What Sparked the Trouble in Jerusalem?
Does Israel really need to increase its Jewish population in Arab-majority neighborhoods?
Jerusalem is once again at the center of international headlines as tensions rise in the Holy City. The chances for clashes between Israeli forces and Muslim worshippers are typically higher during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, and although just a few days remain, in Israel there is fear that the worst is yet to come.
This year, the focal point of events has been in Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Large protests including both Palestinians and Jews have taken place there against the background of eight Arab families who face the threat of a court-ordered eviction from their homes, to be taken over by Jewish residents. Members of Knesset such as Ahmed Tibi (Joint List) and Ofer Casif (Joint List) have also frequented the protests and have in many instances been directly involved in physical altercations with Israeli security forces.
In an official statement released by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the events taking place in Sheikh Jarrah constituted a “real estate dispute.” Is this an accurate description of what is actually taking place?
The eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem has generally occurred within the framework of the Absentees’ Property Law and the Legal and Administrative Matters Law of 1970. These laws allow for Jews to reclaim property in East Jerusalem that was transferred to Jordanian control following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
On the face of it, these laws may sound like a mechanism to bring justice to property owners who were forced to flee their homes as a result of war. However, the same does not apply to Palestinians who either voluntarily fled out of fear or who were also forcefully removed in 1948 from West Jerusalem. Prior to 1948, Palestinians also lived in many prominent neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, such as Talbiya, Katamon and Talpiyot. Following the war, these homes were given to Jewish refugees and new immigrants, and the former Palestinian residents either fled or were expelled to Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem.
In recent years, these laws have been heavily exploited. Originally, they were only meant to apply to uninhabited homes. Now, ultra-nationalist non-profit organizations such as Ateret Cohanim and Elad target these properties in order to replace Arab inhabitants with Jewish families. This is part of a project, as some claim, to increase the Jewish population in East Jerusalem at the expense of its Arab residents. As a result, over 100 families are at risk for losing their homes, the majority of whom reside in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
New national symbol
Although the protests in Sheikh Jarrah are the centerpiece of the tension surrounding Jerusalem, it is merely another drop of fuel on an already existing flame. Despite the fact that the struggle of the Sheikh Jarrah residents has been ongoing for a number of years, throughout the past few weeks, it has become highly nationalized. Cries to stand up for Palestinian rights consume social media discourse around the Arab world. Protests have now spread to Arab cities throughout Israel from Haifa to Jaffa, with protesters shouting, “First Sheikh Jarrah, next is Jaffa.” As I am writing, barrages of rockets are again being launched towards Israel’s southern towns by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The events of Sheikh Jarrah have also reached international audiences, as several members of the US Congress have denounced the pending evictions. It was recently reported that President Joe Biden intervened and tried to work with Israeli officials to calm the storm.
From a small neighborhood in Jerusalem to the halls of the US Congress, Sheikh Jarrah has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism and is attracting increasing global attention.
What’s the point?
Is all of this really necessary? Does Israel really need to increase its Jewish population in Arab-majority neighborhoods?
The answer is no. The Zionist Movement, after years of assiduous global efforts, successfully established a Jewish state in the historic Land of Israel. Since then, the country has buttressed the Jewish character of state-institutions and has solidified a Jewish majority. Intermarriage is scarce and even the most areligious Israelis have a clear sense of who they are as Jews (not necessarily in the religious sense). The Jewishness of Israel is under no threat whatsoever. Israel as a Jewish state is going nowhere anytime soon.
Exploiting laws to remove Palestinian families from their homes is a gross example of nationalistic greed. This greed calls for more territory and Jewish presence in Arab-majority areas while the Jewish identity of Israel is already secure. While the founders of Israel sought a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel and were flexible enough to accept partition in 1947 (dividing the country into two states, which was rejected by Arab Palestinian leadership: one Arab and one Jewish), some in our generation have deviated from this spirit and instead are promoting an overly zealous Jewish nationalism. In the end, these kinds of policies do much more harm than good.
The problems occurring in Sheikh Jarrah are preventable. We must at least do our part to promote peace and security in the city that is sacred to billions of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
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