On the 104th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, four Palestinian families, acting under pressure from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, reminded us why the conflict between Jews and Arabs has never been resolved in all these years. Instead of accepting an extraordinary offer from Israel’s Supreme Court, which would have protected them from eviction from homes they do not own and for which they have refused to pay rent, they preferred to continue a fight in which they don’t have a legal leg to stand on.
That the four families stand to suffer from this decision is obvious. Equally obvious is that their suffering is exactly what the Palestinian Authority and Hamas want since their only interest in a rather straightforward property dispute is to ensure that Palestinians be seen as being abused by Israel. It’s part of their commitment to carrying on a futile struggle that dates back to Nov. 2, 1917. That’s when the British government’s promise to support the creation of a “national home” for the Jewish people was going to mean that the Arab population of what was soon to be the British Mandate for Palestine was going to have to compromise and accept that the Jewish return to their ancient homeland was not going to be stopped.
That’s the context for the latest development in the contentious legal wrangle over ownership of four homes in the Sheikh Jarrah section of Jerusalem that, according to The New York Times, led to the 11-day conflict in May of this year, started when Hamas and other terror factions in the Gaza Strip started firing rockets into Israeli population centers (a total of more than 4,000 by the time a ceasefire was in place on May 22). The claim that Hamas was seeking to defend the rights of oppressed Palestinians who were being dispossessed by diabolical Israeli settlers is itself as much of a lie as much of the Arab rhetoric that revolves around the court case.
The Sheikh Jarrah dispute had been dragging on in Israeli courts for decades as the Jewish owners of the property sought to get the Palestinians living in the homes to either move out or pay rent. It only became a cause célèbre when P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas decided to go back on his promise to give Palestinians in the West Bank a chance to vote out his despotic and corrupt government and to continue in his 17th year of power in the four-year term of office to which he was elected in 2005.
Looking, as he has done many times before, for a way to divert Palestinians from his misrule, he seized on the Sheikh Jarrah case. Hamas followed suit and one-upped Abbas by seeking to terrorize Israel’s people with a massive rocket barrage to demonstrate that they were even more committed to fighting the Jews, even if that meant more suffering for Gazans.
But the real lie is the notion, taken up by “human rights” groups that seek to demonize Israel, as well as media sources like the Times, which faithfully repeat the narrative about Jewish settlers stealing land and downtrodden Palestinians being dispossessed by their Zionist colonialism.
The neighborhood, also known as Shimon HaTzadik—after the nearby tomb of “Simeon the Just,” a Second Temple figure mentioned in the Mishnah—was founded in 1890 by Jews who bought the land on which they were built. Its Jewish residents lived there until they were forced out of their homes by the invasion of the country by the forces of Transjordan, now Jordan, during the 1948 War of Independence. Its Arab Legion succeeded in taking parts of the city, which Jordan illegally occupied until the Six-Day War in 1967. The Jews who lived in those areas, such as the residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem or the nearby villages of the Kfar Etzion bloc, were either killed or kicked out.
The four Arab families at the center of the current controversy came into possession of these homes when they were given to them by the Jordanian government. But once Israel united the city in 1967, its courts have let the case drag on for decades as the Jewish trust that owns the property sought to have the current residents acknowledge their property rights and either pay rent or move out.
The facts of the case are straightforward. But conscious of the way the international media has portrayed the Arab as victims, Israel’s Supreme Court has sought to craft a compromise. That this goes far beyond its legal mandate is in keeping with the way that Israel’s judiciary has sought to grab power unfettered by actual laws in order to advance the political agenda of the judges. The Arab families can count on some support from many on the Israeli left and the legal establishment because they regard upholding the property rights of Jews in the areas formerly occupied by Jordan as a dangerous attack on the status quo in the city.
They, and foreign critics of Israel, are quick to note that Jews have a right to reclaim properties lost in 1948, but Arabs who fled their homes in anticipation of the destruction of the newborn state do not. It is hardly unreasonable that there should be some consequences for launching a genocidal war such as the one hatched by the Arabs in 1948, in addition to the one in 1967, in which Israel also triumphed. Nor can the approximately 800,000 Jews were forced to flee their homes in the Arab world after 1948 and were resettled in Israel and the West reclaim their stolen property.
Rather than uphold the property rights of the Jewish owners, the Israeli Supreme Court made the Arab families an offer that they shouldn’t have refused. It would allow them to stay in place by paying minimal rents and a fraction of the legal costs of their opponents while still giving them the right to have the case reopened by Israel’s Ministry of Justice, and also providing them extra legal protections that would guarantee that they couldn’t be evicted.
Pressured by the terrorist groups and corrupt officials that control Palestinian political life, the families turned it down with a statement that claimed that any effort to restore the property rights of the actual owners was a “crime” that was a matter of “ethnic cleansing perpetrated by a settler-colonial judiciary and its settlers.”
The language used here matters. It’s not just that their claim of “ethnic cleansing” is ironic because the only reason Arabs are living in these homes is due to the fact that Jews themselves were ethnically cleansed from parts of their ancient capital in 1948. It’s that they regard the State of Israel and its liberal Supreme Court as “settlers” that are no different from the most extreme Jewish residents of the most remote hilltop settlement deep in the West Bank. No wonder Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh praised their stand by saying, “We will not allow the occupation courts to extract by trickery what they were unable to extract in war. You do not need to deal with their offers as they are an illegal entry on our land.”
This is important because it shows that those American Jews who have spoken out to criticize the potential eviction of the Arab squatters are not upholding some abstract principle of human rights, but backing a rejectionist ideology that regards every Jew and even the most liberal Jewish institutions in any part of Israel as illegal occupiers of stolen land.
Whether or not you hold onto the fantasy of a two-state solution that Palestinians have rejected time and again, or think the idea of Jews moving into areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank that have an Arab majority is unwise, sympathy for the Sheikh Jarrah families is unwarranted. Their goal—and that of the forces manipulating them—is not coexistence or peace, but an endless cycle of violence and war that must end in Israel’s destruction. Israel’s courts should not hesitate to enforce the rights of Jews to property in Jerusalem, and American Jews should not be fooled into thinking support for the squatters will advance the cause of peace.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.