raids of their offices and confiscation of equipment. Some healthcare, cultural, agricultural and human rights organizations are facing defunding after being subjected to smear and lawfare campaigns targeting their donors. In October 2021, the Israeli government went so far as to designate six established Palestinian human rights and civil society groups as “terrorist organizations,” in an attempt to end their monitoring of Israel’s abuses.

In the mobilizations that rocked Palestine this spring, youth were responding to Israeli oppression as well as to a crisis of representation within Palestinian politics, which lacks any avenues for real political participation.
In the mobilizations that rocked Palestine this spring, youth were responding to Israeli oppression as well as to a crisis of representation within Palestinian politics, which lacks any avenues for real political participation. The crisis is particularly acute in Jerusalem which, despite its important religious figures and institutions, is disconnected from both the PA (prevented by Israel from operating in the city) and the political structures of 1948 Palestinians (those who live in the area that Israel claimed for a state in 1948). This situation has created a sort of “go it alone” spirit in Jerusalem, epitomized by the lyrics of emerging Palestinian rappers Daboor and Shabjdeed in their song, “Inn Ann,” released in early May. The song’s emergence coincided with the start of the uprising, and its irreverent lyrics, confrontational attitude and gritty music video captured the public mood, quickly making it a political anthem heard blaring from houses and cars all over Palestine. The song asserts that Palestinians in Jerusalem will “sort ourselves out,” an ode to the fearless youth who led the uprising and suffered severe repression at the hands of police. The attitude of these young people, as others have written, can best be summed up by the term “khawa,” which roughly translates as “despite your best efforts.” It reflects how Palestinian Jerusalemites resist not as part of a grand strategy, but just because they can, to give the occupation the middle finger and to reclaim their public spaces and their city.

Squeezed out of any organizational infrastructure, Palestinian youth have found their place instead in the streets. The confrontations across Jerusalem—from Damascus Gate to Sheikh Jarrah and then the Al Aqsa mosque compound—inspired an uprising that spread to the cities and villages occupied by Israel in 1948: Jaffa, Haifa, Lydd, Ramla and elsewhere. Despite extreme violence by Israeli authorities, the unleashing of settler mobs into Palestinian areas and mass arrests, Palestinians sustained their protests, culminating in a nationwide strike on May 18. Although announced only a few days in advance, the general strike was adhered to in almost every Palestinian community, including the refugee camps in neighboring countries where Palestinian refugees made for the nearest border, seeking to return home.

Information, slogans and the energy of the uprising were spread through social media and informal networks of organizers, lawyers, musicians, artists, journalists and community groups. Much of the mobilization was led by eloquent young Palestinians, such as the Al-Kurd twins Muna and Muhammad, whose bravery, steadfastness and mockery of police and settlers on social media captured the public imagination. Sick of an inept and corrupt leadership—the most visible manifestation of Palestine’s destroyed political structures—people have instead turned to a generation of young people who speak with honesty and force about the Palestinian cause. As the “Manifesto for Dignity and Hope,” circulated on social media in May, explains: “The brave generations to come will have been raised, once again, on the fundamental principle of our unity. It will stand in the face of all the elites working to deepen and entrench the divisions in and between our communities.” Activists have been backed up by an army of young Palestinians clad in the trademark Jerusalem outfit of black trainers, tracksuit and a black Adidas hat with white stripes. At the height of the protests, they were joined by a broad cross section of Palestinian society who came to demonstrate or joined in the protests spontaneously at prayer time.


Israeli Control Over Palestinian Life in Jerusalem


In Jerusalem, Israel’s practices of political repression include tactics of expulsion such as the refusal of family reunification applications, identity card revocations and house demolitions, all copiously documented by rights groups and considered by the United Nations to be illegal acts of forcible transfer. Israel also restricts Palestinian construction, which forces up land and rental prices and leads thousands to move to the West Bank side of Israel’s separation wall. Municipal authorities then claim that these Palestinians no longer have Jerusalem as their “center of life” and strip them of their residency and access to the city.

Working hand in glove with extremist settler groups, the Israeli state expels Palestinians from neighborhoods they consider strategically important (such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan), facilitates the moving of Israeli settlers into Palestinian homes and plans parks and infrastructure projects aimed at Judaizing the area and controlling Jerusalem’s historic Old City. For this reason, busy centers of Palestinian commercial life just outside the Old City such as Wadi Al Jozz and Salaheddin and Sultan Suliman streets are also slated for colonization. The overall objective of demographic change—reducing the number of Palestinians and increasing the number of Jewish Israelis—is openly stated in official Jerusalem city masterplans.

Working hand in glove with extremist settler groups, the Israeli state expels Palestinians from neighborhoods they consider strategically important (such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan), facilitates the moving of Israeli settlers into Palestinian homes and plans parks and infrastructure projects aimed at Judaizing the area and controlling Jerusalem’s historic Old City.
A clear example of Israel’s intentions in Jerusalem is its actions at Damascus Gate. The gate is the main Palestinian entrance into the Old City and is alive with businesses, shops, cafes and the shouts of vendors selling fruits and vegetables. After the occupation of the city in 1967, Israel constructed steps that still exist today, envisaging them as a physical barrier that would prevent people from gathering and selling their produce. Yet the area has remained a Palestinian symbol and is one of only a few public spaces where Palestinians can gather, chat and drink tea in the evenings. Israel is seeking to end the vibrant use of this space and has built watchtowers beside the gate to harass and surveil Palestinians as they come and go. During Ramadan in April this year, authorities sought to go a step further by placing barriers on the steps and prohibiting Palestinians from gathering altogether. After 13 days of protest, and dozens of arrests, beatings and sound bombs, the barriers on the steps were eventually removed. But Israeli police continue to abuse Palestinians gathering in the area, facilitate marches of violent far-right settler groups, arbitrarily arrest people and spray the steps with skunk water, permeating the area with an overwhelming stench.

Inside the Old City, Palestinian inhabitants are subject to severe restrictions and harassment by Israeli soldiers and armed police who march through the city streets demanding to see identity cards and interrogating people. Surveillance cameras placed around the Old City monitor Palestinians’ every move, including cameras installed in the Al Aqsa mosque compound in 2015 and more than 8,000 body cameras provided to Israeli police to record each person they stop. Israeli forces’ violent attacks at Al Aqsa in Ramadan of this year are part of a larger trend of harassment and arrest of worshipers, armed incursion by settler groups and police and attempts to reduce and remove Waqf sovereignty over the site.

As surveillance and harassment shrinks space for Palestinians, the city continues to open for Israelis. Settlement activity, such as taking over houses and buildings, along with touristic projects that encourage the Israeli presence in the Old City, are together facilitating the removal of Palestinians. Behind the scenes, numerous other disputes—harassment of shopkeepers, taxation practices and attempts to seize church properties—rumble on, all contributing to pressure on Palestinian residents.


Creative Organizing and the Way Forward


Palestinians in Jerusalem have long struggled against Israel’s efforts to remove them, utilizing any means at their disposal. A Palestinian Jerusalemite in their mid-30s has lived through the first Intifada, the 1990 Al Aqsa massacre, the second Intifada, the 2014 Jerusalem Intifada, 2015–2016 “Knife Intifada,” the 2017 protests and the most recent uprising, among many other daily incidents and confrontations. Some of these, such as the 2017 protests, were huge civic uprisings involving sustained protest by tens of thousands of people. This civic spirit and infrastructure are the basis upon which the recent uprising was launched.

Israel views any Palestinian gathering in Jerusalem as a threat and totally denies Palestinians political rights (permission to hold a protest, for example, is out of the question). In response, Palestinian activists use any public occasion as an opportunity for mobilization. Prayer gatherings, cultural activities and sporting events have all become moments to unify and build collective resistance. In June, activists utilized the media attention on the attempts to evict families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah to raise awareness of forcible displacement efforts in Silwan by organizing a marathon between the two neighborhoods. Soon after, a concert was held in the Palestinian village of Lifta (ethnically cleansed in 1948 but as yet not demolished) to call attention to Israel’s planned takeover of the remaining Palestinian homes there and to mobilize for their defense.

In both Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, youth initiatives were created in parallel with the work of established popular committees. Dissemination of news through social media was matched with organizing on the ground, often building on decades of work by previous generations. Muna and Muhammad Al-Kurd, for example, began their engagement in the cause of Sheikh Jarrah as children more than ten years ago, giving them experience with meeting local and international solidarity groups and working with the media. In their advocacy they clearly connect their family’s plight to the 1948 Nakba and build on the work of their formidable grandmother, Rifqa Al-Kurd, a Jerusalem legend who steadfastly led the fight in defense of Sheikh Jarrah throughout the decades-long efforts by Israeli settlers to colonize the area.

Much of this spring’s uprising used social media as an organizing tool. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were key platforms for alerting people to where police or settler attacks were taking place and for mobilizing people for events and protests. Instagram and Clubhouse were instrumental in raising awareness internationally as well as unifying Palestinians divided by borders. Online meetings facilitated many hours of discussion, often long into the night, that shared news and perspectives from different Palestinian communities and solidified a collective spirit. Crucially, online activities were translated into the real world through the general strike and other days of action.

Palestinians in Haifa, Jerusalem, Gaza and Lebanon, irrespective of the color of their identification cards, have asserted that we remain one people struggling for the same goals of liberation and return.
Despite Israel’s severe repression, the uprising left many Palestinians with an overriding feeling of victory. Israel removed its barriers from Damascus Gate, delayed evictions from Sheikh Jarrah and prevented Israeli settlers from marching on Arab areas during what they call Jerusalem Day. Just as significant is the falling away of divisions among Palestinians and a renewed sense of unity. Palestinians in Haifa, Jerusalem, Gaza and Lebanon, irrespective of the color of their identification cards, have asserted that we remain one people struggling for the same goals of liberation and return.

The challenge for Palestinians now is to translate these gains and the advancement in national consciousness into an institutional form that can focus and organize Palestinian resistance to Israeli apartheid. This task necessitates the creation and development of popular organizations, the coordination of their work across borders and the popular and democratic reclamation of the PLO, transforming it into a national liberation movement capable of advancing the Palestinian struggle. In the context of a renewed Israeli crackdown this is no mean feat, but the next generation of Palestinian organizers have already shown they have the courage and principles to succeed.


[Akram Salhab is a Palestinian organizer and writer from Jerusalem (al-Quds) and PhD student at Queen Mary University of London. Dahoud al-Ghoul is a Palestinian organizer, researcher and tour guide from Jerusalem (al-Quds) and a former political prisoner.]





[1] David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch (London: Faber and Faber, 1977).

[2] Uri Davis, Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within (London: Zed Books, 2003) p. 22.


How to cite this article:

Akram Salhab, Dahoud al-Ghoul "Jerusalem Youth at the Forefront of 2021’s Unity Intifada," Middle East Report Online, November 10, 2021.

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