How Evictions in Jerusalem Led to Israeli-Palestinian Violence
Tensions over Israeli treatment of Palestinians in Jerusalem have spurred the worst violence between the two sides in years, but the eruption seems unlikely to prompt a strong international reaction.
What’s driving the recent tensions in East Jerusalem? Why did they escalate so sharply?
Trouble has been brewing in Jerusalem for the past month. A combination of Arab attacks on Israeli Jews in the city; restrictions the police placed on Palestinians attempting to gather near Damascus Gate—a main entryway into the Old City—during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan; and a march through the city by a group called Lehava, whose supporters chanted “death to the Arabs,” all contributed to the tension that has spread across Israel. In isolation, each of these incidents was not unusual; however, they came at the same time as Israel’s courts paved the way for the evictions of six Palestinian families from a neighborhood in East Jerusalem called Sheikh Jarrah, and for Jewish families to move into those homes.
Israeli authorities emphasize that the situation in Sheikh Jarrah is a private real-estate dispute. That is accurate, but it only explains part of the story. Pro-Israel organizations have sought to change the demographics of East Jerusalem—which is predominantly Arab—for many years, taking their cues from successive Israeli governments that emphasized Israel’s right to build within its own capital. Israeli law permits Jews to reclaim property that they or their families owned in Jerusalem prior to the division of the city after Israel’s establishment in 1948, provided that they can prove ownership of the land. For their part, Palestinians cannot claim rights to property they once owned in Jerusalem or other parts of Israel.
At the same time that demonstrations were taking place in Sheikh Jarrah, Israeli security forces confronted Palestinian civilians on May 6—which was Laylat al-Qadr, the most important night of Ramadan, commemorating when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. Close to three hundred Palestinians and two dozen Israeli police officers were injured in street battles that culminated in clashes at the Noble Sanctuary, known to Jews and Israel’s supporters as the Temple Mount and the holiest site in Judaism. It is also where al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest location in Islam, and the Dome of the Rock are located.
The Israeli Supreme Court was scheduled to take up the question of evictions in Sheikh Jarrah on May 10 but decided to postpone the ruling until early June because it coincided with Jerusalem Day, a holiday in Israel to celebrate the reunification of the city after the Six-Day War. It typically features a parade of flag-waving Israelis through the city, including its Arab neighborhoods. This year, the march took place as scheduled despite the escalation of violence.
What role has the Supreme Court played in previous eviction cases?
Overall, there is a pattern of Israeli courts permitting the evictions of Palestinians from their homes based on Jewish claims of ownership prior to Israel’s creation. In the Sheikh Jarrah case, the evictions are based on the claim that the residents have not paid rent to the owner of the properties, now an Israeli nongovernmental organization called Nahalat Shimon. Sheikh Jarrah is an area that Jews refer to as Shimon Hatzadik; it was a predominantly, but not exclusively, Jewish neighborhood before the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which led to Israel’s establishment and the division of Jerusalem. The properties in question are located in the sector of the city that was under Jordanian control after the 1948 war.
Because Israel’s courts have found that evictions are consistent with Israeli law, the government asserts that the Jewish residents are within their rights to displace the Palestinians who have not paid rent and thus have lost their status as “protected tenants.” Yet, most countries do not recognize Israel’s sovereignty in East Jerusalem; they and the Palestinians claim that the evictions violate international law.
What is U.S. policy on evicting Palestinians in the West Bank to make way for settlers?
Most recent U.S. presidents have been reluctant to take on the issue of Israeli settlements directly, preferring to call them complications that are unhelpful to peace and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The exceptions are President George H.W. Bush, who sought to halt loan guarantees to Israel if it continued to build settlements, and President Barack Obama, who pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into pausing settlement building. Despite these efforts, neither they nor President Joe Biden (so far) have been willing to take punitive actions against the Israeli government to bring the settlement project, and Israel’s creeping annexation, to an end.
How might this situation affect Israel’s progress on the Arab-Israeli détente?
As expected, Israel’s neighbors have condemned its actions, especially the confrontation between police and Palestinians at Jerusalem’s holy site. Officials from Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have all issued formal statements of concern or condemnation. Yet, all of these countries have ties to Israel, though in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, these relations are not formalized. To varying degrees, all Arab countries have an interest in continuing diplomatic, commercial, and security cooperation with Israel.
Sabine Baumgartner created the slideshow for this In Brief. Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow created the map.
Correction: This In Brief previously said the properties facing eviction are in an area that was controlled by Jordan prior to 1948. This error was corrected on May 20, 2021.