The situation in Israel appears to have calmed down for now, but if we want to understand the origins of the recent bout of violence, especially the civil violence inside the country, we need to take a step back and talk about Sheikh Jarrah again.
The Israeli government and its apologists have been trying to present the situation in this East Jerusalem neighborhood as a property conflict of the kind that gets settled in a magistrate court under the local law. Formally, it is not untrue. The letter of the Israeli law says that Jews have the right to reclaim the property they had possessed before it fell into Arab hands in the aftermath of the 1947-48 war.
Who could possibly object to such a law? On what grounds? Well, of course, the problem is that, according to another Israeli law, the infamous Absentees Property Law of 1950, virtually all Palestinian refugees lost their movable and immovable possessions to the state. The 700 thousand (at the time) victims of this law have no right to reclaim their property.
In 1956, UNRWA and the Jordanian government reached an agreement with a group of refugees to settle them on abandoned Jewish land in East Jerusalem in exchange for revoking their refugee status. This is how the problem of Sheikh Jarrah was born. These families dropped their claims to the property they had had in Israel before they fled it in 1948. Not being Jews, they have no way to reclaim it, and now they are getting thrown out of the homes they received in return.
Israel probably could not have become the country it is today if not for the dispossession of the Palestinian refugees. One can argue that it was an absolute necessity at the time (unlike the law that allows the restitution of Jewish property). It might be unwise and even impossible to open this Pandora box now. But a state has other ways to mend things if it wants to.
In 2017, after a protracted legal battle, the settlers’ outpost of Amona, built on private Palestinian land, was finally evacuated. The evacuators encountered fierce resistance, with rocks and iron bars being hurled at the virtually unarmed police. 60 officers – but just 18 protesters – were wounded (compare that to a typical tally from a Palestinian protest). No rubber bullets, not to mention live ammunition, were used. According to the police, the forces had received a clear order to act as gently as possible due to the “sensitivity” of the matter.
The settlers received extensive support from the state and the public, including generous compensation. The government took an active part in providing them with alternative housing. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that he “shares the great pain of the families who were forced to leave their homes”. Immense efforts were put in softening the blow for a group of people who had settled on others’ land not out of a dire need but for ideological reasons. Now, this is the Israel we know – humane, compassionate, considerate!
To prevent further evacuations, the Judea and Samaria Settlement Regulation Law was enacted that retroactively legalizes settlements “unknowingly” built on private land. Landowners are entitled to compensation (bankrolled by the taxpayer) but cannot choose to retrieve their land. The law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2020, but the effort itself speaks volumes.
So, why couldn’t the State of Israel deal similarly with Sheikh Jarrah families? In lieu of changing the law, why didn’t it offer them generous compensation? Maybe alternative housing? Or maybe it could have offered compensation to the landowners? Many things can be done when people running the state put their minds and hearts to a problem. Unfortunately, those minds and hearts were never with Arabs.
Since the birth of Israel, its Arab population has always been an unwanted element. Even though I was born a Jew in the Soviet Union, I cannot imagine how it must feel to be an alien, a second-class citizen in your own state for your entire life. This story must be told by Israeli Arabs, not by me. I am just recounting the facts.
It began when about a third of all Israeli Arabs had been robbed of their property by the aforementioned Absentees Property Law. These “present absentees” – a real term and an example of how the laws of physics are no match for the laws of humans – fled their homes during the war, but, in the end, found themselves inside the armistice lines and became Israeli citizens. To this day, whole neighborhoods in Arab and mixed towns are comprised of those internal refugees and their descendants.
Until 1966, Israeli Arabs were subject to martial law that severely restricted their rights, including the freedom of movement. Several atrocities were committed by Israeli soldiers during this period, such as the Kafr Qasim massacre.
The dispossession did not stop with the refugees. In the years after the independence, massive amounts of land were confiscated from Israeli Arabs under various pretenses. Municipal borders of Arab towns and villages were redrawn to restrict their growth – and mostly have not been expanded ever since, despite the population boom. Not a single new Arab town was founded – in contrast to hundreds of Jewish cities, towns, and settlements.
In the late 70s, the official policy of “Judaisation” of Galilee (“Yihud ha-Galil”) was launched, and later of the Negev desert. The state yet again made it clear that it viewed its Arab citizens as a nuisance, as squatters who happen to occupy historically Jewish lands.
In Jerusalem, an official government policy set a goal of keeping the share of Arab population under 30% (it has failed, today Arabs comprise around 40%). Could you imagine a policy that tries to put a cap on the percentage of African Americans in Washington, DC?
Israel has always reveled in the not-so-special fact that its Arab citizens have the right to vote. But the American reader knows that formally enfranchising a group is not nearly enough to ensure its full equality. As long as this group is not viewed as equals, as compatriots by both other citizens and the state, as long as no strong equality-building mechanisms exist, the oppression – and the resistance to it – will continue.
One of the many sad facts I learned during my 27 years in Israel, is that no such communal entity as “Israelis” exists. Israel does not equally belong to all its citizens – let alone residents, such as the Arabs of East Jerusalem. Instead, it belongs to Israeli Jews who have built a highly developed state that serves and protects them, that finds creative ways to help them when in need, while dealing with other, lesser Israelis, with equally creative cruelty. Sooner or later, this unbearable situation would have erupted with exactly the type of street violence that has just subsided – for how long?
Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem in charge of foreign relations (!), had this to say about the Sheikh Jarrah crisis: “This is a Jewish country. There’s only one. And of course, there are laws that some people may consider as favoring Jews — it’s a Jewish state. It is here to protect the Jewish people.”
I wonder whether this is one of the reasons Israeli Jews do not feel quite protected today.