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East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah—Neo-Colonialism at its Worst

posted on: Mar 31, 2021

Photo electronicintifada

By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Sheikh Jarrah, a community in East Jerusalem, has been home to Palestinian Arabs literally over centuries. Recently, Jewish settlers have used Israeli law to evict them from their community. This situation is a microcosm of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, in which Palestinian rights are being chipped away.

Occupation by Questionable Legal Means

For years now, the Israeli government has been using its interpretation of the law to forcibly evict Palestinian Arabs from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Jewish settler organizations continue to threaten Palestinian families with eviction, including 15 such families in the next few months. This computes to 37 households and 195 individuals. Israeli courts concurred with the settlers’ complaint, including one spawned by a group of settlers registered as a company in the U.S. According to The Electronic Intifada, this organization helped “implement the Israeli government’s colonization of Palestinian properties in Jerusalem.”

Many families who have lived in Sheikh Jarrah have been there for almost 70 years. Some were refugees, moved there in the 1950s by the Jordanian government and the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. They were promised land ownership status but gave up some rights as refugees. Once the Arab countries lost the war of 1967 and Israel came to occupy the eastern part of Jerusalem, it turned out that legal title to the land had never been correctly transferred to the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah.

The absence of correct registration led to the settlers’ legal fight against the Palestinian families and ultimately to evict them. The court ruled against the Palestinians, using an amendment to Israel’s ‘Absentee Property Law of 1950.’ That law allows the government, The Electronic Intifada reported, “to seize land and property owned by Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during and after the Nakba – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias.”

Israeli eviction of Palestinian family from Sheikh Jarrah

Adding insult to injury, an amendment to Israeli law in 1970 permitted Jews to regain properties they had presumably left in Jerusalem in 1948. However, this same right was not afforded to Palestinians for lands they had left behind at that same time. Blatant discrimination is perhaps not a strong enough descriptor to depict the distinction in rights of the victorious and the vanquished. Israeli courts have issued an order for imminent evacuation by Palestinians.

So, while Israel families were allowed to return to the land they fled in 1948, Palestinians were not accorded the same privilege of going back to lands they were forced from in that same year, “exclusively because they are not Jewish.”

A complicated history of a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem

Sheikh Jarrah was named after a 13th century personal physician to the famous warrior, Saladin. The Sheikh’s tomb was a physical marker for a neighborhood that became the center of a neighborhood, which much later, in 1865 became the residential core of Jerusalem’s Muslim elite. One family became the hub of the area, the al-Husaini’s. Once 1948 came into play, Sheikh Jarrah found itself between a rock and a hard place, straddling Jordanian-held East Jerusalem and Israeli-held West Jerusalem.

By the early 1900s, according to an Ottoman census, the Husaini family comprised a major portion of Sheikh Jarrah community. 167 Muslim families resided peacefully along side 97 Jewish and six Christian families. The community had the largest number of Muslims outside the Old City of Jerusalem. As a result of the 1948 war, the community was caught in a void dividing West Jerusalem and the Israel section called Mount Scopus.

Palestinian Arabs were living in Sheikh Jarrah as early as the 12th century Photo eastjerusalemdiaries

The 1967 six-day war resulted in Israeli capture of East Jerusalem, including Sheikh Jarrah. In 1972, Jewish settlement groups, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Yisrael Community, placed a claim on their properties in the community. By 1982, the Supreme Court of Israel granted their claim after which these settlement groups started treating Palestinian residents as tenants, who were allowed to stay so long as they paid rent.

Authenticity of land ownership was contested, based on whether one believed one set of Ottoman Empire documents or another. The court came down in favor of the set favoring the Sephardim versus Palestinian owners.

Even the U.S. State Department labeled that court decision a violation of the U.S.-Israeli-Palestine ‘Road Map for Peace.’

But a Jerusalem municipal council representative retorted, “This is a matter of the court. It is a civil dispute between Palestinian families and those of Israeli settlers, regarding who is the rightful owner of this property… Israeli law is the only law we are obliged to obey.”

The Palestinian perspective on Sheikh Jarrah–legal justification for ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem

What we’ve seen in the above story of the dispossession of Palestinians of land that has been historically contested for almost a century, is an example of a classic neo-colonial situation of occupation. It fits well with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2019 announcement of his intention to annex almost one-third of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. His intention to grab a chunk of Palestine formally and illegally was fully, gleefully supported by then-President Trump.

Israel’s Supreme Court is accused of racism over Palestinian evictions Photo The Daily Telegraph

Palestinians see from their side, reported by news and opinion source CounterPunch, “Israeli soldiers, army bulldozers and illegal armed Jewish settlers are carrying out daily missions of evicting Palestinian families, displacing farmers, burning orchards, demolishing homes and confiscating land. On the other side, Palestinian civilians, often disorganized, unprotected and leaderless, are fighting back.”

Palestinian supporters see the situation in Sheikh Jarrah as a perfect example of West Bank occupation by the Israeli military. According to CounterPunch, “No other place represents the perfect microcosm of this uneven war like that of the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem.” Israeli courts have enforced the eviction of Palestinians who have resided in the area for decades.

The Israeli occupation aims through eviction to “cleanse” East Jerusalem of Palestinian Arabs, in the face of some strong international criticism, to ensure that Jerusalem becomes the “eternal and undivided capital of Israel.”

So far in his presidency, however, President Biden has not spoken of the deplorable Sheikh Jarrah situation.

Concluding on a pessimistic note, quoting CounterPunch, “While the Israeli State claims to play an impartial role in this scheme, it is actually the facilitator of the entire process. The final outcome manifests in the ever-predictable scene, where an Israeli flag is triumphantly hoisted over a Palestinian home and a Palestinian family is assigned an UN-supplied tent and a few blankets.”

Now, Arab American friends, that is one bleak picture.


“The ongoing Nakba in Jerusalem,” The Electronic Intifada, 3/28/2021

“Sheikh Jarrah (Arabic: الشيخ جراح‎),” Wikipedia 12/22/2020

“The Nakba of Sheikh Jarrah–How Israel Uses’ the Law’ to Ethnically Cleanse East Jerusalem,” CounterPunch, 3/26/2021

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an official in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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