Sheikh Jarrah Gives Israel an Opportunity to Steer Away From Apartheid

Eyal Raz
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Sheikh Jarrah. in May.
Eyal Raz

It all starts, and ends, with apartheid legislation. Two laws for two peoples. One, the Legal and Administrative Matters (Regulation) Law of 1970, permits to Jews what the other, the Absentee Property Law of 1950, forbids Palestinians. This is the legislative foundation of the cases of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan facing Israel’s Supreme Court. Therein lies the problem, and also the solution.

For over a decade I have accompanied families in Sheikh Jarrah in their struggle. I’ve seen them in protests, in their homes, in courtrooms and in closed meetings. Their determination to remain in their homes, built for them 65 years ago by Jordan’s government and the UN Relief and Works Agency, is not an opening gambit in a negotiation, and they have no path of retreat. Their adherence to their homes, in exchange for which they relinquished the economic benefits to which their families were entitled as refugees, is their right and duty – human, moral and, yes, also political.

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Not for nothing did both sides reject the court’s compromise proposal. Given the legal structure and precedents, the settlers have no reason to settle for anything less than eviction orders. Their political-real estate project requires the full evacuation of the Palestinian neighborhood, its homes razed in favor of a new mega settlement in the heart of East Jerusalem. This is what they had in mind when they told the court “the respondent cannot relinquish its right to act,” referring to a provision in the proposal that would have delayed their plan by allowing the families to remain for a few years.

For the Palestinians, any decision that does not respect Jordan’s promise in the mid-20th century to register them as owners cannot be accepted. Over what does the court wish them to compromise? Over their refusal to become refugees again, after losing all their assets in territory that became part of Israel in 1948, to which the law prevents them from returning? Over their right to remain in the neighborhood they built and in which they rebuilt their lives after losing almost everything? On what can they compromise, and why should they? The only consideration they could have in agreeing to the proposed compromise would be a desperate attempt, with doubtful feasibility, to postpone the inevitable. This would be a decision taken with a gun pointed at their heads.

After both sides rejected the court’s proposal, all eyes are ostensibly turned to the justices. We can only hope that they avoid a verdict that entails the evacuation of an entire Jerusalem neighborhood. And indeed, even if they uphold the lower courts’ rulings, the Supreme Court now has two opinions from renowned experts. In the first, Ronit Levine-Schnur argues that Jordan’s promise to transfer ownership to the tenants and to complete the registration in their names applies to Israel as well. The second brief, signed by Israeli experts on international law, was presented during proceedings relating to the fate of a family in Silwan, determines that the right to a dwelling, to family and communal life, overrides in these cases any right of those determined to be the original owners to claim their properties and evacuate these families.

Whatever the court rules, it should be remembered that it is not the place for resolving this contentious issue. The legislature can and must abolish the relevant article in the Legal and Administrative Matters Law. More than 50 years after it was passed to regulate a temporary chaotic situation, it behooves the Knesset to remove the stain created by its discriminatory implementation. Such a move requires political will which apparently is absent in the current Knesset. The way out is that a more limited forum, the cabinet, take responsibility.

The finance minister has the authority to expropriate the land, to pay restitution to those claiming ownership and to transfer the deeds to the land and the homes to the families that have been living there for 60 years. There are precedents for this, including the Hassan Bek mosque in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. This is not a new suggestion. It was proposed a decade ago by Prof. Yitzhak Reiter and Lior Lehrs, in a paper for the Jerusalem Institute of Policy Research. Former attorney general Michael Ben-Yair also wrote and spoke about this idea. Perhaps now, at the brink of a mass evacuation unlike anything seen since 1967, the conditions are ripe for its implementation.

The political restrictions under which the “coalition of change” are operating are well known, as are the identity and positions of the current finance minister. But it should be clear to everyone that the responsibility for solving this issue lies with Israel, and that all its branches of government – the legislative, executive and judiciary branches – have the ability and also an obligation to solve the issue that only two months ago set our streets ablaze. If they refrain from doing so, God forbid, the citizens and defenders of the state will have to contend with the implications of the filthy accusations of apartheid that will be thrown at it, and for good cause.

Eyal Raz is an activist supporting Sheikh Jarrah residents.

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