Common sense in short supply in Jerusalem
You have to feel a little sorry for the three-judge panel of the Israeli Supreme Court that is entrusted with the case of a Jewish settler organization’s atrocious attempt to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
At the end of the day, the judges’ role is mainly to apply Israeli law, whether they like it or not, while stretching it as far as possible to also consider the humanitarian aspect of the case, the wider, deadly political implications, and yes, if possible, to inject some common sense into the situation. Alas, when it comes to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and even more so when it comes to the settler movement, Voltaire’s observation that “Common sense is not so common” applies with tragic consequences.
The legal aspects of the Sheikh Jarrah case encapsulate the entirety of relations between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, and the abuse of power of the former over the latter, backed up and encouraged by Israeli authorities, in order to dispossess Palestinians and rob them of as much land as possible, to the point that this renders a two-state solution impossible, and with it peace, reconciliation and coexistence.
Strictly speaking, the land upon which sit the homes of the four Palestinian families who have appealed against their forced eviction was originally owned by Jews, who as a result of the war of 1948 were forced to leave their homes. But if we are to apply the logic of reclaiming pre-1948 ownership, we are bound to ask why Israel refuses to recognize the ownership rights of Palestinians to properties they owned within the Green Line before it became Israel in 1948? After all, they too were forced to leave. It must also be stressed that the settler organization Nahalat Shimon, which has asked the courts to support their eviction of Palestinian residents, has no connection whatsoever to the original owners of this land. It is only by the sheer arbitrary nature of Israel’s complex and underhand legislation that they acquired these properties, which were built by Jordan to house Palestinian refugees in 1948.
What would have been in any other setting a mere property dispute is in this case one with far reaching political implications. Only a few months ago an earlier attempt to evict these Palestinian families led to violent clashes in the neighborhood and triggered an outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Palestinians on several fronts and with deadly consequences. Hence outside the courthouse last week were scores of journalists, civil society activists and even diplomats, eager to hear the judges’ verdict. The issue must have weighed heavily on the judges, who offered what would have been a sensible compromise under any other circumstances, but which to all intents and purposes recognizes the illegal, discriminatory and callous occupation of East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1980 in contravention of international law.
At the heart of the arrangements that the judges laid out was a plan to allow the Palestinian residents to remain in their homes at a guaranteed low rent, and to be recognized as first generation protected tenants. From a practical point of view, this would prevent them from being forced out by unaffordable high rents, and their status would also be transferred in due course to their children and grandchildren. In their ruling, the judges’ intent was to prevent the evictions of families who for years have been caught up as pawns in a much bigger political game, but at the same time to avoid being seen as not upholding Israeli law and opening themselves up to accusations of politicising the legal system in favour of Palestinians. But how could anyone expect any Palestinian to recognise that these settlers, who for them are representatives of the occupation, are the legal owners of these properties? (Properties that according to recently revealed Jordanian documents were about to be transferred to the residents’ ownership before the 1967 war interfered with this process.) Such an act would be a recognition of the illegal occupation itself, and in the case of Jerusalem another step toward establishing complete Jewish control over the city, undermining Palestinians’ legitimate demand that at least parts of East Jerusalem should become the capital of a future independent Palestinian state.
The legal aspects of the Sheikh Jarrah case encapsulate the entirety of relations between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, and the abuse of power of the former over the latter.
Moreover, even accepting the Supreme Court’s compromise doesn’t shut the door completely on eviction, as there are other legal tools available to push them out of their homes, and this particular breed of settler, supported at least tacitly by the Israeli government, will stop at nothing to dispossess them and any other Palestinians in a similar situation. According to the Israeli NGO Ir Amim, four Palestinian communities together numbering nearly 3,000 people are currently at risk of losing their homes in East Jerusalem in similar circumstances. The organization’s executive director Dr Yudith Oppenheimer, who last month briefed the UN Security Council, warned members that 150 families — numbering 1,000 people — at Sheikh Jarrah and Batan Al-Hawa, Silwan, are at risk of displacement based on discriminatory Israeli laws. Furthermore, Dr Oppenheimer made the timely and poignant point that the evictions were only one facet of anti-Palestinian discrimination. As a resident of Jerusalem herself, she told the Security Council: “The rights and liberties I enjoy as an Israeli citizen are not afforded to the city’s 350,000 Palestinian residents, who today make up nearly 40 percent of its population.”
Conspicuous by his absence in court was the Israeli attorney general, who said there was no need for his intervention since the issue was a legal matter. This was a cynical and cowardly act, not only on his behalf but also that of the government, to hide behind the law and a settler organization while knowing full well that this is first and foremost a political issue. It is in the government’s power to sponsor a bill that would stop these evictions, or alternatively confiscate these houses and offer Nahalat Shimon alternative property or compensation. Israeli governments have not previously shied from confiscating Palestinian land and property on a much larger scale and on numerous occasions, solely to build and expand the settlements. It would be a welcome change were the present government to do this for humanitarian reasons and to avoid further violence — violence for which it would have to take much of the blame.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg