At least 15 protesters were arrested yesterday as several hundred left-wing Israelis held their biggest demonstration yet against demolitions and evictions of east Jerusalem Palestinians designed to make way for Jewish settlers.
Police moved in to force back the noisy but largely peaceful protest in Sheikh Jarrah, the inner-city district that has rapidly become the main flashpoint of the struggle to prevent further government and local authority-approved inroads by settler groups in the city.
Organisers of the demonstration, which had been kept behind a police cordon at the entrance to one of the neighbourhood's residential streets, said that two Palestinians had been injured by stone-throwing settlers further along the road and beyond the barrier.
Continued settlement in the inner districts of east Jerusalem is regarded by the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a central obstacle to resuming negotiations with Israel. Mr Abbas resisted fresh pressure to re-enter the talks during a three-hour meeting yesterday with US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell.
Israel insists it annexed the eastern Arab sector of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967, but this is rejected by most of the international community who see it as the capital of a future Palestinian state. According to UN figures, 194 people were forcibly displaced from their homes in east Jerusalem by evictions and demolitions in the first half of 2009 alone.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau has repeatedly – most recently when he talked to foreign journalists this week – insisted that he has no intention of halting settlement in east Jerusalem.
Yesterday's protest, the sixth of what has become a regular weekly event, was joined by prominent figures on the Israeli left, including Yossi Sarid, former leader of Meretz, and a prominent Haaretz columnist; Avraham Burg, a former Knesset speaker; the veteran human rights and political campaigner Uri Avnery; and Yariv Oppenheimer, former director of Peace Now.
Brandishing banners linking Jewish settlement with apartheid, some of the demonstrators chanted slogans like "No, no, fascism will not pass", "Don't despair Sheikh Jarrah, we will end the occupation" and "One two three four Occupation no more/five six seven eight, Israel is a fascist state."
While local Palestinian residents were largely absent from the protest, one Israeli demonstrator hoisted on to his shoulder a small Palestinian boy who had been watching the protest so that he could lead the crowd in an Arabic chant of "Sheikh Jarrah for the Palestinians; evacuate the settlers."
Arab Knesset member Mohammed Barakeh told the crowd: "The issue isn't about a house here and a neighbourhood there, but about the intention to empty Jerusalem of its Arab citizens. This is a crime against the Arab population and a crime against the peace process."
Mr Sarid said recent pessimistic remarks by Barack Obama about the prospects for a breakthrough had deepened his "disappointment" with the US and Europe for not doing more to end the conflict. "Without determined and active involvement of a third party there is not going to be a breakthrough," he said. "And without a breakthrough there will be another wave of bloodshed."