JERUSALEM—A decades-old property dispute in the divided Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah shows the depth of tensions between Jews and Palestinians over control of the contested city.
The fault lines have deepened in recent years, as a succession of Jewish associations have tried to secure court orders to evict Palestinian families they say are living illegally on land that is rightfully theirs and who haven’t paid rent in decades. Palestinians view the legal action as a way to alter the demographics of East Jerusalem in favor of the Jewish population.
This month, clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians protesting the planned evictions escalated into a broader conflict when Palestinian militant group Hamas fired rockets into Israel from Gaza, a move, the group said, aimed at forcing Israel’s government to stop the court process, among other demands.
Israel responded with a series of air and artillery strikes. The 11-day conflict took the lives of 242 people in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas rules, and 12 people in Israel, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Israeli medical officials.
With Israel’s Supreme Court expected to rule within the next month on whether some of the evictions should go ahead, tensions could reignite among the neighborhood’s sandstone villas and tree-lined streets and threaten a precarious cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
Hamas, which has sought to strengthen its claim as the primary defender of the Palestinian people, has vowed to renew its attacks on Israel if the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah go ahead.
“This has become a highly politicized case which has become a symbol for who has a better claim for East Jerusalem,” said Yuval Shany, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry describes the issue as a private land dispute. The Palestinian Authority, which governs most Palestinians in the West Bank, says the evictions represent the forced displacement of Arab residents from what they hope will be the capital of a future state.
Shortly before Hamas began firing rockets, Israel’s attorney general said he would consider becoming party to the case—a sign, legal experts said, that the government might intervene to find a solution. A spokeswoman for the Israeli courts declined to comment on the case.
From the late 19th century until 1948, when the modern state of Israel was founded, Jews lived in the area alongside Arab residents in East Jerusalem, which is home to sites sacred for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
When Jordan conquered East Jerusalem during the 1948 war following Israel’s declaration of independence, the area was emptied of its Jewish inhabitants. A similar process occurred with many Palestinians in what became Israel.
Both Israel and Jordan settled refugees in the homes and land left vacant following the 1948 war. But for the 28 Palestinian families that Jordan settled in Sheikh Jarrah in 1956, the picture is more complicated because Jordan never transferred them ownership. Jordan says it intended to do so but the process was cut short after Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli war.
In 1970, Israel passed a law allowing anyone to reclaim land that had been confiscated by Jordan during the 1948 war, as long as the land hadn’t been given to new owners.
In 1972, the Sephardic Community Committee and the General Council of the Congregation of Israel—two Jewish organizations that helped 19th-century Jewish communities in Ottoman Palestine, particularly in Jerusalem—reclaimed ownership of the disputed land in Sheikh Jarrah. The Jewish associations said they were the rightful owners after purchasing the land in the 1870s.
Some 75 Palestinian families now live on the contested plots in Sheikh Jarrah, according to Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for Ir Amim, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that focuses on land disputes in the city.
The key precedent in the legal dispute occurred in 1982, when the Palestinian families agreed to recognize the ownership of the Jewish associations in a settlement, which was granted the status of a court ruling. The families later claimed that the agreement was made without their knowledge, and tried to challenge the original Jewish ownership claims from 1972.
These challenges were rebuffed several times by Israeli judges, who upheld the validity of an Ottoman-era land deed that the Jewish trusts presented as evidence of ownership.
The plaintiff now pursuing the eviction of the Palestinian families living on the contested land in Sheikh Jarrah is Israeli company Nahalat Shimon Ltd., which purchased the ownership rights from the original Jewish trusts in 2003 for $3 million, according to a copy of the contract.
Ilan Shemer, a lawyer representing Nahalat Shimon in the eviction cases, declined to comment on the dispute. The company has submitted plans to build more than 200 living units in the area, but the Jerusalem government hasn’t authorized them.
The U.N. human rights office has said the evictions in East Jerusalem would violate international law as Israel is considered an occupying power and can’t apply its laws there. The Biden administration has also called on Israel to halt the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.
Jewish settlers first began moving there in earnest after 2000, after some separate eviction cases were resolved, occupying around 10 homes, according to Mr. Tatarsky. He said around 11 of the Palestinian families on the land claimed by Nahalat Shimon face eviction in the coming months.
The Palestinian residents’ insistence that they shouldn’t be evicted has come to embody the broader resistance against Israeli settlers in other contested areas. “If this happens and we’ll be evicted, we’ll be refugees for a second time,” said 70-year-old Adel Budeiri, one of the residents of Sheikh Jarrah. “Jerusalem is always a symbol for Palestine and for the whole Muslim world. And Sheikh Jarrah is in the midst of Jerusalem.”
More than 1,000 Palestinians are living under the threat of eviction across East Jerusalem in a patchwork of property disputes making their way through the courts, according to Mr. Tatarsky.
The disputes are overwhelmingly located in the Holy Basin, which includes Jerusalem’s Old City and the ring of communities and land around it that also contain a number of holy sites, making them especially contentious.
Sheikh Jarrah’s Jewish community first evolved around what Jews believe is the burial site of Shimon Hatzadik, a Jewish high priest who, according to tradition, greeted Alexander the Great as the Macedonian conqueror marched into ancient Israel. The neighborhood’s Arabic name, however, is derived from the physician to Saladin, the 12th-century Muslim ruler who resisted the Crusaders and governed much of the Levant. Palestinians today view the neighborhood as a symbol of their broader resistance against the Israeli state.
On one side of a road, a multistory home is draped in Israeli flags; on the other, the slogan “Here we’ll stay” is daubed in Arabic along high stone walls.
Israel’s Supreme Court has tried to get the two sides to reach a compromise, court records of a discussion on May 2 show.
Hosni Abu Hussein, a lawyer for the Palestinian families, said his clients agreed to pay rent, either to the court or a trust, but wouldn’t recognize the ownership of the plaintiff, Nahalat Shimon. Nahalat Shimon refused the offer, according to the court records.
He says he thinks the only possible solution is a negotiated one and hopes Israeli authorities will decide to honor what he says was Jordan’s intent to pass ownership of the land plots in Sheikh Jarrah to his clients.
Another option, Mr. Hussein said, is for the state of Israel to confiscate the land, compensate the Jewish claimants and transfer ownership to his clients. He also holds out hope that the U.S. will somehow intervene, but didn’t specify how.
“We can bury this problem through diplomatic or political means,” Mr. Hussein said.
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