The fate of six families in a neighborhood in East Jerusalem is one of the main triggers for the current wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
What started as a series of riots against the families ‘eviction plans in Sheikh Jarrah has escalated to the launching of rockets from the Gaza Strip against Israel and the Israeli forces’ response to airstrikes against Gaza.
But what exactly does the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood represent in this case?
A neighborhood in dispute
Sheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian neighborhood in the eastern part of Jerusalem. And now a group of Jewish settlers is claiming some of their land and property in Israeli courts – hence the threat of eviction from Palestinian families.
To understand this dispute, we have to go back to 1948, when, after the first Arab-Israeli war, Jerusalem was divided into two parts: East Jerusalem, under Arab control; and West Jerusalem, in the hands of Israel.
The eastern part of Jerusalem came under Jordan’s control from that year until 1967, when, during the Six Day War, Israel took effective control of the entire city.
The old city is located in East Jerusalem, where some of the most sacred religious places in the world are located: the Dome of the Rock and the Muslims’ Al Aqsa mosque itself; the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, of the Jewish religion, and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, of the Christian religion.
And outside the walls of the old city is Sheikh Jarrah.
“The importance of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood lies in the fact that it is one of the main Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. And the Palestinians have been complaining, in recent years, about the growing number of Jewish settlers arriving,” explains Mohamed Yehia, editor of the Arab service of the BBC.
Sheikh Jarrah is a very affluent area, and several foreign countries, such as the United Kingdom, have their diplomatic missions there.
“It is also right on the line that separates the two sides of Jerusalem,” adds Jeremy Bowen, BBC editor for the Middle East.
Who does Sheikh Jarrah belong to?
In practice, the division of Jerusalem in 1948 led to a scenario in which the Palestinians who lived in the west and the Jews who lived in the east had to leave their homes.
Today, many Palestinian families are evicted from their homes under two controversial Israeli laws.
On the one hand, the so-called Absent Property Law allows Israel to confiscate property from Palestinians who, according to Israel, abandoned or fled their homes during the conflict. On the other hand, the Law on Legal and Administrative Affairs allows Jews who can prove a property title prior to 1948 to claim their properties in Jerusalem.
“In most cases, representatives of Jewish settlers try to evict Palestinians from their homes by applying Israeli law that allows Jews to claim ownership of houses that they or other Jews owned before 1948,” explains Yehia.
“Israeli law allows Jews to claim Jewish property before the 1948 war, but it prohibits Palestinians from recovering properties that they lost in the same war, even though they still reside in areas controlled by Israel,” he adds.
This means that Palestinians cannot retake what were their homes in the western part of the city before 1948.
In the case of Palestinian families at risk of eviction in Sheikh Jarrah, a lower court decision this year supported the settlers’ complaint, arousing the ire of the Palestinians.
The Israeli Supreme Court was due to hold a hearing on the case on Monday (5/5), but the session was postponed due to unrest.
“The precise legal status of land ownership is subject to a postponed Supreme Court decision,” adds Bowen. “It was owned by Jews before the 1948 war, which left Jerusalem divided. A settlement organization acquired the title to the land and initiated a legal process to obtain it, with the plan to install Jewish settlers.”
“I doubt that the Palestinians will agree to leave, and I also very much doubt that the settler groups will abandon their claim.”
These conflicting positions have been seen during disputes in the area in recent days.
“They would have to kill us … this is the only way we can leave,” Abdelfatteh Iskafi, a resident of Sheikh Jarrah, told Reuters.
Nuha Attieh, 58, said he feared his family would lose their home if the decision was passed.
“I am afraid for my house, for my children, I am afraid for everything.”
Palestinians say they have lived in Sheikh Jarrah since 1950 when they were relocated there by Jordan after the war.
“This is a Jewish country. They want to control it,” said one of the settlers, who gave only Eden’s name to Reuters on Tuesday, pointing to the Palestinians across the street.
For Jeremy Bowen, what is happening in Jerusalem, and specifically in Sheikh Jarrah, is more than a dispute over a few houses.
This is not a new dispute, either, since “evictions of Palestinians for the expansion of Jewish settlements or Israeli access or security roads are common,” he explains.
However, what happens in Sheikh Jarrah symbolizes the struggle for one of the central points of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the fate of East Jerusalem.
“Sheikh Jarrah is a symbol, for both sides, of Israel’s strategic goal of making Jerusalem more Jewish,” said Bowen.
Israel regards the entire city as its capital, although it is not recognized as such by the majority of the international community.
Thus, in recent years, the Israeli government and groups of settlers have worked to establish Jews in Palestinian areas close to the old city.
In turn, the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the long-awaited capital of an independent state.