Why Sheikh Jarrah has become the legal battleground for the entire Israel-Palestine struggle

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“Sheikh Jarrah” is just a couple of streets of 1950s bungalows in East Jerusalem that have recently become the crucible for the entire Israel-Palestine conflict.

It was eviction orders served on four Palestinian residents of Sheikh that led to massive protests in Jerusalem in May, which sparked off Israel’s 11-day assault on Gaza.

On Monday the Israeli Supreme Court offered a “compromise” solution which would lift the threat of eviction by giving residents the status of protected tenants in their lifetime but on a tough condition.

They would have to pay a small rent of £335 a year to an Israeli settler company that claims to own the land their houses are built on, thus recognising them as landowners. They have been given a week to respond.

The history of Sheikh Jarrah

The legal arguments are very difficult to disentangle until you understand a vital bit of history of the war that led to Israel’s creation-  as explained here by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

“In 1948, many people abandoned their property and fled to the other side of the border. Most of them were Palestinians who left an enormous amount of property on the western side and fled east. A very small minority were Jews who abandoned property and fled westward. Israeli law allows only the second group to retrieve its property, but denies this to the first group.”

Thus the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah abandoned their houses in Jaffa or West Jerusalem in 1948 and are not allowed to reclaim them even if they have the house-deeds in their pocket and the key to the front door.  

Before 1948 Sheikh Jarrah was a small Jewish enclave in East Jerusalem whose residents were forced to flee in the opposite direction, but since 1967 Jewish people – not necessarily the original owners – have been given the right to reclaim this ‘Jewish’ land under Israeli law.

Unequal Before the Law

The result is that there are Palestinian owners of houses in West Jerusalem who cannot return to them and Jewish non-owners of houses in East Jerusalem who can evict the occupants onto the streets, setting their guard dogs on their Palestinian neighbours, brandishing the machine guns they are legally allowed to carry.

As Haaretz observes: “The legal arguments that permit this may sound reasonable in Israeli courts, which for decades have been conditioned to rule based on a discriminatory system of laws. But they are impossible to explain in the international arena. Nothing will make them sound logical or moral to a reasonable person.”

The Palestinian lawyers will argue that even under Israeli law the Palestinians are the rightful owners of their houses, because the Jordanian government, who administered East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967, had in effect transferred ownership of the houses to Palestinians before the Israeli army invaded during the Six-Day War.

But the Israeli Attorney General has refused to intervene, implying that it is just a question of legal landowners evicting squatters and not – as the Palestinians see it – an existential threat to their homes and their rights and their futures.

The role of the UK

It is not clear yet to what extent the new Israeli government is prepared to listen to international opinion on this issue, but President Biden is urging them to stop the evictions and so is the UK.

The problem is that this case cannot be solved within existing Israeli law. It needs a change in the law. The Palestinians living under threat of eviction in Sheikh Jarrah may be small in number – just 24 families – but the issues are fundamental for both Palestine and Israel.

The British Consulate-General in Jerusalem – effectively our embassy to the Palestinians – is situated in Sheikh Jarrah, less than 200 yards from the street where the evictions take place. Some of the locally employed staff at the embassy live in Sheikh Jarrah. Their families are under threat.

The UK’s credibility is on the line, not just internationally and nationally but locally. After all the promises the UK has made, the grand statements of principle, will they stand up against the evictions? Or will they say there is nothing they can do?

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