The East Jerusalem Flashpoint That Could Ignite the Entire Middle East

Why did clashes erupt in Sheikh Jarrah this week, what is the land’s legal status and where do eviction cases stand? | Haaretz explains

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A Palestinian woman stands behind Israeli security forces in Sheikh Jarrah, Sunday.
A Palestinian woman stands behind Israeli security forces in Sheikh Jarrah, Sunday.Credit: Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah has again become the site of violent clashes, just as it did before last year's war between Israel and Gaza. Haaretz explains the root of the friction, and how Sheikh Jarrah became a Palestinian national symbol.

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Originally a neighborhood of luxury homes, Sheikh Jarrah was founded in the late 19th century by prominent Palestinian families from Jerusalem, mainly the Husseinis and Nashashibis. Later, two small neighborhoods for impoverished Jews were established there – Shimon Hatzadik and Nahalat Shimon.

Both were abandoned in 1948 shortly before the Jordanian Legion captured East Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees from western Jerusalem and other parts of Israel moved in.

Lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir's supporters in the makeshift office in Sheikh Jarrah, Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

There’s no separate census for Sheikh Jarrah, but it and nearby Wadi Joz have 14,000 Palestinian residents combined. Several thousand of them live in Sheikh Jarrah, as do a few dozen Jews.

Haaretz uses the neighborhood’s Arabic name both because of its Palestinian majority and because that’s how it was known for most of its history.

Why did clashes erupt this week?

They began Sunday after MK Itamar Ben-Gvir announced he was opening a parliamentary office in the neighborhood. He and his supporters came and erected a tent next to the home of the Salem family, which is slated to be evicted next month.

Ben-Gvir opened the office after the home of the only Jewish family in that part of Sheikh Jarrah was torched Friday night. The family’s car has been set ablaze repeatedly, but never their house. Palestinians claimed the fire was caused by an electrical short, but police said there were signs of arson and arrested two suspects.

Almost immediately after the office opened, Palestinians and Jews began verbally attacking one another. On Sunday evening, this deteriorated into physical violence, with stones and firecrackers being thrown. Eventually, police forcibly dispersed both sides and removed Ben-Gvir’s supporters, but not him. Dozens of Palestinians and several Jews were lightly wounded.

Fatima Salem and left-wing activists at her home, in February.

While this was happening, Ben-Gvir fell and briefly lost consciousness. He was taken to the hospital and released soon afterward. He returned to Sheikh Jarrah on Monday.

What is the land’s legal status?

Most is privately owned Palestinian land, but two sections contain land owned by Jews – one in the neighborhood’s east and one in the west. Two Israeli laws allow only Jews to reclaim property they owned before 1948. The Absentee Property Law confiscated all property owned prior to 1948 by Palestinians who spent time in an enemy country either before or after the law’s enactment. A law dating to 1970 allows Jews to reclaim their property.

Since the 1980s, right-wing organizations have worked to locate the heirs of Jewish property in Sheikh Jarrah and begin eviction proceedings against the current Palestinian residents. To date, five Palestinian families have been evicted. Legal proceedings are ongoing against dozens of others.

Where do the eviction cases stand?

Clashes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Sunday.Credit: Emil Salman

Legally, there’s a big difference between the neighborhood’s eastern and western sections. Last May’s fighting between Israel and Gaza was prompted by events in the western section.

In the 1990s, the two Jewish organizations that owned this land sold it to the Nahalat Shimon company, which is registered overseas. Since then, the company has worked to evict the 27 Palestinian families who have lived there since moving there in the 1950s at the initiative of the Jordanian government and the United Nations.

Both sides are now awaiting a Supreme Court ruling, after having rejected a compromise proposed by the justices that would have prevented an immediate eviction. The legal proceedings have been lengthy because some of the houses are privately owned by the Palestinian families.

This section is where the Salem family, currently numbering 11 people, has lived since 1951. Two weeks ago, the bailiff’s office ordered them evicted between March 1 and April 1. But police are expected to try to avoid an eviction so soon before Ramadan, which starts in early April, and they may well try to postpone it until after Ramadan ends in May.

Whenever it happens, however, it will probably spark renewed protests and violence.

Ben Gvir in an apartment that burned down in Sheikh Jarrah, Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

How was Sheikh Jarrah connected to last May’s war?

The battle against Palestinian evictions and the Judaization of the neighborhood has gone on for years. Every Friday for 13 years, dozens of Palestinian and left-wing Jews have demonstrated there.

But last year, Sheikh Jarrah became a Palestinian national symbol, because 13 families were facing immediate eviction simultaneously. That created the impression that it wasn’t about the ownership of private property, as settlers claimed, but an effort to make the neighborhood Jewish through mass evictions with the authorities’ help.

The planned evictions attracted considerable international attention, and Palestinian social media activists from Sheikh Jarrah helped turn it into a symbol of Palestinian resistance. The neighborhood’s relative accessibility also helped. It’s close to a major Jerusalem artery, Bar-Lev Street, and several European consulates.

In May, Hamas’ spokesman in the Gaza Strip threatened that any eviction would prompt a violent response. Young Palestinians from throughout Jerusalem began coming to Sheikh Jarrah for mass prayers and protests that usually ended with police forcibly removing them.

There were many documented cases of unjustified police violence, and many residents were wounded by sponge-tipped bullets. In addition, a car-ramming attack wounded seven police officers at a roadblock police stationed in Sheikh Jarrah.

On top of all this was the police’s decision to close the steps by the Old City’s Damascus Gate. Both developments, the protests and the closing off of the steps, occurred at the start of Ramadan. These two issues became the main sources of the tensions that led to both the Gaza-Israel fighting and violent interethnic riots in mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

Will the current tension spark another round of fighting?

It’s hard to predict. But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that even if tempers calm in the coming days, Sheikh Jarrah provides all the same pretexts for violence that led to the last round – an almost certain eviction of Palestinians from their homes, Palestinian and international attention, threats by Hamas, and a far-right MK showing up to inflame the atmosphere.

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