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Laura Wharton
Jerusalem City Councilor, adjunct lecturer in political science

Why Sheikh Jarrach? Why Now?

From afar the outbreaks of violence in Jerusalem may seem surprising. Doesn’t Israel finally have a relatively stable government? Isn’t peace breaking out with the Emirates? Isn’t the start-up nation experiencing an enviable economic boom? While the answers to all are affirmative, the ongoing tensions should not be surprising. At the same time that most of the country is enjoying guarded optimism, Jerusalem and in particular its Palestinian residents are suffering from the obliviousness of the majority to a growing threat posed by a small group of extremists.

As an Israeli (and an American) and a Jerusalem City Councilor I am outraged by the ongoing efforts to justify the egregious actions of Israeli settlers seeking to evict and dispossess Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem. Despite attempts to present their actions as an innocuous series of real estate deals, these activities should not be condoned in any way but understood for what they are: an attempt to forcibly change the demographics of the city (and the country) by uprooting and displacing Palestinian residents, who today compose 38% of Jerusalem’s population.

The settlers in the Palestinian neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrach, Silwan, and other neighborhoods are mostly connected to extremist right-wing movements. Many openly espouse radical ideologies that see the expulsion of all non-Jews from Jerusalem as a legitimate goal. Some of those involved were supporters of Meir Kahane, who after a term in the Knesset was prohibited from running again due to his racist views. His movement, “Kach”, was declared by the Israeli government to be a terrorist organization. Others involved criticize Israeli democracy and advocate “Torah rule” for the country. Several have been investigated for violence, incitement, or both, and an MK who backs these settlers was part of a group who physically threatened Itzhak Rabin before his assassination.

Most of the residents of Sheikh Jarrach are families who became refugees during the war of independence and were settled in the neighborhood by the Jordanian government and the United Nations. While small tracts of land in this Palestinian neighborhood were once owned by Jews, the Israeli government compensated Jewish landowners who fled west and provided them with alternative housing in the many parts of west Jerusalem from which Arabs fled or were evicted; thus, returning properties to their original owners today would constitute double compensation. Moreover, the Israeli settlers today seeking to displace the Palestinian families are not the original owners.

The Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrach relinquished their refugee status which would have accorded them additional rights and support, as part of their agreement with the UN and Jordanian government. Other Palestinian refugees were left homeless and never received assistance in housing, and many of the most beautiful homes in what is today West Jerusalem once belonged to Palestinian families. Today Israeli law enables Jewish families to reclaim property in East Jerusalem whereas no such option is available for Palestinians who owned property in the western parts of the city, by distinguishing the latter as having fled to “enemy territory”. Opening these old wounds is not in Israel’s interest, for in a property swap Israelis potentially have far more to lose in Jerusalem than Palestinians do.

Other matters further exacerbate the imbalance. According to an Israeli law of 1973 Palestinian families were given 15 years to ask for compensation for property loss or damage from the Six-Day War, but there is currently no statute of limitations for Israelis who may step forward even today, 54 years later, and lay claims. Israeli law is also extraordinarily vague in its stipulations regarding who may lay claim to lost property – either the owner or “someone in their stead”. Thus, total strangers with no blood or legal relations lay claims to land once under other, Jewish ownership. Proposals to correct both of these issues have yet to be adopted.

Many Jerusalemites feel as I do.  We love our city and are proud of our country but find the actions of the settlers and those in the government backing them, to be absolutely contradictory to the principles on which the country was founded. Our declaration of independence declared we would “extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help.” We promised equality “irrespective of religion, race or sex justice.” While we truly see and believe we have and are making progress in many ways within the country, our capital is being torn apart by a small group to whom these values and promises are utterly foreign. They taint all of us, and stymie our work to make Israel — and Jerusalem in particular — a more just and inclusive society.

Anyone who is truly concerned about Israel or the region should not be denying the problems we face but should be helping us address them. We need an honest appraisal, and we need help from those who care.

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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