Sheikh Jarrah and After

Tareq Baconi

The Israeli foreign ministry has described what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah as a real estate dispute. Four Palestinian households are facing immediate eviction (there are at least 27 families in similar battles) to make way for the right-wing settler group Lahav Shomron, which acquired the land from Jewish trusts that bought it in the Ottoman era, a provenance that has been upheld by Israeli courts. The settlers say they are replacing Arab squatters; the Palestinians were settled in the area as refugees in 1957, when it was under Jordanian control. The matter has been making its way through the Israeli legal system for years and on Monday, 10 May, the Supreme Court was slated to issue its verdict.

Palestinians dismiss the term ‘squatting’ as ludicrous. The only way to explain events on the ground, they say, is as settler-colonialism: Israel is dispossessing indigenous Palestinians of houses they have lived in for generations. Palestinians dispute the ownership claims of the settler groups, arguing that Israeli courts have no jurisdiction over occupied territory according to international law – a plausible claim, as the seizure of property and transfer of populations by an occupying power is a war crime under the Rome Statute.

Israel’s Supreme Court is implicated in the state’s expansionist project. B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights organisation, argued in 2019 that the high court bears responsibility for home demolitions and the dispossession of Palestinians, calling their proceedings ‘fake justice’ that gives state crimes a veneer of legitimacy. The Palestinian families slated for expulsion from Sheikh Jarrah say the Israeli courts offered them no way to contest the Jewish settlers’ claims to their land, to which they too have deeds.

It is true that many of the Palestinians facing forcible transfer from Sheikh Jarrah settled in the neighbourhood after being expelled from their homes elsewhere in 1948. But many Jewish families now live in houses or on land that belonged to Palestinians before the Nakba. Should the Israeli court set a precedent for the reclaiming of property based on Ottoman-era ownership deeds, you might think that Jewish families across West Jerusalem and beyond would have as much to fear as Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah. They don’t, though: Israel’s legal system protects the land claims of Jews but not Palestinians.

Since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency of more than 14,500 Palestinian Jerusalemites, carried out extensive home demolitions (more than a thousand housing units since 2004), severely under-allocated municipal funds for Palestinian areas, and built a wall that integrates Jewish settlements outside the city’s municipal borders into Jerusalem while excising four Palestinian neighbourhoods that are within the municipal boundaries.

A number of factors combined to make the forced expulsions from Sheikh Jarrah explosive. The verdict was set to be announced days before the anniversary of the Nakba, towards the end of Ramadan, just before Eid. At the beginning of the holy month, Israel had blocked off the seating area next to the Damascus Gate, an important Palestinian gathering space, which created a bottleneck at an entrance to the Old City and along a route to the Holy Esplanade (Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount). This led to violence: young Palestinians filmed an attack on a Haredi man and posted it on social media; Jewish extremists assaulted Palestinians.

Throughout, Israel’s political establishment remained locked in coalition negotiations after a fourth inconclusive election. The Palestinian Authority had just indefinitely postponed its elections, with President Mahmoud Abbas citing Israel’s refusal to allow Jerusalemites to vote as the principal reason, though many Palestinians interpreted it as a ploy for stopping elections that Fatah seemed unlikely to win.

In this tense environment, the residents of Sheikh Jarrah mobilised to resist their expulsion. A week ago, on the Friday before the verdict, the last Friday before the end of Ramadan, thousands of Palestinians congregated in Jerusalem to pray in al-Aqsa Mosque and to stand in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah.

The protests included mass iftar meals and praying as well as instances of shoe, chair and rock-throwing. Israeli forces responded with sponge-coated bullets, skunk water, tear gas and stun grenades. Over the weekend, more than 250 Palestinians were injured in Sheikh Jarrah alone. Monday was Jerusalem Day, when Israelis have a parade to celebrate what they see as the 1967 reunification of East and West Jerusalem. Israeli police broke into the Holy Esplanade and desecrated the mosque. Jewish settlers roamed the city streets, wielding machine guns with the full protection of the state.

Some international actors called on Israel to refrain from the expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah; others called on both sides to de-escalate. The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, offered the usual tepid remarks, but the progressive wing of the Democratic Party spoke in terms rarely heard on Capitol Hill: Ilhan Omar described Israel’s actions as a form of ethnic cleansing, Rashida Tlaib referred to them as apartheid, and members of Congress beyond the so-called squad also released strong statements.

Such language may be new in Washington, but Palestinians have always placed specific instances of ‘eviction’ in a continuum of dispossession dating back to the land and labour practices of the yishuv, the community of Jewish settlers in Palestine before 1948. The Green Line has long served as a temporal and geographic divide for the US, the EU and the UN. In their view, colonisation west of the Green Line, before 1967, was legitimate – often referred to in diplo-speak as ‘Israel proper’ – while further settlement east of the Green Line since 1967 was deemed illegal.

This claim, now enshrined in UN resolutions and agreed to by the Palestinian leadership in the 1993 Oslo Accords as a pragmatic compromise, is predicated on the notion that the line would serve as a guide for eventual partition into two states. Yet prospects for partition have receded dramatically, primarily because of Israel’s de facto annexation of Palestinian territory. This partly explains why B’Tselem, mirroring analysis put forward by many segments of Palestinian society, argued earlier this year that there is no separation between the Israeli state and its military occupation: the two constitute a single apartheid regime aimed at maintaining Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea. In April, Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing Israel of ‘the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution’.

As the protests in Jerusalem unfolded, Palestinians in Lydd, the Naqab, Haifa, Umm al Fahem and Nazareth – all areas that fall west of the line and are ‘Israeli’ by the logic of partition – erupted in support of Sheikh Jarrah, as they did in Nablus, Hebron and throughout the West Bank and the diaspora. They forced a delay of the Supreme Court decision and a rerouting of the Jerusalem Day parade. The march still took place and ended in the plaza by the Wailing Wall. Palestinians meanwhile had a celebration of their own, rejoicing that their mass mobilisation had notched up a victory, however temporary.

The Gaza Strip has been cut off from the rest of the Palestinian territories by a fifteen-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade. On Monday, Hamas issued an ultimatum for Israeli forces to evacuate al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah by 6 p.m. The warning was ignored and a series of rocket barrages from Gaza followed. Israel retaliated with airstrikes; hours after Hamas’s first rockets, Israeli air raids killed 26 Palestinians in Gaza, including nine children. Hamas showed no sign of backing down. It displayed advances in rocket technology, firing more in each volley than in the past and demonstrating a new ability to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system. They have wreaked serious damage on Israel, killing eight civilians.

Palestinians are divided over Hamas’s rockets. Some see them as a sign of a Palestinian military force rallying to their protection, unlike the leadership in the West Bank, which was not only conspicuously silent as events in Jerusalem unfolded, but suppressed solidarity protests in Hebron and elsewhere. Others view the barrages as a cynical effort by Hamas to co-opt the success of grassroots movements in Jerusalem and elsewhere. And many worry that Gaza is once again paying the price, with 119 Palestinians killed, including 28 children. For their part, Hamas and other armed factions in Gaza do not believe that popular protest can change the balance of power on the ground unless backed by force. Politically, Hamas has little to lose and much to gain from the escalation.

More than Hamas’s rockets, though, the real story of this conflict may turn out to be the mobilisation of Palestinian citizens of Israel in Akka, Lydd, Ramle and Haifa. As Jerusalem and Gaza erupted, Jewish mobs, in many cases protected by state security forces, roved around cities in Israel, attacking and lynching Palestinians in the street or trying to break into their homes. Palestinians continued to stage protests, burned tyres, attacked Jews and torched synagogues. For the first time since 1966, the Israeli government imposed martial law on Lydd, underscoring that Palestinians remain military subjects across the land. They are calling for Gaza to be protected from Israeli retribution and Jerusalem from further colonisation. They are also protesting against the dispossession, systematic racism and colonial violence that they experience, like Palestinians elsewhere. Just as Sheikh Jarrah’s residents are being dispossessed today, many Palestinian citizens of Israel saw their land and property expropriated by the newly created state seventy years ago. Today, more than 93 per cent of land in Israel is controlled by the Israeli Land Administration, most of it allocated to Jews.

However the current situation ends, two lessons have emerged. First, the quiescence of the Palestinian people – accused, often most forcefully from within their own communities, of apathy and indifference – never amounted to acceptance of defeat. They have shown that Israel cannot persist in its policies without paying a price. Second, regardless of whether a broader movement emerges out of the current moment, the collective eruption across historical Palestine shows that the Palestinians remain a people, despite the false hope of partition, the all-too-real separation of their territories, and the deep fragmentation of their political and social life. They may argue about Hamas’s armed resistance or peaceful protest in Sheikh Jarrah. But tactical disagreements ought not to obscure their clear understanding that they are fighting for their freedom against a single regime of domination.