To ultra-right-wing Israelis, Sheikh Jarrah is simply a spark for igniting conflict


February 19, 2022

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Less than a year ago, violence erupted in East Jerusalem that spread into Israel and eventually caused another round of hostilities between Hamas in Gaza and Israel that cost the lives of hundreds of people and resulted in widespread devastation.

One of the triggers for the flare-up in May 2021 was the unscrupulous attempts by Jewish settlers to evict Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which led to protests and clashes between Arabs and Jews.

In recent years this neighborhood has encapsulated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a nutshell. It symbolizes the efforts of the most extreme elements among the settler movement to displace Palestinians from their homes, with at least the tacit support of the Israeli government.

One of the main provocateurs who is tirelessly inflaming the situation is Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was elected to the Knesset for the first time in the 2021 general election with the active encouragement of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ben-Gvir leads a faction in the Knesset that is heir to the fascist Kahanist movement, of which he was a member in his youth. In the past he has been convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization for carrying signs that read “Expel the Arab Enemy” and “Rabi Kahane was right: The Arab MKS are a fifth column.”

Last week, in an act of sheer opportunism, he set up a makeshift office, which is no more than a table under a gazebo, in Sheikh Jarrah. It was a cynical exploitation of what might have been the firebombing of a Jewish home in the neighborhood, though the cause of the fire is yet to be established.

Like all ultra-right opportunists, he depends on instigating hatred and bloodshed to advance his sick ideology and his political career. While violence should never be condoned — and for now it has not been proved that any Palestinian was involved in starting the fire — Ben-Gvir and his supporters, who should by now be considered beyond the pale and beyond legitimate discourse in a civilized society, are there to inflame the situation.

It is a stain on the Knesset and the state of Israel that he was allowed to run in the last election and now serves as a legislator. He embodies the downward moral spiral that Israeli society has taken in recent decades.

Meir Kahane, Ben-Gvir’s “spiritual” leader and inspiration, was banned from taking part in the 1984 general election for spreading racism and hatred. Nearly 40 years later, however, there is no majority in the Knesset, or court in the land, that would ban from the legislature someone with identical opinions and for whom Sheikh Jarrah is the perfect ground on which to spread his toxic ideology with the goal of igniting another round of violence between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land.

Aside from Ben-Gvir, the blame for this situation must be apportioned to the Israeli government and the law enforcement authorities that have not prevented the evictions of Arabs and associated incitements that are escalating the hostile relations between Jews and Arabs in a city where their fragile coexistence could easily break down. These types of ultra-right, religious political agitators should be barred from even coming close to Sheikh Jarrah or similar potential flashpoints, let alone setting up their stalls of hate there.

No reasonable government would allow the current situation in Sheikh Jarrah to continue, whereby settler organizations are cynically exploiting, as they do in other Palestinian neighborhoods, Israel’s discriminatory laws to evict Palestinians from their homes. It is heartless, unjust, immoral and harmful to Israel’s national interests, generating negative publicity around the world. Worse, it might trigger another war.

Any expectations that these settler organizations might show any humanity have been proven to be a complete waste of time and therefore it is imperative that the Israeli government should act, and act quickly.

The settlers’ claim for restorative justice has been debunked as the land on which these houses were built, which belonged to Jews before 1948, is not being returned to its original owners but to extreme messianic settlers who are there to create friction and conflict and then blame Palestinians for being violent, to suppress them even further.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah who are facing eviction are refugees and their descendants, who in 1956 were resettled by Jordan and United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East after losing their homes during the Arab–Israeli war of 1948.

In the skewed and unjust legal system in which Palestinians live under Israeli occupation, they are being subjected to legal proceedings that are bound to end in eviction orders, as they are subjects of a jurisdiction that by definition discriminates against Palestinians, including those in East Jerusalem which, in contravention of international law, was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war.

As it is, Israel has already expropriated more than a third of East Jerusalem to build Israeli settlements, is demolishing Palestinian houses, evicting families from their homes and, in many cases, confiscating their land. The evictions of Sheikh Jarrah’s Palestinians are just another aspect of this discriminatory behavior.

In the grand scheme of the occupation and the settlements project, Sheikh Jarrah is small in scale but it epitomizes the ill intentions and the arrogance of the occupation as a whole, and equally how the Israeli discourse has, willingly or due to apathy, become a hostage to the most extreme elements in the settler movement.

Inevitably in this situation, particularly as the Palestinian Authority is increasingly ineffective, it is Hamas and other Islamic movements that are taking advantage of the situation and entering the fray as defenders of the residents of Sheikh Jarrah. Consequently, the religious dimension of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and the most radical version of it, is what might be leading to more outbreaks of violence and bloodshed.

Ultimately, the ball is in the Israeli government’s court: It must take action to prevent this dangerous scenario, firstly by barring without delay Ben-Gvir and his band of provocateurs from access to Sheik Jarrah and other deeply contentious areas.

But most importantly, it must halt the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods. If it does not act soon, it will bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for allowing an already smoldering situation to explode.

  • 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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view


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