The Injustice in Sheikh Jarrah is a Microcosm

5 August 2021

The precarity of life for Palestinian residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah is hard to imagine. These are people, some of whom have spent their entire lives, fighting just to stay where they are. After grueling years of legal battles, state-supported settler encroachment, constant protest, and even a round of Hamas-IDF fighting that the issue helped spark, many believed that, on Monday, Israel’s High Court of Justice would issue a final decision on this most-combustible of disagreements. But it didn’t come.

Instead, the court threw the parties for a loop and offered a compromise — one that sidesteps a final ruling, and instead extends the holding pattern. The court offered to recognize the settlers’ right to ownership of the property in question, but also the Palestinian’s right to be “protected tenants.” This meant that they would pay a nominal sum in rent, but would not be subject to eviction from their homes for three generations.

The parties were told to go home and think about it. While they do, let’s review what we know about Sheikh Jarrah.

First, the law that the court is being asked to use against these families is unjust. It is an outdated 1970 law that enables Jews to reclaim land from before 1948 in East Jerusalem yet offers no such right to Palestinians who might seek to reclaim property in West Jerusalem. This is the kind of law that ought to be struck from Israel’s lawbooks. The reason it remains on the books is the result of a constitutional fluke, one that NIF’s past president and current International Council co-chair Talia Sasson wrote about for the Washington Post only a few weeks ago.

Second, we can’t forget that this is no “private real estate dispute” as right-wing elements in the Israeli government would have you believe (if it is, as some have observed, then the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be characterized as a “private real estate dispute”). Rather, at issue is a concerted effort by ultra-nationalist settlers to displace and replace a Palestinian population with a Jewish one.

Civil society organizations like Emek Shaveh, Ir Amim, and Peace Now have worked in Jerusalem for years, monitoring developments in East Jerusalem that play a pivotal role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have conducted research that shows how settler organizations like Elad use a double-pronged strategy: They find ways to evict Palestinians or otherwise acquire their homes, while simultaneously building and promoting tourist attractions that attempt to superimpose an exclusively Jewish narrative on the area in service of displacing Palestinians and attempting to erase their connection to the Holy City. These moves are the product of a right-wing strategy supported, not by private parties in a private dispute, but by successive Israeli governments. And it’s been going on for nearly three decades.

Mickey Gitzin, NIF’s Director in Israel, attended one of the many protests in Sheikh Jarrah last week. He came back feeling like there were very few places in the world where injustice cries out as much as it does in this small neighborhood. Ultimately, he said, “the problem is that the state of Israel wants East Jerusalem, just not the people who live there.” I remember feeling the same way the first time I attended a protest there almost a decade ago.

NIF staff, supporters, and grantees are on the ground at those protests — protests that were put on the global stage in the last round of hostilities between Israel and Gaza. But the world couldn’t see what activists on the ground, people like Jerusalem resident Suf Patishi, saw when they went to protests. Suf spoke about his experience at a Sheikh Jarrah protest on NIF’s brand new podcast (in partnership with the Alliance for Middle East Peace) called Groundwork (listen here). He described the experience of police cracking down on the protesters as “a war zone”: “You’re not safe anywhere, not in the houses, not in the street, not in the demonstration… It’s crazy!”

What is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is intimately connected to other dynamics at play in Jerusalem. Indeed, it’s a part of a bigger story. Last week, Yehudith Oppenheimer, executive director of NIF grantee Ir Amim, addressed the UN Security Council. She spoke about four communities in the Jerusalem area — Sheikh Jarrah, Battan el-Hawa, al-Bustan, and Walaje — where nearly 3,000 Palestinian residents are under threat of eviction or demolition. In all of these four communities, as in Sheikh Jarrah, the issue is not a “private real estate dispute.” Rather, as Yehudit said, “It is about a national policy to change demographics [and] it deprives Palestinians.”

We at the New Israel Fund know that there is no democratic future for Israel in which this kind of discrimination is given a pass. There is no decent future in which inequality is allowed to flourish. And there is no realistic future in which either of the two peoples of Jerusalem relinquish their love, connection, and homes in the Holy City. All of this serves to underscore what we already know: the only way forward is Jewish-Arab partnership. The only honest, safe, and equal future for all Jerusalemites is a shared future. And a shared future is the only way to realize, finally, the meaning of “Jerusalem” in Hebrew: City of Peace.