Palestinian Nakba and trouble in East Jerusalem at Sheikh Jarrah—how little has changed since 1948
By John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
In commemorating this day of catastrophe—the founding of the State of Israel—over many years, Israelis and Palestinians have often clashed violently, causing death and injury. This year is no exception. This time it is the continuing battle over Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood from which the Israeli government has been trying to forcibly evict Palestinian Arabs. As Palestinians protested Israel’s eviction plans, Israeli forces attacked them as they worshipped at al-Aqsa Mosque. Reaction to Israeli force attacks on Palestinians has been strong, except for the U.S., which, of course, placed no blame on Israel. Contributing writer, John Mason, reviews the 2021 version of Nakba.
Nakba, the ‘Day of Catastrophe,’ observed on May 15, now ongoing for 73 years
Nakba is the day of the founding of the Israeli state, commemorated every 15th of May by Palestinians as the day they lost land they still consider their own. It is also the day commemorating the aftershock of World War II when the Palestinians were displaced by the State of Israel. According to news source, The Independent, “Nakba” is the Arabic word for “catastrophe” or “disaster” and the occasion remembers the 700,000 Palestinians forced to flee because of the 1948 Arab Israeli War and seek refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, often without citizenship being granted.” The May 15 date is roughly that of Israel’s Independence Day of May 1948.
Palestinians have usually memorialized Nakba Day in rallies, speeches, and marches in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. During marches, Palestinians would wield house keys and other symbols of home ownership and visit villages deserted long ago from which they are forbidden to return to. Due to Covid, this year marches and rallies were cancelled, pushing Palestinians to use the internet to note the anniversary and take tours online as substitutes for actual visits.
In commemorating this day of disaster over many years, Israelis and Palestinians have often clashed violently, causing death and injury. As recently as 2017, significant violence broke out in the West Bank town of Ramallah and in Bethlehem, with Israeli soldiers using rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas against stone-throwing Palestinians. Many Palestinians residing outside of Israel and the Occupied Territories believe to this day that they are refugees, “victims of ethnic cleansing during the 1948 conflict and insist on their right to return to territory they consider their homeland.”
The Nakba of Sheikh Jarrah—Israel’s ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem
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.”
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 Israeli 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.”
Israel exploits Sheikh Jarrah’s complicated history
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.
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 could 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.”
Reactions to Israeli heavy-handed attacks on Palestinian protests over Sheikh Jarrah
As Palestinians protested Israel’s plans to evict Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, Israel forces attacked them as they worshipped at al-Aqsa Mosque. Over 200 Palestinians were injured as they exercised their right to worship at Islam’s third holiest site, as reported by the Palestinian Red Crescent. This confrontation with Israeli forces occurred on the sacred ‘Laylat al-Qadr’ or the Night of Decree, the Muslim belief about the night when the Quran was first sent down from heaven and revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. This sacred night also coincides with the end of the month of fast, Ramadan.
Reaction to Israeli force attacks on Palestinians has been strong. Many critics see the situation there as a continuation of the original Nakba. According to a Middle East Eye (MEE) interview, “It is becoming clear to us that the Biden administration, as we thought, doesn’t see any problem with Israeli occupation, but simply problems with certain bad acts.” Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, is quoted saying “Washington’s statement of ‘bothsidesism’ fails to acknowledge America’s own role in the conflict. Abuznaid further noted that the weak U.S. response to the Al-Aqsa attack allows both the U.S. government and Department of State and Israel to get off the hook lightly.
In fairness, the State Department message did raise the issue of “displacement in East Jerusalem, settlement expansion and home demolition, but Palestinian rights activists say the language fell far short of calling for accountability.” These rights activists responded, “We are also deeply concerned about the potential eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods of Jerusalem, many of whom have lived in their homes for generations.”
A somewhat different perspective on the issues raised over Sheikh Jarrah was voiced by members of the U.S. Congress. Senator Elizabeth Warren was sharp in her criticism, noting that “The forced removal of long-time Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah is abhorrent and unacceptable. “The Administration should make clear to the Israeli government that these evictions are illegal and must stop immediately.” Warren’s fellow New England Senator Bernie Saunders tweeted, “The United States must speak out strongly against the violence by government-allied Israeli extremists in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and make clear that the evictions of Palestinian families must not go forward.”
Residents of Sheikh Jarrah have spoken eloquently about their commitment to remaining in their homes and neighborhood. One such resident a teenager, noted, “There’s a new generation that is fearless and we will not give up on our neighborhood, we’re not scared of being arrested or being shot.” In the past week, many Palestinians have gathered in Sheikh Jarrah each evening for the iftar meal breaking the Ramadan fast, thereby showing their solidarity with the Palestinian residents there. One resident even opened her home to the protesters, providing them with water and an escape from tear gas dispersed by Israeli forces. When Israeli police tried to force their way into her house to arrest the protesters, she blocked their way at the door.
A U.S. State Department statement on Friday urged “both sides to exercise decisive leadership,” aimed at quelling the violence. The tepid character of the statement concerned Palestinian rights activists, especially since it did not condemn Israel’s attempts to displace Palestinians arbitrarily. National organizer for the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Jinan Deena, was quoted in MEE, saying the U.S. statement amounted to a “blatant disregard” of Israeli abuses and that “Labelling this as ‘confrontations’ deliberately moves the narrative from apartheid to one that is ‘both sides’.” She was further quoted, saying “Let me be clear: There is no both sides here. Palestinians are under occupation, and the United States has systematically supported this – whether through funding Israel’s military with our tax dollars or narratives such as this where blame is placed on both sides.”
Israel’s Supreme Court has recently delayed a judgement on eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah. This has done nothing, however, to calm tensions of the families there, as they continue their battle to remain in homes they have owned and lived in over several generations.
“Nakba Day: What is the Annual ‘Day of Catastrophe’ observed by Palestinians,” Independent, 4/15/2020
“The ongoing Nakba in Jerusalem,” The Electronic Intifada, 3/28/2021
“The Nakba of Sheikh Jarrah–How Israel Uses’ the Law’ to Ethnically Cleanse East Jerusalem,” CounterPunch, 3/26/2021
“Jerusalem: Biden administration’s ‘bothsidesism’ angers Palestinians,” Middle East Eye, 5/9/2021
“Delayed Supreme Court judgement does nothing to calm tensions as Palestinian families fight for right to stay in homes they have owned for generations,” Middle East Eye, 5/7/2021
John Mason, PhD., 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 advisor 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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