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Sheikh Jarrah and the Renewed Israeli-Palestinian Violence

I am a lawyer specializing in human rights and international law, and live in Ramallah. Two decades ago, during Ramadan, I was invited by two young Muslims from my law office to attend evening prayers after the iftar, the meal at the end of the fasting day, at the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem. It was a memorable experience. Tens of thousands of worshippers had gathered to pray on the esplanade between the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. On our way there, we walked through the Old City, which was crowded with festive holidaymakers and food stalls. Although a nominal Christian and not at all religious, I was moved by the reverent spirit and discipline that prevailed among the worshippers at Islam’s third-holiest site.

This year’s Ramadan is a stark contrast. As I write, the worst clashes between Palestinians and Israelis since the 2014 war in Gaza are unfolding. On Monday, Israeli police stormed the al-Aqsa compound, where thousands of worshippers had gathered to defend themselves from encroachment by settlers. Three hundred Palestinians and twenty-one Israeli officers were wounded. Hamas responded by firing hundreds of rockets from Gaza into Israel, some of which struck in Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and other cities. Israel retaliated with one-hundred and thirty air strikes in Gaza. Over the last two days, at least twenty-six Palestinians, including nine children, and two Israelis have been killed.

The violence began on Jerusalem Day, when Israelis celebrate the capture of the eastern part of the city during the 1967 Six-Day War. The atmosphere is far from tranquil in the city: it is more like an arena of battle. Last month, at the beginning of Ramadan, Israeli police officers erected barriers to prevent Palestinian residents of the Old City from gathering on the steps of Bab el-Amud, the Damascus Gate, one of the few public places available to them to congregate. Jerusalem’s young Palestinians protested, and after two weeks, the police removed the barriers.

Yet other sources of deep and pervasive tension have remained. Up the hill from the Old City, in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, four Palestinian households have been waging a long battle against attempts by Jewish settlers to evict them. The struggle of the families has sparked numerous protest rallies and other demonstrations of solidarity. Jerusalem is divided, both in physical terms and in the allocation of rights that are granted to its principal residents, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The population is almost a million, with Palestinian Arabs comprising of about forty per cent of the total. The Israeli government, after occupying the eastern part of the city, classified the Palestinians living there as permanent residents, but they did not automatically make them citizens of Israel. To this day, most Palestinians in Jerusalem have little voice in the governance of the city, and a majority boycott local elections.

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. 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. This is the case not only in Sheikh Jarrah, where the settler group Lahav Shomron has been pursuing the eviction of Palestinians, but also in the Silwan neighborhood, where, last November, another settler group, Ateret Cohanim, succeeded in getting an Israeli court to ratify the eviction of eighty-seven Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government have done all they can to support these efforts. There are progressive Israeli organizations, such as Ir Amim, that envision a different sort of Jerusalem, a shared capital of two sovereign states. But so far such efforts on the Israeli scene have been marginal. There is little hope that a new Israeli government would do much to change this trajectory.

Israel argues that the situation in Sheikh Jarrah is merely a straightforward property dispute. In fact, what it demonstrates, above all, is the city’s endemic discrimination. The four Palestinian families who are now threatened with eviction have been living in these homes since 1957. They are refugees who lost their original homes in 1948—the year of what Palestinians call al-nakba (“the catastrophe”)—and who were resettled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. There are at least thirty-six other families facing similar eviction orders.

Legal proceedings involving the Sheikh Jarrah dispute have dragged on for years. It is assumed that Israel’s Supreme Court will soon decide to evict the Palestinians and give the homes to Jewish claimants. Yet that same court will not hear cases by Palestinian residents who were evicted from their homes in West Jerusalem, in 1948. The Absentees’ Property Law of 1950 deems them “absentees,” even if they live in annexed Eastern Jerusalem, less than a mile away. The discrimination also extends to housing, education, social services, and the rights of Palestinians to be united with spouses who are not residents of the city.

The Israeli government’s Jerusalem policy has become untenable. As the governments of Israel have moved further to the right, and become more influenced by hard-line settler groups, the inequities have become increasingly glaring. Deepening frustration among Palestinians has led to increased violence.

A video that recently went viral made the situation plain. In it, the owner of one of the Sheikh Jarrah houses asks a Jewish settler why he is there. The settler answers that, if he didn’t take the home, others would. By “others” he meant other Israeli Jews, because apparently, he believes the Palestinians have no right to these homes. The idea that the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem is temporary, that they have no right to be here, is pervasive among the right-wing settler groups.

But settlers are not the only people responsible for what is taking place in Jerusalem. Some progressive Israeli Jews have been participating in solidarity demonstrations against the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. Yet the discrimination against the Palestinians provokes little protest from most of its Israeli residents.

I continue to cherish my experience on that Ramadan evening at al-Aqsa, many years ago. And I am old enough to remember a more pastoral Eastern Jerusalem, before it was crisscrossed by highways built for settlers. My memories, however, are not shared by young Palestinians, who know only the demeaning experiences they endure today and the violence that has recently accompanied the holy month of Ramadan. As long as the present discriminatory practices continue, and Jerusalem is not shared as a joint capital, the likelihood of a city in which all its residents enjoy equal rights and a measure of peace is a fantasy.

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