In the face of opposition from Cardinals, Archbishops, Arab spokesmen and Labour politicians, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss (backed by Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl ) supports moving the British embassy to Jerusalem. The popular argument against this move is that it would be ‘an obstacle to peace’ and legitimise the ‘illegal’ annexation of Arab territory by Israel.
Underlying the naysayers’ assumptions is that East Jerusalem is at least as Arab as West Jerusalem is Jewish: Israel is not entitled to claim sovereignty over the whole city. Although sovereignty is not the same as ownership, we are treated to tales of Jewish ‘settlers’ taking over Arab homes in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. The only just solution, they claim, is to revert to the status quo ante the 1967 war.
But this is to ignore the fact that the eastern part of Jerusalem only became Jew-free when some 3,000 Jewish inhabitants were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from the Old City during the Arab invasion of 1948. Scores of synagogues were destroyed and cemeteries desecrated during 19 years of ‘illegal’ Jordanian occupation. It is forgotten that the city was reunited in a defensive war – when Israel responded to a Jordanian attack, recaptured the eastern side if the city and annexed it in 1967.
The issue of land ownership in East Jerusalem is far more complex than many imagine. Mount Scopus – the original site of the Hebrew university campus and the Hadassah hospital – remained a Jewish enclave in Jordanian-controlled territory. Yemenite Jews who had lived in Silwan (Kfar Shiloah) since the 19th century were forced to evacuate their homes in 1938 when the British admitted they could no longer protect them against Arab violence and harassment. Ditto in Hebron, which Jews evacuated after the 1929 massacre.
It is also a little-known fact that hundreds of thousands of Arab squatters in ‘Arab’ East Jerusalem live on Jewish-owned land. The Jewish National Fund purchased hundreds of individual parcels of land in and around Jerusalem during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The Shuafat refugee camp is built on JNF land, as is the Kalandia refugee camp, which the UN seized without permission. Other parcels of land in ‘Arab’ East Jerusalem were cut off from their Iraqi and Iranian-Jewish owners after coming under Jordanian rule. In total 146 dunams (one dunam equals 1,000 sq. m) of Jewish land is said to have come under Jordanian control.
Another 17 dunams of Jewish land in the rural West Bank – including the Gush Etzion settlements, land between Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm, and in Bethlehem and Hebron – were seized by the Jordanians after 1948.
The Golan Heights are almost universally considered ‘Syrian’ territory and yet the JNF lays claim to 74 dunams in southern Syria. The earliest purchase was made in the 1880s. Jews also owned land in Gaza.
Those who defend ‘Arab’ property rights in Jerusalem ignore the fact that there was an exchange of land and property between Israel and the Arab countries, as well as a population swap between Palestinian and Mizrahi refugees. The latter were thrown out en masse from Arab countries and now form a majority of Israeli Jews. On the macro-level, and with very few exceptions, no avenue is open for a Jew to get restitution for property seized in Arab countries.
It is estimated that Jews expelled from Arab countries as ‘the Jewish minority of Palestine’ owned some 100,000 sq km of deeded property, equivalent to four or five times the size of the Jewish state. Many cities in the ‘Arab’ Middle East and North Africa had large Jewish populations. Baghdad was a quarter Jewish. When over 90 per cent of Iraq’s Jews left for Israel in 1950 – 51, property seized by the Iraqi government included three hospitals, 19 Jewish schools, 31 synagogues and two cemeteries. Rumours are now filtering through that these properties are being illegally sold off for millions by Iranian-backed militias. In Egypt mansions belonging to wealthy Jewish families became ambassadors’ residences and public institutions.
Jerusalem is an exception. After 1967, Jews evicted by the Jordanians in 1948 were presented with the rare opportunity to recover their properties in the Old City and East Jerusalem. A1970 law enables Jewish owners to sue for restitution. But there is one important caveat:the law protects tenants who pay rent.
Across the Arab world, Jewish property has been abandoned, sequestered or sold well below market value as Jews left in haste or were driven out without compensation.
Those who disapprove of a British embassy in Jerusalem are sanctioning the principle that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a legitimate way of appropriating property. The Arab world must be Jew-free (Arab states have almost succeeded in this task, having banished 97 percent of their Jewish population) . The takeover of millions of dollars’ worth of Jewish homes, shops, offices and communal property by Arabs has never been considered provocative or an ‘obstacle to peace’.