Israeli police on Sunday detained for several hours two prominent activists whose campaign against the threatened expulsion of Palestinian families from homes in the flashpoint Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah has found a global audience.
Mona el-Kurd, 23, was taken into custody on Sunday morning from her home in the Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem district, where a legal battle between Israeli settlers and several Palestinian families has crystallised anger over Israel’s settlement movement.
Security forces also left a summons for her twin brother, Muhammad, who later turned himself in.
Israeli police told AFP that Mona was “suspected of having participated in riots and other recent incidents in Sheikh Jarrah”.
Both were later released and returned home, an AFP reporter said.
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.
Their father Nabil el-Kurd said she had been denied access to a lawyer during interrogation, adding that the detentions were “an operation to terrorise the parents, because the voice that emerged from the neighbourhood was thanks to its youth”.
As Mona left custody, security forces used stun grenades and fired rubber-coated bullets to disperse protesters who had gathered outside the east Jerusalem police station where she had been held. The Palestinian Red Crescent said 18 people were wounded.
Protests in Sheikh Jarrah spread early last month into the city’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, sparking a crackdown by Israeli security forces against Palestinians there that further inflamed tensions.
Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, responded by launching volleys of rockets towards Israel on May 10, triggering an 11-day war between the Jewish state and Palestinian militants.
While Palestinians and their backers see the issue as a microcosm of Israeli efforts to push them out of the highly contested city, Jewish settlers and their supporters have labelled it a property dispute to be decided by Israeli courts.
Last month Israel’s Foreign Ministry accused Palestinian “terror” groups of “presenting a real-estate dispute between private parties, as a nationalistic cause” to incite violence.
– Looming evictions –
The Kurd twins, from one of the families that faces being ousted from their home, have led an active protest movement on the streets and online.
They have gained hundreds of thousands of followers on platforms including Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtags #SheikhJarrah and #SaveSheikhJarrah to bring their neighbourhood’s plight global attention.
“Our weapon is the tongue and the camera,” their father said.
“Muhammad and Mona made the whole world turn around for our cause.”
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.
Under Israeli law, if Jews can prove that their families lived in east Jerusalem before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that created the state of Israel, they can request the “return” of their property, 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.
Israeli right groups Ir Amim says up to 1,000 Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and the nearby Silwan district face being displaced.
– Journalist arrested –
Sheikh Jarrah has also drawn the attention of press freedom watchdogs, as journalists say they have been targeted by police while trying to report on demonstrations there.
On Saturday, Israeli forces arrested Al Jazeera reporter Givara Budeiri “in a brutal manner”, the network said in a statement, adding that authorities had destroyed a videographer’s camera as he was trying to work.
Budeiri was released from custody several hours after her arrest.
Al Jazeera television’s acting director-general, Mostefa Souag, decried “the systematic targeting of our journalists”, dubbing it “in total violation of all international conventions”.
The Paris-headquartered Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has voiced concern over Israel’s “disproportionate use of force against journalists”.
It criticised “attacks” on reporters filming in Sheikh Jarrah, the detention of Palestinian reporters, and the Jewish state’s demolition of a tower in the besieged Gaza Strip where news outlets operated.
During their military campaign in Gaza, Israel levelled the 13-storey building that housed the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television along with the US news agency The Associated Press after warning the structure’s owner to evacuate.
Israel defended the strike, alleging the building also hosted a Palestinian “terrorist” intelligence office.
Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Walid al-Omari, accused Israel of trying “to silence media that are witnessing, documenting and reporting the truth”.