For decades, the Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem has been a source of tension between Israelis and Palestinians. In the lead-up to a contentious Israeli Supreme Court hearing on the evictions of several Palestinian families in favour of Israeli settlers, the neighbourhood has once again become the centre of the dispute over the Holy City. The attempted evictions sparked days of unrest and violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli police. The hearing, originally scheduled to take place on Monday, May 10th, was deferred due to concerns that the court’s decision would cause the violence to escalate further.
The Israeli police, some of whom were mounted, reportedly used stun grenades, water cannons, and skunk water—a putrid liquid first used by Israeli forces to disperse crowds in the West Bank in 2008—in clashes with protesters. Jewish extremist groups have also been involved in the confrontations. On Friday night (May 7th), which was Laylat al-Qadr, the final Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, violence erupted at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. Worshippers leaving the mosque joined thousands of young Palestinians hurling stones at police, who retaliated with grenades and sprays of rubber bullets. Cars were reportedly set ablaze. Al-Aqsa is one of Islam’s holiest mosques, but the land on which it rests, the Temple Mount, is also one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Because of this, the mosque has long been a flashpoint in disputes between the two groups. Over 200 people are reported to have been injured in the clashes over the weekend.
On Monday, May 10th, the Supreme Court was supposed to hear appeals against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions (a lower court had already ruled in favour of the Israeli settlers). In addition to coinciding with the final days of Ramadan, Monday was Jerusalem Day—the Israeli national holiday celebrating the capture of the eastern part of the city in 1967, which young Israeli nationalists tend to commemorate with flag-bearing marches through Arab neighbourhoods. Amid increasing domestic and international concern that a decision in the Sheikh Jarrah case would exacerbate tensions, the hearing was delayed at the request of Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit.
In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jerusalem was divided up between Israel and Jordan, with Jordan ruling the city’s eastern district. In 1956, Jordan and the United Nations ordered the construction of a few dozen homes in Sheikh Jarrah to house the families of Palestinian refugees who were fleeing Israel at the time. This Arab presence remains in the neighbourhood today, but perhaps not for long. When Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967—a move which is not internationally recognized—the land on which the homes were built was returned to the ownership of the Jewish trusts that originally purchased it from Arab families in the 19th century. It was subsequently sold to a far-right Israeli settler group that has been waging a relentless legal battle to evict the Palestinian residents ever since.
The Israeli settlers claim that the Palestinians are squatters on what is rightfully Jewish land. The settler group also supports their claim to the neighbourhood with the fact that it was built around the tomb of the ancient High Priest Shimon Ha Tzadik (the Israelis call the neighbourhood Nahalat Shimon) and was always a Jewish community until the Jewish residents were forced to leave in 1948. The Palestinian residents have produced documents to challenge the land’s purported Ottoman-era sale to the Jewish trusts, but the court was expected to rule against them on Monday.
Palestinian advocates point out that the Sheikh Jarrah case is only one of countless efforts by the Israelis to remove Palestinians from strategic points throughout East Jerusalem, which they claim is a form of ethnic cleansing. Israel considers the entire city to be its proper capital and believes in its right to keep Jerusalem Jewish. Palestinians hope for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The Israeli government has tried to downplay the state’s responsibility in the evictions. In a statement on Friday, May 7th, Israel’s Foreign Ministry called the case “a real-estate dispute between private parties” and accused Palestinian groups of “presenting [that dispute] as a nationalistic cause in order to incite violence in Jerusalem.” But Israel’s discriminatory property laws play a crucial role in the evictions. Two laws introduced in 1970—the Absentee Property Law and the Legal and Administrative Matters Law—give Israelis, but not Palestinians, the right to reclaim ownership of the land they vacated in 1948.
On May 7th, Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on Israel to “immediately halt all forced evictions” and to “cease any activity that would further contribute to a coercive environment and lead to a risk of forcible transfer.” The statement emphasized that failing to do so “would violate Israel’s obligations under international law” and “may amount to a war crime.” The statement also condemned the discriminatory application of the 1970 property laws and urged “maximum restraint in the use of force” in Israel’s response to the current demonstrations.
The outrage over the Sheikh Jarrah evictions goes much deeper than a single legal battle. The evictions have drawn international attention to the broader Israeli settler movement and have become symbolic of the pervasive discrimination that has faced Palestinians for decades. The long-running disputes over the Israeli settlements and over access to Jerusalem seem as far from being resolved as ever, but without progress on these fronts, the risk of more violence moving forward remains high.
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