If you became familiar with name “Sheikh Jarrah” just recently, then the picture may seem straight forward:

“Israeli authorities heartlessly evacuate poor Palestinian families from homes they lived in for decades.”

Yet if you follow the story further back, the picture doesn’t seem so simple anymore.

  • In 1876 a Jewish association purchased land plots in Sheikh Jarrah
  • At the time, Jerusalem was under the Ottoman Empire rule, and was inhabited by both Jews and Arabs.
  • In 1917, the British Empire conquered the holy land from the Ottomans. Jews and Arabs continued to live in Jerusalem under the British rule.
  • Based on a mandate from the League of Nations (the UN precursor), Britain governed the territory now referred to as “Palestine/Land-of-Israel”, with a promise to stablish a Jewish homeland in it.
  • In 1947, the United Nations resolution 181 called for ending the British mandate, and the establishment of a Jewish and an Arab states instead (two-state solution).
  • The newly formed state of Israel accepted the UN resolution. However, the Arab population in Palestine/Land-of-Israel did not. Neither did the neighboring Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
  • The Israel “War of Independence” thus commenced, with an invasion of Arab armies from all sides. Miraculously, the young state of Israel survived the combined onslaught.
  • Jerusalem however was divided – its eastern part was taken over by Jordan, while its western part was controlled by Israel.  All Jews who lived on the eastern part of Jerusalem were either killed, captured or deported.
  • Sheikh Jarrah, along with other eastern neighborhoods fell under Jordanian control. The Jewish inhabitants of the neighborhood were forced to flee, and their property was confiscated by Jordan.
  • Shortly after the war ended, Jordan settled Arab refugees in Sheikh Jarrah on property previously owned by Jews.
  • Then came the 1967 “Six Days War”. The initial skirmishes were between Israel and Egypt, and took place in the Sinai Desert.
  • Jordan didn’t heed Israel’s warnings and launched an attack on Israel (a side note: as a young child I personally witnessed that attack…).
  • In response to Jordan’s assault, Israeli forces drove the Jordanian army out of Jerusalem, and took control over the entire city – east and west.
  • When the war ended, Israel decided to reunite the city of Jerusalem, so both east and west neighborhoods became part of the “United city of Jerusalem”.
  • Arab residents in former Eastern Jerusalem received a status of Israeli residents, and were subjected to the same Israeli laws as the Jewish residents.
  • With Sheikh Jarrah now under Israeli law, an association focused on recovering lost Jewish properties filed a claim in court to restore ownership of pre-1948 Jewish owned properties in Sheikh Jarrah.  
  • What ensued was a long “legal battle” in Israeli courts, contesting the property ownership rights of Jews, with the residency rights of Arabs.
  • This was not a simple dilemma, and the courts finally reached a verdict they considered to be a reasonable compromise: previous property ownership will be restored, yet the current residents will be granted a status of “protected tenants” and would pay a nominal rent to the reinstated property owners. Each side’s claims received partial acknowledgement.
  • However, the Arab residents didn’t accept the resolution, since in their view the houses were granted to them by Jordan, and any prior confiscation of Jewish property wasn’t their own doing. As a result, they refused to pay any rent.
  • The Jewish association filed a subsequent claim in court, stating that the Arab residents violated the court ruling, and therefore their “protected tenants” status should be revoked.
  • The last court ruling, that acknowledged the claim that the Arab tenants have not met their obligations, has effectively opened the door for their evacuation.

Here’s a brief history of the Sheikh Jarrah saga:

Sheikh Jarrah is fundamentally an Israeli “property rights” matter. It isn’t the only property dispute that arose in the aftermath of Israel formation. There were other (Jewish) Israeli residents who were evicted from their homes, after learning they didn’t really own them in the first place. For example, Jewish families who hastily settled on properties in Tel Aviv during the early chaotic days of the State of Israel, got an eviction notice decades later. (see for example the dispute in Givat Amal neighborhood in Tel Aviv). However, most of these cases were settled with monetary compensation, while the Sheikh Jarrah case has turned into an ethnic matter.

There are also pre-1948 Arab properties that were taken over by the state of Israel. Yet those were fully nationalized, thus preventing any claims from previous owners. Had Jordan officially annexed eastern Jerusalem and nationalized the confiscated Jewish properties – perhaps the Sheikh Jarrah Arab residents would have had a better stance in court. However, they didn’t.

To summarize this brief history of (in)justice:

  • Sheikh Jarrah is officially part of Israel, and its residents are entitled to legal protection under Israeli laws.
  • It is a complex property-rights dispute, NOT a case of Israeli authorities driving helpless Palestinians out of their homes.
  • Property ownership rights are complicated, especially when lost and then regained by war.
  • Unfortunately, this became a National/Ethnic issue, which hinders financial settlement.
  • It does have some parallels with anti-gentrification sentiments in various US cities.