OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Sheikh Jarrah: It’s not about real estate

The four Arab families living in Jewish-owned homes in Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon HaTzadik are part of a political game. The “property dispute” is really a war between narratives about Jerusalem.

Arabs and left-wing activists protest against the eviction of Arab families from Jewish-owned homes in the eastern Jerusalem, neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. April 16, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Arabs and left-wing activists protest against the eviction of Arab families from Jewish-owned homes in the eastern Jerusalem, neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. April 16, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.

If the Palestinians living in the Jewish-owned homes in Jerusalem’s Shimon HaTzadik/Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood weren’t facing political pressure, at least some of them might be willing to accept the generous compensation package Israel’s High Court of Justice offered them last week.

After two previous legal processes ended in rulings that they had to leave the homes, the High Court last week proposed that the Ja’uni, al-Kurd, Skafi and Abu Hasna families (who appealed the previous rulings) recognize that the compound belongs to Jews, in exchange for being awarded protected residency status in the Jewish area of Shimon HaTzadik that would apply to themselves, their children and their grandchildren. Moreover, they would have to pay only a symbolic “rent” of 1,500 shekels ($465) per year.

The presiding justices, Yitzhak Amit, Dafna Erez-Barak and Noam Solberg, did everything they could to safely disarm the bomb that had landed in their laps. The discussion of the case took place during riots and attacks on Jewish homes in Shimon HaTzadik, and the subsequent rocket attacks on Israel, “Operation Guardian of the Walls” and rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, and it appeared as if the judges were going out of their way to avoid forcing the Arab families out of the homes, where they have lived for decades.

But the four families who petitioned the High Court haven’t been acting solely on their own behalf for some time. They have become a leading symbol of the Palestinian narrative regarding Jerusalem, cultural heroes in a story that puts both sides back in 1948. From this perspective, Sheikh Jarrah, like Palestine as a whole, is forever the property of the Muslim Waqf and must be liberated. But from the Jewish perspective, this is the site of the grave of High Priest Simeon the Just—which was legally purchased from Arab owners 145 years ago— lies, and the place from which Jews were expelled by bloody rioting before the state was founded.

Last week, the judges tried, in vain, to gloss over this aspect of the dispute. The Palestinian side repeatedly rejected their proposed compromise.

Behind the scenes of the court’s show of mediation, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement are pressuring the Arab residents of the compound not to accept any compromise that includes recognizing the Jewish ownership of the 17 dunams (4.2 acres) surrounding the grave of Shimon HaTzadik.

On the Jewish side, the Nahalat Shimon International company, which in 2007 purchased the land from the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee (who bought it in 1876), is inclined to look favorably on the compromise and supposedly has good reason to do so. According to the judges’ proposal, the families’ “protected residency” status would last for three generations—but if and when the Jewish owners receive a building permit, they will apparently be able to evict the residents immediately, meaning the compromise won’t hold water.

To offer the Palestinians a way out of the corner into which they backed themselves, and let the families keep living in the compound for at least a few more years, last week Israeli diplomats in Washington enlisted their U.S. counterparts to push the Palestinians to adopt the court’s compromise.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry took this step after the U.S. State Department made it clear to Israel that the United States opposes evicting the Arab families from the disputed compound, even though it is owned by Jews and courts have ruled to that effect because the residents are families who have lived there for decades. Israel initially informed the United States that the matter was solely in the hands of the court, but the Americans continued to press.

In response, Israel presented the judges’ proposal for a compromise as the lesser evil and a fair offer that could calm the neighborhood. Israel also hinted that there was a good chance that the Jewish party to this so-called “real estate dispute” would accept the deal and that therefore, pressure should be applied to the Palestinians by removing the threat from the P.A. and Hamas, allowing them to make a decision freely.

There’s not much chance this joint Israeli-American move will succeed, but for now, it’s the only game in town, or more precisely, this small and volatile corner of Jerusalem that lies on the way to Mount Scopus.

Jordan is involved, as well. The Hashemite Kingdom sent the Palestinians in Jerusalem documents supposedly showing that prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, a process had begun to transfer ownership to the Arab residents. The Jordanian documents were submitted to the High Court of Justice and it’s not clear whether or not they will affect the judges’ final decision. The people from Nahalat Shimon International say that the Jordanians’ claim is fictitious and that there is no document that connects the petitioners to the property.

Either way, Israel and the United States are trying to bring Jordan into the affair, hoping that Amman will pressure the Palestinians to accept the compromise. Meanwhile, the whole matter appears to be at an impasse, but the Biden administration isn’t giving up. Washington is very active in the Sheikh Jarrah dispute, trying to stop Jewish settlement there, just like it is trying to stop other Jewish settlement activity in Jerusalem.

The U.S. administration has informed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz that it opposes not only evicting the Arab families living in Shimon HaTzadik, but also the construction of another neighborhood on Har Homa, construction in the E1 region between Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem, construction in Atarot and the implementation of an already approved plan to build a new Jewish neighborhood in Givat Hamatos. President Biden spoke with Bennett about Har Homa and mentioned the U.S. objection to similar initiatives, which he said he saw as “establishing facts on the ground that could torpedo any future peace deal.”

We don’t know how Bennett responded, but one thing is clear—just like under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel still isn’t building the final stage of the Har Homa neighborhood, or in Atarot, or in E1 or Givat Hamatos, and is not evacuating any more Arab families from Shimon HaTzadik, which is already home to 22 Jewish families.

But now, the diplomatic dispute has been transferred to the courtroom. In one recent discussion, Erez-Barak almost begged the representatives of the Arab families not to turn the legal discussion into a “history lesson.”

Justice Amit suggested the families adopt what he called an approach of “constructive diplomacy.”

“We will write,” he said, “That the petitioners declare that they are the protected residents and that the defendant [Nahalat Shimon] is the registered owner, and thus we will solve the problem. That will give us a few more good years. By that time, either peace will break out, or an agreement will be reached about the land,” he said.

“People need to keep living there. Forget about declarations. We are looking for a practical solution,” he continued.

But thus far, the Palestinians are refusing. Last week, they were supposed to submit to the court a list of the names of the residents of the compound and their legal statuses. They might ask for another hearing about the compromise, and try to improve it.

The Palestinians see the battle for the Sheikh Jarrah compound in terms of the continuity Israel wants to create between western Jerusalem and Mount Scopus, which was cut off from Israel for 19 years until it was liberated in 1967. That was when the Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus resumed operations.

The grave of Shimon HaTzadik—around which a small Jewish neighborhood was established that existed until the War of Independence—and the adjacent Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah are hardly at the far edge of eastern Jerusalem. This is a populated area that straddles the seam line in the city and is located near the national headquarters of the Israel Police, several hotels, a large Clalit Health Services community clinic, and 3,345 dunams (826 acres) of land that the government confiscated from local Jews and Arabs after the 1967 Six-Day War.

For years, Israeli city planners and Jerusalem city officials saw this area as a vital part of the urban continuity that connected the western half of the city to Mount Scopus. This swath includes Ramat Eshkol, Sanhedria, French Hill and Maalot Dafna. Tens of thousands of Israelis currently live there. The Palestinians, on the other hand, who never stop talking about the eastern half of the city as their future capital, want to strike a blow to that continuity. The Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah have become part of these “war games,” and just like the Jews vow that “Shimon HaTzadik will not fall again,” they swear that “Sheikh Jarrah will not fall again.”

Until 1929, Jews and Arabs living in the area enjoyed tolerably good relations. Then the 1929 riots broke out, and Muslims burst out of Damascus Gate and attacked the homes in the small Jewish neighborhoods across the street from it, not far from Shimon HaTzadik—in particular, the Nissan Beck home. They murdered 19 Jews, including the mother of then-infant Shmuel Tzefania, who was found next to his mother’s body. Years later, Tzefania would lead the renewed settlement in Shimon HaTzadik. He died a few years ago.

The Arabs tried to force the Jews out of Shimon HaTzadik itself, first in 1929 and again in the riots of 1936. Just before the state was established, they succeeded. The British forced the Jews to leave Shimon HaTzadik after Arab rioters murdered three residents. A month after that eviction, an Arab mob slaughtered a group of 78 doctors and nurses who were on their way to the besieged Mount Scopus hospital. The Hadassah Convoy massacre took place near the abandoned Jewish neighborhood, not far from the home of Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who would become Hitler’s partner in the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people.

Unfortunately for the High Court judges, the discussions in their air-conditioned courtroom touch on more than legal issues. Even if the two historical narratives, one Jewish and one Palestinian, serve as set dressing, they are what makes this issue so volatile.

Hamas, incidentally, has already renewed its threats to launch a new wave of violence on Israel’s southern border and in Sheikh Jarrah if the justices do not rule in favor of the Palestinians. At the same time, JNF-KKL is moving ahead with the registration of dozens of properties currently managed by the Israeli Custodian General as owned by Jews. Like the property in Shimon HaTzadik, they were transferred to the custodian general by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property. Things certainly won’t be dull here in the next few months.

Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates