Sheikh Jarrah crisis and reining in the Jewish far right

Osama al sharif
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. (Photo: Jordan News)
Less than a year after Israel and Hamas went to war over Jewish settlers’ attempts to evict Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, the East Jerusalem district is once more the epicenter of clashes that could lead to another bloody confrontation.اضافة اعلان

A Palestinian man holds a Palestinian flag confronting Israeli settlers with an Israeli flag while an activist dressed as a clown stands in between, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on February 13, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

The May 2021 showdown dealt a heavy blow to Gaza civilians, but it also uncovered deep fissures within the 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 capabilities to launch missiles against Tel Aviv and other cities.

Jewish settler terrorism against Palestinians has been rising in recent years, especially since the openly racist Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzmah Yehudit party, was elected to Knesset last year. His party is directly linked to Kach, the party formed by the Jewish terrorist Meir Kahane. Now Ben-Gvir is at the center of the recent crisis that erupted in Sheikh Jarrah.

Last Sunday, Ben-Gvir set up a makeshift “office” on an empty plot of land next to Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah. He had vowed to clear the neighborhood of Palestinian “terrorists”, saying that Jews are the true landlords of the disputed neighborhood.

Why is it disputed? Because two Jewish settler groups had filed court cases alleging that many of the plots of land and houses in the neighborhood had been owned by Jews before 1948. They claim that after the 1948 war, when East Jerusalem was saved from Israeli occupation by Jordan, the land and buildings were given to Palestinians who were displaced from a Jerusalem neighborhood that was captured by Israel.

Under Israeli discriminatory 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, Israeli courts suspended motions to carry out evictions for some time. But in January, it did approve the eviction of the Salhiya family, whose house was immediately demolished. Once more there was an international backlash, with the European Union and UK warning that evictions in occupied territory were illegal under international law. Israel, as usual, ignored the denunciations.

Since East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel, a number of illegal settlements were built to separate the city from the West Bank. Also, a number of Jewish neighborhoods were built on expropriated lands to surround and cut off Palestinian neighborhoods from the Old City.
The reality is that the Israel’s right wing will increase its political representation with each election cycle and with that, it will push to provoke more encounters with the Palestinians, in Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

While Jerusalem’s Arab residents carry the Israeli ID card, they do not have equal rights with 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 in peril, like the Silwan district that is home to more than 35,000 Palestinians. Its proximity to the Old City and the 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 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 were allowed to breach Al-Aqsa Mosque on almost daily basis, provoking worshipers and leading to frequent clashes.

After Sunday’s clashes between Ben-Gvir’s followers and residents of Sheikh Jarrah, the racist MP vowed to return to the area and set up his so-called office once more. That he did on Monday, and tension 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 Israel’s right wing will increase its political representation with each election cycle and with that, it will push to provoke more encounters with the Palestinians, in Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

Since 1967, Jewish settler population in East Jerusalem has grown from zero to over 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 Arab residents of East Jerusalem, just as much as it had failed to stop settlement building in the West Bank, it is the international community – and Israel’s new found Arab friends – that are expected to put meaningful pressure to halt evictions and settlement building. 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 that could push toward the unraveling of the state.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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