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BATTLE FOR JERUSALEM – UNDERSTANDING THE CONTEXT

What exactly is the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and how did a dispute over who gets to live there trigger the Gaza war?

With many asking questions, ALL ISRAEL NEWS examines the legal case – and emotional complications – of the Sheikh Jarrah issue

Israelis and Palestinians clash during protests surrounding the impending eviction of Palestinian families from their homes, which Israeli families claim is their property, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 10, 2021. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

JERUSALEM—When Hamas and Islamic Jihad began firing more than 4,300 rockets at Israeli civilians, they and their terror masters in Tehran justified their attacks by claiming that Israeli Jews were engaged in “ethnic cleansing” of Arab families from an East Jerusalem neighborhood known as Sheikh Jarrah and that such “war crimes” must be avenged. 

“The Qassam Brigades [of Hamas] will not stand idly by in the face of attacks on the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood,” said Mohammed Deif, a top Hamas commander, in a written statement on May 5, just days before the rockets started flying.

“They will pay a heavy price if the aggression against our people in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood does not stop immediately,” Deif said, according to the Al Jazeera satellite TV network.

“Tampering with Jerusalem will burn the heads of the occupiers,” said Saleh al-Arouri, another senior Hamas official.

Mustafa Barghouti, another Palestinian radical, told Al Jazeera that what was happening in Sheikh Jarrah was “a war crime against the [Palestinian] population of Jerusalem.”

“This act of ethnic cleansing is nothing but a reflection on the racist policies that Israel is following and the system of apartheid that is consolidated not only in Jerusalem but in the occupied Palestinian territories in general.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also weighed in on May 7.

“Palestine and Jerusalem are mentioned in the holy Quran as ‘sacred ground,’” Khamenei said. “For decades, this pure land has been occupied by the filthiest and most evil people – devil’s spawn who slaughter respectable people and shamelessly acknowledge this. They are racists who have tormented the [true] owners of the land [i.e. the Palestinians] with murder, looting, arrest, and torture for 70 years. But, with God's help, they have not succeeded in vanquishing their will.”

“There were days when the young Palestinian defended himself by throwing stones,” he added. “Today he responds to the enemy by firing precision missiles.”

On May 8, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, launched his own broadside attack against Israel over the matter.

“The United States must speak out strongly against the violence by government-allied Israeli extremists in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and make clear that the evictions of Palestinian families must not go forward,” Sanders wrote in a tweet.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat and fellow presidential candidate, joined Sanders.

“The forced removal of long-time Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah is abhorrent and unacceptable,” Warren argued. “The [Biden] administration should make clear to the Israeli government that these evictions are illegal and must stop immediately.”

Other far-left members of Congress – from Rashida Tlaib to Ilan Omar to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), among others – also attacked Israel over the neighborhood.

“Israeli forces are forcing families from their homes during Ramadan and inflicting violence. It is inhumane and the US must show leadership in safeguarding the human rights of Palestinians,” AOC tweeted.

Two days later – on the evening of Monday, May 10 – the rockets from Gaza started flying.

Fortunately, a ceasefire is now in place, and holding for the moment.

Yet as the smoke clears, the conflict is hardly over.

Hundreds are dead. Many more are wounded. Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the border have been traumatized. And the dispute remains.

Many people around the world have been asking us to lay out the basic facts of the case.

Today, then, ALL ISRAEL NEWS takes a closer look at was purported to be the war’s original spark.

WHAT AND WHERE IS SHEIKH JARRAH?

Sheikh Jarrah is a mostly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, located about a mile northeast from the Old City.

Visitors familiar with the American Colony Hotel and restaurant will find the neighborhood right next door.

The neighborhood is also close to Hebrew University and sits on the “seam,” the unofficial dividing line between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem.

Residents pay Israeli taxes and receive benefits from the state.

The neighborhood has ancient roots – it is home to the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik (Simeon the Just), who was a High Priest during the Second Temple period.

Sheikh Jarrah in a 2018 United Nations map; the yellow area is the built up Palestinian area north of the Old City. Nearby are Israeli neighborhoods Givat HaMivtar, Ma'alot Dafna and French Hill. (Source: Wikipedia)

WHAT EXACTLY IS THE DISPUTE ABOUT?

In recent years, and especially in the last few months, the otherwise quiet neighborhood became a hotspot for weekly protests where both right-wing Jewish extremists and pro-Palestinian and left-wing Israeli organizations have staked claims on two different sides of the dispute.

Here is the short version:

At issue are several properties that have been home to Arab families for decades.

But their leases have expired.

There are also some families who have no leases at all but are simply squatters.

The landlords took the families to court.

The litigation, and various appeals, have taken years to wind their way through the Israeli court system.

Yet the courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of the Jewish landlords.

Why?

Because the landlords have clear proof of ownership of the properties going back to the 1800s.

What’s more, The Jerusalem Post reported that rents have not been paid by many families since a major legal battle over the neighborhood in 1982.

Eventually, the Jewish organizations that owned the properties but were not receiving rent sold the buildings to Nahalat Shimon, a U.S.-based non-profit organization whose goal is to settle Jews in all parts of Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem.

The new owners say the Arab tenants are still not paying rent and therefore should be evicted.

As far back as 2008, Nahalat Shimon “presented a plan for the removal of non-rent-paying families (now numbering around 500 people) and for the construction in the area of a Jewish neighborhood of 200 housing units,” reported the Post.

The parties in question are private entities, not political organizations or governments. The State of Israel is not officially party to the dispute.

That said, extremist right-wing Knesset members have shown up at protests in favor of the Israeli organization claiming rights to the property. 

Meanwhile, left-wing Israeli groups, such as Peace Now, and international organizations including Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, are defending the Palestinian tenants.

When the landlords finally moved to evict the families to make way for new tenants, the families refused to leave.

“The issue has returned to prominence in recent days because three families were due to have the Supreme Court rule on their petition of appeal this week,” the Jerusalem Post reported.

However, on May 9, the Israeli Supreme Court postponed a scheduled hearing on the matter because of the erupting violent protests in the neighborhood and throughout the Old City.

Thus, the three Arab families were not evicted and their legal challenge is still pending.

Yet Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched their rocket war anyway.

GOING DEEPER: WHAT IS THE CASE MADE BY THE ARAB DEFENDANTS?

The Arab families and their supporters say this is a nationalistic cause and that Israeli “settlers” are seeking to expand the Jewish presence in the city through Nahalat Shimon. 

“They don’t want Arabs here, or across East Jerusalem,” Abdelfatah Skafi, 71, one of the Palestinians facing eviction, told The New York Times. “They want to expel the Arabs, and that way they will be able to surround the Old City,” the contested ancient core of Jerusalem that contains sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. 

“It’s a land grab,” said Sami Abu Dayyeh, owner of the Ambassador Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah, some of whose land has been confiscated by the Israeli state in a separate case, told the Times. “They [Israelis] are stealing land left and right.”

The Times summarized the dispute like this: “Israel captured the territory in 1967 and annexed East Jerusalem, later returning ownership of the Sheikh Jarrah homes to the Jewish trusts. They sold it to a right-wing settler group, which has tried to evict the residents ever since. In 1982, the Palestinian residents signed an agreement accepting Jewish ownership of the land and allowing them to live there as protected tenants. But they have since rejected the agreement, saying they were tricked into signing it. Some now dispute the Jewish ownership of the property. They have produced their own Ottoman-era land titles that they say undermine claims of historic Jewish ownership on at least part of the land.”

Reja Shehadeh, a Ramallah-based lawyer, specializing in human rights and international law, wrote an article published by the New Yorker on May 11, arguing that this dispute cannot be detached from the larger political struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.

“For decades, the Israeli national government and Jerusalem’s municipal authorities have pursued policies aimed at increasing the Jewish presence in the city and restricting the expansion of the Palestinian community,” Shehadeh wrote. “Initially, this meant expanding Jerusalem’s borders and building Jewish settlements to the east, outside of the city. Over the past decade, right-wing groups supported by the Israeli government have also spearheaded attempts to increase the Jewish presence in the Palestinian areas at the heart of East Jerusalem.”

He blasted the lack of Palestinian political rights, and claimed, along with Arab-Israeli Member of Knesset, Osama Saadi of the Ta’al party, that there is no reciprocal law allowing Palestinians to reclaim property in the part of Jerusalem from which Palestinians fled in 1948. 

The United Nations claims that the pending evictions of these families violates Israel’s obligations under international law.

“Given the disturbing scenes in Sheikh Jarrah over the past few days, we wish to emphasize that East Jerusalem remains part of the occupied Palestinian territory, in which International Humanitarian Law applies,” said UN office of human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville. “The occupying Power must respect and cannot confiscate private property in occupied territory, and must respect, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.”

Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. In the background, the city center of Jerusalem. (source: Wikipedia)

GOING DEEPER: WHAT IS THE CASE MADE BY THE ISRAELI CLAIMANTS?

“I would ask you,” says Aryeh King, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, “if you are the owner of the property and somebody is squatting on your property, wouldn’t you have the right to take him out from your property?”

“Regrettably, the PA [Palestinian Authority] and Palestinian terror groups are presenting a real-estate dispute between private parties, as a nationalistic cause, in order to incite violence in Jerusalem,” noted the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Professor Avi Bell, of Bar Ilan University and the University of San Diego School of Law, wrote a legal analysis of the Sheikh Jarrah dispute for the Kohelet Policy Forum, an Israeli think tank.

Bell highlighted and documented the following points: 

  1. Jewish ownership over these properties was established back in the 19th century.

  2. The Jewish property rights were awarded by the authorities of the Ottoman Empire and were never since abrogated.

  3. The current Arab tenants and their predecessors never received legal ownership rights, even when the properties were under Jordanian control, from 1948 to 1967.

  4. Had the Arab tenants been rewarded ownership rights, Israeli law would have respected and enforced those rights, which has been the practice since Israel gained control over Jerusalem in 1967.

  5. At its core, this is a dispute between private parties pursuing a decades-long legal process in Israeli courts. 

On May 14, Bell and a colleague published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal headlined, “Almost Nothing You’ve Heard About Evictions in Jerusalem Is True: Neutral application of property law becomes an international incident because a landlord is a Jew.”

They wrote: “In the case now before Israel’s Supreme Court, the owner is an Israeli corporation with Jewish owners whose chain of title is documented back to an original purchase in 1875. Until 1948, the neighborhood now known as Sheikh Jarrah was home to both Jewish and Arab communities. Jordan invaded Israel in 1948 and occupied half of Jerusalem, expelling every one of its Jewish inhabitants and seizing their property.” 

“When Israel reunited Jerusalem and ended the Jordanian occupation in 1967, it had to decide what to do with these properties,” they noted. “In the many cases in which Jordan had officially transferred the title of Jewish-owned properties to Palestinians, Israel respected the new titles—and still does—even though they are based on forcible takings in a war of aggression followed by ethnic cleansing against Jews. Where title had never been transferred, however, Israel returned properties to their owners. Critics of Israel claim that Arabs can’t recover property under the same law, but the law is entirely neutral—it is simply the case that Jordan took property from Jews, not Palestinians.”

“Title to the properties in dispute in Sheikh Jarrah was never given by Jordan to Palestinians, so Israeli law respects the unbroken title of the plaintiffs. This case has nothing to do with ethnicity or religion. The only discrimination in the legal treatment of Sheikh Jarrah property is historic, by Jordan, and against Jews to the benefit of Palestinians.”

EMOTIONAL FLASHPOINT

Clearly, emotions are running deep on both sides.

What seems like a simple and clear-cut property rights dispute to one side seems like a “land grab” and a “war crime” to the other side.

And extremists on both sides are doing their utmost to pour gasoline on this geopolitical fire.

Please pray for the Israeli Supreme Court to have wisdom and discernment to know what is really true and what is the right and fair outcome of this complicated and decades-long case.

And please pray for calm and reason to prevail in the end, whatever the legal outcome.

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