A new report from Amnesty International acknowledges the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians from their homes as a crucial pillar of Israel’s apartheid system. It inveighs that (opens in a new w“According to one estimate, Israel has expropriated over 10,000 shops, 25,000 buildings and almost 60% of the fertile land belonging to Palestinian refugees in Israel and East Jerusalem under the Absentees’ Property Law.”
Almost a year ago, as part of the system of Palestinian apartheid, evictions in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah inflamed acute protest. Demonstrations began as a peaceful, small-scale complaint about a real estate dispute. But within a few short days, riots spread across the West Bank and Israel’s cities. But how did the riots inflame from a specific land dispute to violent anti-police riots and attacks on military agents?
The Elaborated Social Identity Model theorises why some manifestations of violence escalate the way they do, and why their objectives change as they do. It “suggests that psychological and behavioural change in riots is primarily a matter of social repositioning and consequent collective empowerment as group boundaries are redrawn and expectations of support increase.” What’s more, the model proposes that the use of force pushes crowds to feel more united and develop a stronger social identity.
Applying the Elaborated Social Identity Model to the unrest in Sheikh Jarrah a year ago unlocks the puzzle of how a small conflict can erupt into a volcano.
The disorder began on the evening of 6 May 2021. Around 40 people peacefully protested a possible house eviction. The Israeli police arrested 15 Palestinians. The next day, as the news spread, more Palestinians met in the Aqsa Mosque to express their grievances, but Israeli authorities intervened. Security forces fired grenades, rubber bullets and teargas. By the end of the night, more than 205 Palestinians (including worshippers) were injured. Many Palestinians expressed their bewilderment and anger on social media (for example, @eye.on.palestine, @paliroots and @rimamustafa3). Others also expressed their concerns and called for action. For instance, the Palestinian community ‘Free Palestine’ stated that “when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”
In the following days, Palestinian hostility escalated and the protests gained support. On 10 May, Hamas warned that Israel should withdraw its military forces from Sheikh Jarrah and the Aqsa Mosque or Hamas would retaliate.
The unrest that followed specifically targeted the ambush of Israeli security forces such as military checkpoints by throwing rocks, fireworks and other objects. Initially, most of the affected families in occupied Palestine complained. Later, people who did not necessarily know the landowners decided to join. Palestinian Christians and even Palestinian citizens of Israel expressed their support in Israeli territory. The violence continued for 15 days in more than 200 places.
Consistent with the Elaborated Social Identity Model, a perception of unlawful harm intensified Palestinian social identity and swelled the ranks of protestors. The model predicts that a perception of the Israeli authorities’ abuse of power propelled the crowd to unite and resist. Thus, the model holds that the inflammation of a specific land dispute into violent protest was the result of the protestors identifying themselves on a continuum alongside the families protesting in Sheikh Jarrah, as though all were part of the same group. The perception of harsh repression enabled otherwise-disparate people to identify themselves as part of the same struggle.
The eviction of Palestinian families in Sheik Jarrah is currently still pending. Although the Elaborated Social Identity Model has lessons to teach about how inflamed protests escalate, questions remain about whether the protest can yet calm.