February 15, 2022
Less than a year after Israel and Hamas went to war over Jewish settlers’ attempts to evict Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem district is once again at the center of clashes that could lead to another bloody confrontation. The May 2021 showdown dealt a heavy blow to civilians in the Gaza Strip, but it also uncovered deep fissures within Israeli society, as Arabs and Jews clashed not in the Occupied Territories, but in cities and communities inside the so-called Green Line; i.e., Israel proper. Hamas, on the other hand, cemented its popularity in the West Bank while proving to Israel that it has the capability to launch missiles against Tel Aviv and other cities.
Jewish settler terrorism against Palestinians has been on the rise, especially since the openly racist Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, was elected to the Knesset last year. His party is directly linked to the outlawed Kach, the group formed by Jewish terrorist Meir Kahane. Ben-Gvir is at the center of the new crisis in Sheikh Jarrah.
On Sunday, Ben-Gvir set up a makeshift “office” in an empty plot of land next to Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah. He had vowed to clear the neighborhood of Palestinian “terrorists,” adding that Jews are the true landlords of the disputed neighborhood. Why is it disputed? Because two Jewish settler groups filed court cases alleging that many of the lands and houses in the neighborhood were owned by Jews before 1948. They claim that, after the 1948 war, when East Jerusalem was saved from Israeli occupation by Jordan, the lands and buildings were given to Palestinians who were displaced from a Jerusalem neighborhood that was captured by Israel.
Under discriminatory Israeli laws, Jews can claim ownership to property in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, while Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war do not have the right to claim lost property in Israel. As a result of last May’s confrontation and the international outcry against evictions, Israel’s courts suspended motions to carry out evictions for some time. However, in January, a court approved the eviction of the Salhiya family, whose house was immediately demolished. There was, like last year, an international backlash, with the EU and UK warning that evictions in occupied territory were illegal under international law. Israel, as usual, ignored the denunciations.
The piecemeal Jewish expansion in East Jerusalem will increase in the coming years and one major provocation will lead to a new cycle of violence.
Since East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel, a number of illegal settlements have been built to separate the city from the West Bank. A number of Jewish neighborhoods were also built on expropriated lands to surround Palestinian neighborhoods and cut them off from the Old City. While Jerusalem’s Arab residents carry an Israeli ID card, they do not have the same rights as Jews. They are rarely given building licenses and, when they do build without permission, the authorities move quickly to demolish the new structures — at the owners’ expense. Going to court almost never works for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who number more than 300,000. The laws are applied to achieve one main goal: To clear East Jerusalem of its Arab population — a straightforward war crime.
Like Sheikh Jarrah, other East Jerusalem neighborhoods are also in peril. These include the Silwan district, which is home to more than 35,000 Palestinians. Its proximity to the Old City and Al-Aqsa Mosque makes it a major target for Jewish settlers. The Israeli authorities want to raze the entire area and turn it into a biblical theme park.
Under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, far-right politicians and extremist settlers were allowed to implement their goal of clearing Jerusalem of its Arab population. Not only that, but in recent years and even under the current government, right-wing politicians and their followers have been allowed to breach Al-Haram Al-Sharif on an almost daily basis, provoking worshippers and leading to frequent clashes.
After Sunday’s clashes between Ben-Gvir’s followers and residents of Sheikh Jarrah, the racist MK vowed to return to the area and set up his so-called office once more. He did so again on Monday and tensions rose to new heights. Hamas said it was watching the situation, while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accused Ben-Gvir of seeking to score political points by inflaming the situation.
The reality is that the Israeli right will increase its political representation with each election cycle and, with that, it will push to provoke more encounters with the Palestinians, both in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Since 1967, the Jewish settler population in East Jerusalem has grown from zero to more than 200,000. The piecemeal Jewish expansion in East Jerusalem will increase in the coming years and one major provocation will lead to a new cycle of violence.
Since the Palestinian Authority can do nothing to protect the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, just as it has failed to stop settlement building in the West Bank, it is the international community — including Israel’s new-found Arab friends — that are expected to put meaningful pressure on Tel Aviv to halt the evictions and settlement building. It must do so, if not for the sake of Palestinians, then for the sake of Israel, since the current path will lead to a repeat of last May’s social strife within Israel itself, which could push toward the unraveling of the state.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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