This week the Israeli military and Palestinian militants in the blockaded Gaza Strip began exchanging the heaviest fire seen in the region since 2014. Fifty-three Palestinians have been killed since fighting began, 14 of whom were children, and six Israelis have been killed, as rockets from Gaza strike targets across Israel.
On Monday, days of simmering tension finally erupted when Israeli Security Forces stormed al–Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. The source of this tension is the small neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied Eastern Jerusalem, where Palestinian families face eviction from their homes to make way for Israeli settlers, pending the outcome of a hearing at Israel’s Supreme Court.
Amid the violence and recriminations, the voice of a young Palestinian writer and poet from Sheikh Jarrah is breaking through. Mohammed el-Kurd’s direct and forthright interviews with major US broadcasters, such as CNN and NBC, have gone viral on social media, and he has amassed a combined following on Instagram and Twitter of almost 300,000 followers.
VICE World News spoke to the 22-year-old about how, and why, he’s working to change the way international organisations frame the violence.
VICE World News: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Mohammed el-Kurd: I’m turning 23 in a couple of days, actually. And I was born in Occupied Eastern Jerusalem. I’m a writer and a poet, and I was pursuing a masters degree in the United States, in New York, but I had to come back because of this shit. I don’t know if I’m going to return.
Why did you feel like you had to return from the US?
Because this is my home; because my entire neighbourhood is being stolen by Israeli settler organisations working with the Israeli government to ethnically cleanse us from Jerusalem, as they have been doing for 73 years.
The protests in Sheikh Jarrah have captured the world’s attention. Why is it so important?
It’s a microcosm of Israeli settler-colonialism in Palestine at large…it showcases, you know, the way they [Israel] forcibly take people’s homes and have taken people’s homes. But it also showcases a manipulation, or exploitation, of the law, that is basically about colonial supremacy, to produce a judicial system that legalises ethnic cleansing.
You say in your interviews that some elements of the media use language to distort what’s happening on the ground in the Occupied Territories. .
I was on CNN the day before yesterday, and [the anchor] was quoting my article in The Nation. In the article, I talked about how the entire city was shut down by police and the army, and how they brutally assaulted my grandmother and threw a rock at her. I mean a TV at her, like an entire TV screen at her, and made her go to the hospital.
I talked about police violence in the article. The fucking reporter was like, “when you wrote beautifully in The Nation about coming home to find some police officers and settlers in front of your home.” Excuse me? That's what you gathered from my article? That exploited my – I hate this word – trauma, and showcased the brutality of the Israeli military occupation? You want to talk about how there were just some police officers outside your home?
It’s the same with the word “eviction,” instead of “forced displacement” or “ethnic cleansing.” What’s going on in the Gaza Strip today is residential areas, densely populated neighbourhoods, being intentionally targeted by the Israeli Occupation Forces and yet the media tries to downplay it. And I was being fucking asked if I support violent protest. While my house is literally being taken. While my people are being ethnically cleansed from their native land.
It’s about journalists, right, being led by corporations and not having any journalistic integrity. It’s not about where you stand in the conflict; it’s about knowing your profession and doing your job correctly.
How do you prepare for these interviews with major broadcasters? And why do you think they’re going viral?
I don’t prepare for them. I get up, rub my eyes, and then I go on screen. There’s not much scripting to any of these interviews that I do. Most of the time, like, three bullet points, and I’ll say whatever I want to say.
I think they’re going viral because there’s not been this kind of articulation about Empire in the media in recent years. I wanted to make the joke that it’s because I’m good TV, but it’s not! More often than not, it’s the fact that what I’m saying sounds unprecedented…a lot of people have been saying that I’m courageous – what I’m saying is a reflection of the Palestinian street. What I’m saying is something we all feel here. What I’m saying is a reflection of something people fear here, and that’s why things are going viral, because people feel represented. People feel heard, when they hear me speak. I mean, I’m assuming – I don’t know.
It’s a little bit concerning to me that this is considered courageous. It’s indicative of how quiet people are. The fact that there's a dominant narrative that stretches so far from the truth is so concerning. And the fact that the rebuttal to that narrative is seen as radical or extremist or courageous, is going to put me in danger is really concerning
Are you worried about a potential backlash to all this, with all the media attention?
In addition to the media attention, there have been hundreds of people reaching out to me, saying, “may God protect you, please be careful, I hope nothing bad happens to you.”
That's been concerning a little bit, because I know that the Israeli occupation has a history of assassinating people who speak out against it. There are many assassinations that happened across history against Palestinians who spoke out against Israeli colonialism. So that's a bit concerning.
Where do you see this crisis going? And what do you think will happen to your neighbourhood, Sheikh Jarrah?
Regardless of what these colonial occupation courts decide at the end of the day, which will likely be a result where settlers side with settlers, Sheikh Jarrah is not the first or last neighbourhood that is destroyed or stolen. It’s not the first or last place where people are met with settler and state collusion and violence.
In Silwan [neighbourhood in Occupied East Jerusalem] we have over 100 homes that are going to be demolished, over 1,000 people that are going to be made homeless. In the South Hebron hills, we have entire villages that are getting declared as military zones. And we have villagers getting dispossessed and displaced and ethnically cleansed from their indigenous lands where they planted their crops for years. It’s not going to blow over, and it’s not just about Sheikh Jarrah. It’s about Israeli settler colonialism and Palestine, and I think people are starting to realise this.
I think we are finally breaking through to the mainstream in a way we haven’t before. You have people like Bella Hadid, The Weeknd, Viola Davis, these big names celebrities, and I don’t think these people are going to free Palestine – but I also don’t know if this is quite unprecedented.
My friend told me Palestinians often make the mainstream, but the way we’re making the mainstream now is unprecedented. We are making the mainstream not just for violations of our human rights, but because of the vocabulary we are using – settler colonialism.
People are finally getting it. People are finally getting to the root of it. And I think once people get to the root of it, they recognise that colonialism is not okay, apartheid is not okay.
This is about ending colonialism in Palestine. Period.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.