Everything that is most volatile and incendiary about the conflict between Israel and Palestine is boiled down to a quintessence in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. It is a small neighbourhood, about 2km north of the Old City, with its holy and historical places. But Sheikh Jarrah’s outsized significance comes from a persistent campaign by Israeli settlers to evict long-term Palestinian residents and make way for Jewish settlers.
Last month these eviction efforts were the flashpoint that ignited the recent round of violence in Israel and The occupied territories. Now, Sheikh Jarrah is heating up again and everyone should be extremely concerned. It can easily ignite another conflagration if things continue to deteriorate.
The confrontation that sparked the recent violence centres on a decades-long effort by Israeli extremists, backed by the authorities, to evict six Palestinian families from homes they have lived in since shortly after the 1948 war. Many of the families had previously resided in the West Jerusalem neighbourhood of Talbiya, but were, like almost all Palestinian refugees, prevented from returning to their homes after the war. The homes were then seized under Israel’s “Absentee Property Law”.
These refugees now face yet another eviction, this time from East Jerusalem. The trauma of dispossession, which has become a fundamental theme in Palestinian identity, is being reenacted powerfully, with the same refugee families displaced every few decades because of Israel’s evolving national imperatives.
The theme of occupation is highlighted in Sheikh Jarrah, too – the constant grinding and quotidian oppression and a consistent effort to replace Arabs with Jews in culturally, historically, religiously and strategically significant areas. And of course, the pattern of discrimination against Palestinians, particularly regarding land rights, both in Israel and in the occupied territories is forcefully illustrated.
The settlers claim that Jewish groups once owned the areas under question. Under Israeli law, Jews can “recover” territories lost in the 1947-48 conflict on behalf of such groups. There is no provision for Palestinians to recover any lost property, including that of these families from West Jerusalem. This form of discrimination is absolute, and entirely based on ethnicity, which is officially designated within Israel under the rubric of categories of “nationality”, such as “Jewish” or “Arab,” which is distinct from citizenship.
Among the most telling contrasts between the approximately 8 million Jewish Israelis and the similar number of Palestinian Muslims and Christians that reside in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is legal status. The 8 million Jews enjoy a single, consistent and homogenous status, whereas Palestinians find themselves broken into at least seven or eight different categories depending on where they live.
All Jews in the “greater Israel”, including those living in “unauthorised” or “illegal” settlements in the West Bank that they have simply seized without prior permission from the government, are first-class Israeli citizens. It is as simple as that.
But the variations of legal status that are imposed on Palestinians living under Israeli rule are astonishing. There are almost 2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have many rights but face significant discrimination in terms of housing, land rights, education and a range of other prerogatives and services.
Then there are the Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, who are considered residents of Israel, but not citizens. They have a relative freedom of movement, but lack many rights of citizens. Israeli authorities often note that they can apply for citizenship. They can indeed. And Israel can turn them down, as it often does. These residency rights are notably tenuous and often arbitrarily revoked.
Palestinians have different rights and statuses in Areas A, B and C in the occupied West Bank. And while Gaza is technically part of Area A, it functions more like a giant open-air prison run on the inside by Hamas and from the outside by Israel.
Even among Palestinian citizens of Israel there are special problems facing those deemed to live in “unrecognised villages”, lacking many services (including bomb shelters), and those considered “present absentees”, who were not, in fact, outside the country in 1948 but whose land was expropriated anyway.
The details are complex and excruciating, but that quick rundown illustrates how Israel’s plethora of different legal statuses for Palestinians, as opposed to the single and united one for Jews, serves as a lesson in divide-and-conquer tactics.
The differences between Jews and Arabs invariably come down to rights to the land and rights in the land.
The six families facing immediate eviction in Sheikh Jarrah expected a final Israeli Supreme Court ruling on May 10, and ramped up their protests on May 6. And those protests began to dovetail with unrest at the Al Aqsa Mosque connected to Ramadan restrictions.
On May 10, Hamas began to unleash a barrage of rocket attacks against Israel in an effort to seize control of the agenda from the Jerusalem protesters and turn the latest surge of resistance to occupation into yet another Israel-Hamas aerial bombardment exchange.
With the ruling postponed but expected soon, Sheikh Jarrah is again heating up, with prominent arrests of journalists and activists.
This is anything but a simple “property dispute” as the Israeli government characterises it. The potential for this iconic injustice, and a similar one in the Silwan neighbourhood, which together threaten to displace an estimated 1,000 Palestinians, to ignite passions, particularly in connection with nearby holy places, must not be underestimated.
And both Hamas and embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu benefited tremendously from recent violence. Some of their supporters may welcome more.
The Biden administration insists it is pressuring Israel to avoid such provocative measures. Given the recent arrests, they don’t seem to have been heard unmistakably enough.
All of Israel’s friends should be clear that these evictions, and the abuses they so powerfully represent, are unnecessary, indefensible and potentially unmanageable.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National