Laura Wharton
Jerusalem City Councilor, adjunct lecturer in political science

The Evictions from East Jerusalem Must Stop

Fatma Salem, a grandmother who has lived all her life in Sheikh Jarrach, was recently told by representatives of an ultra-right wing political party that she is due to be evicted from her home, together with her children and grandchildren. Fatma's family became refugees in 1948 and came to Sheikh Jarrach where the UN and Jordan settled Palestinians who had fled from Israel proper. Uprooting them now would make them refugees a second time.

Sheikh Jarrach has been in and out of the news in recent months and confusion as well as disinformation has spread. Some focus on the house that recently burned down (it’s not yet clear how or why); others, on police brutality (the problems of violence go far beyond the police). There is a long history of conflict in the neighborhood, although it did seem for some time, until recently, that a status quo had been reached. Here are twelve good reasons why the evictions of Palestinians should be stopped, together with all the violence surrounding them:

1. Many of the Palestinians now living in East Jerusalem were refugees in 1948 from what is today Israel proper. They were settled in their current homes by the Jordanian government and the U.N., in return for which they waived their rights as refugees. To evict them would make them refugees twice over, an unthinkable prospect from a humanitarian perspective.

2. Jewish families who lived in parts of Jerusalem that were taken over by Jordan in 1948 were compensated and given abandoned property by the Israeli government. This offering them title to the property they left constitutes double compensation, as Adv. Michael Ben-Yair (ex-Attorney General), who was born in Sheikh Jarrah, explains in his eponymous book on the subject.

3. The evictions, despite sporadic claims to the contrary, are not simply private real estate deals. They are part of an ideological platform explicitly laid out to drive Arabs out of Jerusalem; the plan is made clear by a mapping of the eviction orders now pending. Furthermore, materials distributed by the settlers explicitly set out their goals to drive out non-Jews.

4. The reason the evictions may take place is that a basic imbalance, an injustice, exists in Israeli law which allows Israelis to reclaim property they once owned in East Jerusalem but prevents Arabs from reclaiming land in West Jerusalem. Recently, a proposal to correct this was discussed in the Knesset, but it is as yet far from being accepted or implemented. The flaws in the law must be corrected before any further land deals be approved.

5. The policy of the Israeli government at this point is to ignore all the goings on and transfers of property. This cannot continue. The programs and activities of settler groups is a matter of major importance to residents not only of East Jerusalem but to all of the city and indeed, the region. Threats of what is being described as “ethnic cleansing” could potentially disrupt the entire area.

6. An additional problem of the current legislation is that there is no statute of limitations for claims by former Jewish property owners. At any time, at this point indefinitely, a family, descendant, or even an unrelated person who claims to have purchased rights can file claim for eviction. The endless uncertainty is itself dangerous in that it leaves Palestinian residents in constant fear and uncertainty, whereas safety and security are most likely to bring calm to the area.

7. The settlers working to evict Palestinian families have an extremist ideology that is messianic, anti-democratic, and justifies violence. Several of the prominent activists in Sheikh Jarrah have criminal records: for example, the man who claims to have purchased the Salem home was tried for illegally acquiring and hoarding ammunition found in his home. Allowing them to displace the residents is both unjust and dangerous.

8. There are numerous examples of conflicts of interest and abuse of power in the whole handling of absentee property and its allocation to settler groups. The government clerk in charge of government custodial land in East Jerusalem also acts as legal adviser to a settler organization. The man claiming title to the Salem’s house is a council member from an ultra-right political party founded by followers of the racist Meir Kahane, whose organization was declared a terrorist organization and banned by the Israeli government. Another party member, a deputy mayor (shameful as that is), personally delivered the eviction notice to the Salem family. The notice was signed by a lawyer who works in the mayor’s office. Thus, despite claims otherwise, what is happening is clearly part of a political agenda that is being aided and abetted by politicians and “insiders” with conflicts of interest.

9. The War of Independence in 1948 left hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides of the Green Line designating Israel’s border. Between 1948 and 1967 refugees were settled by the relevant parties, including Jordan, Israel, their neighbors and international bodies. The attempt now to disrupt the currently existing order by the expulsion of Palestinians could re-open all claims from that period, including Palestinian claims for significant property in West Jerusalem and potentially, all over Israel. If most Israelis oppose, as has been shown, “rights of return” for Palestinians, it cannot propose “rights of return” for Israelis without opening up a Pandora’s Box of counter-claims. Thus, among other things, the evictions run counter to Israeli interests.

10. Regardless of how one views Israeli control over East Jerusalem, that is, be it legal or not, Israel has a responsibility to see to the well-being of the residents of East Jerusalem. It must guarantee their rights as permanent residents, whether under self-declared Israeli law or under international law which views the neighborhoods as occupied territory. To date, the government is ignoring the settler activity and the terrible tensions developing.

11. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem (350,000, comprising 38% of Jerusalem’s population) are stateless and have no government to which to turn. They do not have Israeli citizenship, Palestinian citizenship does not yet exist, and Jordan has withdrawn completely from the area. As such, Israel, its allies, or other concerned governments must become involved to protect these otherwise utterly unprotected people.

12. The issues of settler takeovers in East Jerusalem pose humanitarian, national, and international problems. Israel’s tacit backing of the goings-on is not only irresponsible on the level of the individuals being displaced or the potentially dangerous repercussions but is an affront to international law which requires protection of the local residents and contradicts guarantees Israel explicitly made in 1967 to respect the rights, including property rights, of the people living in the territory conquered.

As long as the threat of evictions exist, and certainly if further evictions take place, there will be no quiet and there will be no justice in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrach or anywhere in Jerusalem.

I do hope that everyone involved will see to doing the right thing and to stopping the violence of all kinds, from all sectors, throughout the city.

About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the government department of Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. For research that later served as the basis for her book "Is the Party Over? How Israel Lost Its Social Agenda" (Yad Levi Eshkol, 2019) she was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize in Memory of Levi Eshkol. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than two decades.
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