Why are Israelis Demonstrating in Sheikh Jarrah?

Over the last few weeks, a coalition of Israeli organizations and many private citizens have protested against the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.
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Every Friday over the last few weeks, a coalition of Israeli organizations and many private citizens have come to a park on the outskirts of the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to protest against the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes and the entry of Israeli-Jewish settlers into these homes. The Jerusalem Police has taken a hard-line against the demonstrators, denying them permits and arresting dozens of them. These actions brought Sheikh Jarrah into the headlines, although much of the resulting public discussion in Isarel revolves around issues such as freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate in a democratic state.

As an organization dedicated to making Jerusalem a more viable and equitable city, Ir Amim seeks to keep the public informed and focused on the underlying processes unfolding in Sheikh Jarrah and East Jerusalem at large. Toward this goal, Ir Amim is providing a short introduction to the history of the contested homes in Sheikh Jarrah, the legal issues involved, and the political implications of the recent evictions.

BackgroundSheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian neighborhood north of the Old City of Jerusalem. On its western side lies an area of about 18 dunams (4.5 acres), known as Shimon haTzadik compound. It is named after the Second Temple high priest who, legend says, is buried here. The small Jewish community that settled in the late 19th century around the tomb was dispersed gradually between the 1920s and the 1948 war.

During the years of Jordanian rule from 1948 to 1967, this area passed into the hands of the Jordanian government, in accordance with the Jordanian law on Enemy Property. In 1956, 28 Palestinian refugee families were settled in this compound by the Jordanian government and the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), in exchange for giving up their refugee status and payment of symbolic rent.

Legal proceedingsIn 1972, 27 families (one family left of its own accord) received notice that their rent was to be paid to the Sephardic Committee and to the Knesset Israel Committee -- the owners of the homes, whose existence until then was unknown to them. In the same year, the two committees began a process with the Israel Land Authority to register the lands in their names, based upon Ottoman documents from the 19th century.

A decade later, in 1982, the two committees sued 23 families for non-payment of rent. According to an agreement reached between the lawyer representing the Palestinian families and the authorized representatives of the committees, the Palestinian families were declared "protected tenants" whose residence in the homes was guaranteed as long as they paid the rent to the committees. Some of the Palestinian families claim that the agreement was signed without their consent, and most of the families have refused to pay the rent for various reasons, including their reluctance to recognize the committees as the rightful owners.

Over the years, the 1982 agreement has been the legal basis for the decisions handed by the courts in several appeals. Thus, the refusal to pay rent served as the basis for the legal proceedings against these families and for the court-issued evictions from the disputed homes.

But the legal proceedings are not only between the committees and the Palestinian residents. Nahlat Shimon International, a settler organization that has purchased part of the lands from the Sephardic Committee, has also submitted legal petitions against the residents. To date, their claims resulted in the evictions of 3 families (al-Kurd, Hannoun, and al-Ghawi), and legal proceedings are under way to evict several additional families, some of whom were not part of the agreement signed in 1982. The court has already allowed the settlers to enter one other residence within the compound; it is an addition that was built without a permit to the home of another branch of the al-Kurd family. Current legal proceedings against the family aim to drive them out of the original part of their home, where they are living today.

The Shimon haTzadik compound also was subject to another ownership legal case: in 1997 a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, Suleiman al-Hijazi, petitioned the court, objecting to the ownership claims by the two committees, and claimed that he was the owner of the contested area. His claim was rejected in 2002, as was his appeal to the High Court four years later, while an additional petition to the District Court was rejected on 31 March 2008.

Political implicationsAlthough the fate of the Sheikh Jarrah homes was decided in the legal sphere, it is part of a wider political process. The settlers' activity in Sheikh Jarrah constitutes an additional link in the chain of settlements -- existing or planned -- that is intended to surround the historical basin of the Old City with an Israeli-Jewish ring and to establish Jewish enclaves in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods. The goal of this activity -- to create a territorial contiguity that will make it impossible to partition Jerusalem -- threatens future diplomatic negotiations and an agreed solution in Jerusalem. The settlers' coordinated and aggressive campaign is evident in their plans for Sheikh Jarrah. In the Shimon haTzadik compound, Nahlat Shimon International plans to destroy the existing homes and replace them with a new settlement of 200 housing units. And there are three other sites of planned construction by the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah: the Shepherd Hotel compound, purchased by the settlers' patron, Irving Moskowitz; the Mufti's Grove, just opposite the hotel; and the Glassman Campus at the south-western part of the neighborhood.

A second set of political implications follows directly from the legal contest described above. The legal recognition of the rights of Jews to sue for ownership over properties that were theirs before 1948, and to evict Palestinian families living there for decades in the name of Jewish property rights, constitutes a dangerous precedent. At present, Israeli law does not recognize the right of Palestinians to sue in a similar manner for the return of properties left behind in 1948, properties that are now within Israel. But it is only a question of time before a group of Palestinians will mount a collective lawsuit for their pre-1948 properties. Such suit, even if purely symbolic, will place the State of Israel in the most embarrassing domestic and international situation. It will transform the terms of the discussion around solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - from a discourse that centers on the 1967 borders (i.e., the borders set at the end of the 1948 war and in place until the war of 1967) to a discourse that looks to the times before 1948.

Despite their declared commitment to a process of diplomatic negotiations, in reality, the governments of Israel in the last decades, together with the settler organizations, have gained control over properties in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods, transforming them into settler enclaves that enjoy disproportional building rights and exist in a state of perpetual confrontation with their environment and with the rule of law. Sheikh Jarrah is another link in the process that is transforming East Jerusalem into an arena where extremist organizations do as they please, taking control of properties in dubious ways, running private police forces with government funding, and engaging in endless confrontations with the Palestinian population. All this is done with direct and indirect government support. Indeed, in spite of the government's lip service to a negotiated solution, the settlers with the support of that same government are throwing obstacles in the way of any prospect of achieving a resolution in Jerusalem and the region as a whole.

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