Sheikh Jarrah: a neighbourhood at the heart of the Israel-Palestine crisis

House of the Kurd Family in Sheikh Jarrah. (Image: Eman, via Wikimedia Commons).

Several Palestinian families in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem continue to face the threat of forced eviction from their homes by Israeli settlers, despite the recent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas over Gaza.

On May 9th, under pressure from protests and international reaction, the Israeli Supreme Court delayed the decision on the expulsion of six Palestinian families. The court gave the Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, a deadline of June 8th to decide on the date of a new hearing.

In response to the forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, and in particular the Israeli police’s raid on the al-Aqsa Mosque (the third holiest site in Islam), Hamas militants in Gaza fired rockets into Israel. Israel then responded with a bombing campaign on the densely populated Gaza strip. After 11 days of fighting, 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, had been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Rocket fire also killed at least 12 people in Israel, including two children.

Though the skies over Gaza have fallen silent, tensions in Sheikh Jarrah have only gotten worse in the past week. Palestinian residents claim that they have been placed “under a siege”, with many scared to leave their homes incase they aren’t allowed back into the neighbourhood.

Israeli authorities and settler organisations have frequently characterised events in Sheikh Jarrah as a “real estate dispute.” In essence a legal, bureaucratic issue and not a political one. For the Palestinians, the situation in Sheikh Jarrah is a microcosm of life in the occupied territories of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) — where they are not afforded the same rights and protections that Israeli citizens are and where the expansion of Israeli settlements since 1967 has fragmented Palestinian communities and dispossessed many families from their homes.

A small neighbourhood with a long history

Sheikh Jarrah derives its name from Hussam al-Din al-Jarrahi, the personal physician to the Islamic general Saladin, whose armies expelled Christian crusaders from Jerusalem in the 12th century. After his death, a tomb was built for al-Jarrahi which later became a shrine that drew Sufis from around the Muslim world.

In the late 19th century, Muslim families began to move outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City and construct the houses and buildings that became the core of the neighbourhood. According to an Ottoman census in 1905, 167 Muslim families lived in the “Sheikh Jarrah” quarter.

Around the same time, Jewish residents built homes near the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, a high priest who lived in Jerusalem during the Hellenic period of the Second Temple. Testimonies from 19th-century travellers show that the tomb was a pilgrimage destination, particularly for Jews from eastern communities.

Sheikh Jarrah after Operation Yevusi (April 1948), a Palmach military operation carried out during the 1948 war to assert Jewish control over Jerusalem (Image: Lion Oz, via Wikimedia Commons).

Yet it was in 1948 that the foundations for the modern battle over Sheikh Jarrah were set. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, roughly 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes by Zionist militias — an event known in the Arab world as the “Nakba” or “catastrophe.” Most Palestinians fled to neighbouring countries where they became refugees, whilst others were internally displaced, forced to relocate to the Palestinian territories.

An agreement in 1956 between the Jordanian government and the UN refugee agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, arranged for 28 Palestinian families to be housed in Sheikh Jarrah. The deal stipulated that the families would renounce their refugee status in return for ownership of the houses after three years.

But that deal was cut short in 1967 after Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Since 1972, Jewish Israeli settler groups have been attempting, with considerable success, to use Israeli courts to evict Palestinian residents from property they claim to be their own. In that year, two Jewish settler groups, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee, filed suits in the Israeli Supreme Court claiming ownership of land in Sheikh Jarrah based on Ottoman-era land deeds.

The groups later transferred the rights to the Nahalat Shimon settler organisation, which has, to this day, worked relentlessly to evict Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah.

Settlers have relied in particular on a 1970 Israeli law which allows Jewish people to reclaim properties their families owned in East Jerusalem before 1948. At the same time, Israeli authorities have denied Palestinians the right to reclaim properties which they left or were expelled from in 1948, by declaring them “absentee properties.”

The efforts of settlers have also largely been supported by Israeli courts. In 1982, Israeli settler groups filed an eviction case against 24 Palestinian families living in Shiekh Jarrah. The families later signed a deal which granted them status as “protected tenants” in return for forfeiting their ownership claims, meaning they couldn’t be evicted so long as they continued to pay rent. But Palestinian residents have since rejected that deal, saying that they were duped by their lawyer into signing it and never agreed to give up ownership.

In the eyes of Israeli courts, Palestinian residents effectively shifted from owners to tenants. A series of forced evictions and home demolitions followed. In 2002, 43 Palestinians were evicted from the area and Israeli settlers took over their properties. In 2009, the Hanoun and Ghawi families were evicted and in 2017 the Shamasneh family was also removed from their home by settlers.

Settlements as a stumbling block

Alongside forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, over decades a pattern of Israeli settlement building has developed in the West Bank. Roughly 250 Israeli settlements have been established across the West Bank since 1967, and some 600,000 settlers now live in the occupied territories. These settlements constrict the already meagre land and resources available to Palestinians and often wall off communities from each other.

View of the Israeli settlement of Har Homa in the background, seen from near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Image: Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

For instance the Israeli government recently approved an expansion of the Har Homa settlement with 540 new housing units, which if implemented would cut off East Jerusalem from Bethlehem and greatly weaken the prospects of any future Palestinian state. An EU statement earlier this month condemned the expansion. Israeli authorities have also backed demolitions of Palestinian homes among Bedouin communities in the north Jordan Valley.

Excluding the United States and Israel, the majority of the international community consider the settlements illegal under international law.

The expansion of settlements also raises the question of whether there is a broader strategy of demographic change at play. Rights groups say that settlements are part of a broader effort to establish a Jewish majority in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, often citing historical and religious ties to the land, yet the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

For their part, some Israeli officials have been quite candid with their visions for neighbourhoods in the occupied territories. The deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Aryeh King, was quoted in a recent New York Times article saying that the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah were “of course” part of a wider strategy of installing “layers of Jews” throughout East Jerusalem. King added that this policy would be “the way to secure the future of Jerusalem as a Jewish capital for the Jewish people.”

From the hills of the West Bank to the homes of East Jerusalem, the settler movement ultimately remains a major stumbling block in any attempts to implement a ‘peace process’. Since the 1993 Oslo accords, the phrase “two-state solution” has been thrown around a lot (often in diplomatic/policy-making circles) — the idea of having two states for two peoples, with an independent Palestinian state nestled alongside Israel.

But when the land is already occupied, when large swathes of settlements carve out craters in an outline of any future Palestinian state, and when Palestinians currently cannot live, work or simply move around with the same freedom that Israeli citizens can, then the picture starts to look less like two potential states and more like one Israeli state. For a majority of Palestinians, the notion of a “two-state solution” seems fundamentally detached from the realities on the ground; or in other words, ‘too little, too late’.        

Social media - a sea change?

One factor that is different now compared to a decade ago is social media. By now most of us will have seen the video (above) showing the response from Israeli settler Yaakov Fauci after Palestinian journalist Muna El-Kurd accused him of stealing her home in Sheikh Jarrah.

The video drew global attention to the plight of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, as well as those in Gaza. Using the hashtags #SaveSheikhJarrah and #GazaUnderAttack, online activists shared images and videos showing, among other things, settler attacks on Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, Israeli police arresting Palestinians in the street, using stun grenades and skunk water on protesters, and the destruction left behind in Gaza. Activism in the digital sphere was also accompanied by pro-Palestine solidarity protests around the world.

These efforts have formed part of wider shifts in the discourse surrounding Israel-Palestine. Progressive democrats such as Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib have been increasingly outspoken in their criticism of Israel. A number of celebrities including Bella Hadid, Mark Ruffalo, Viola Davis and Dua Lipa have openly expressed solidarity with Palestinian people. More broadly, the use of terms like ‘occupation’, ‘apartheid’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ to describe Israel’s policies is becoming more widespread.

Even mainstream democrats, including some usually staunch supporters of Israel — like Senator Robert Menendez — have expressed discomfort with Israeli policies and actions in Gaza.

Yet parallel to these efforts, reports of the censorship of content relating to Palestine across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been skyrocketing recently. Users have reported that social media platforms are suppressing protest hashtags, blocking livestreams, and removing posts and accounts.

The Palestinian and Arab digital rights organisation “7amleh” recently documented more than 500 reports of Palestinian digital rights violations from May 6th-19th. Instagram responded to the accusations saying that the removal of pro-Palestinian content was the result of a broader “technical issue.”

Social media has galvanised an unprecedented amount of people around the world to highlight injustices facing the Palestinian people. Naturally though there are limits to how far social media can affect political and legal changes on the ground. Protests wane, other headlines and causes are thrust into the spotlight and frankly, only so much time can be bought before Israeli courts have to make final decisions.

One thing that can be said is that partly thanks to the ubiquity of social media, any perceptions in Israel that decades of occupation had helped to pacify the West Bank — indeed, any perceptions that young Palestinians would forget the history of previous generations — should by now have been debunked.

The removal of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah has not occurred in a vacuum, but rather within the wider context of Israel’s decades-long dispossession and displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank. The recent ceasefire doesn't change that reality, and so the livelihoods of Palestinians once again hang in the balance.