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The eviction of two Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in order to replace them with Jewish families, predictably sparked harsh condemnations. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the government to refrain from such actions, which she described as "provocative."

Sweden, which holds the European Union's rotating presidency, asserted that the evictions were illegal, while UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry said they were violations of both the Geneva Conventions and Israel's obligations under the road map peace plan.

The sight of the evicted Palestinian families, who had lived in these houses for decades, paints Israel in the world's eyes as a country that maintains a cruel regime of occupation, oppresses the weak and strives to create political facts in the disputed city under the guise of the "rule of law."

But for all its importance, this international criticism is not what makes the eviction of these families completely unacceptable. A democratic state that strives for peace and justice simply has no right to uproot families who became refugees in 1948. They left homes in West Jerusalem behind them, and were subsequently granted modest accommodations by the Jordanian government. The claim that the houses in Sheikh Jarrah were purchased by Jews in the early 1900s is a double-edged sword that opens a political and legal Pandora's box.

No thinking person will be persuaded that Jews have a sweeping right to return to their homes in East Jerusalem as long as Israeli law not only bars Palestinians from returning to their homes in West Jerusalem, but even evicts them from the houses where they have lived for the last 60 years. The Israel Lands Administration's regulations do not even allow Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to buy land and houses in many parts of the city.

The least that can be expected of a state that legalized the expropriation of thousands of dunams in East Jerusalem to build 50,000 apartments for its citizens is to once and for all deprive extremists of the right to turn Jerusalem into an obstacle to peace and a stumbling block to reconciliation between the two peoples that inhabit this city.

The government must immediately return the Palestinian residents to their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and cancel the eviction orders that have been issued against additional houses. And the neighborhood's fate must be determined via diplomatic negotiations.