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JIIS Bulletin - November 2010
The Sheikh Jarrah affair: Jewish settlement may harm Israel's interests
There is a tug-of-war underway in Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem. Dozens of Palestinian families who have resided in the neighborhood since the time of Jordanian rule are under threat of eviction due to the claim that their properties are Jewish-owned. The matter has gone as high as Israel's Supreme Court, which, in one case, ruled in September that indeed the real estate is Jewish-owned. This and other similar rulings legally serve Jewish settlement initiatives in what has until now been generally accepted as the "Palestinian side of the city." 

A JIIS policy paper released this month asserts that Jewish settlement in the Arab parts of East Jerusalem is "in discord, possibly even in conflict, with Israel’s political interests." 

The situation is complicated, to be sure. Sheikh Jarrah has historical, national and religious significance for both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, and this significance is being invoked in what has by now become a sizzling conflict. The location of the neighborhood – on the threshold between East and West Jerusalem, linking the Old City to Mount Scopus and to the northeast part of the city, and dotted with consulates and international organizations – grants it geopolitical importance. 

The JIIS research, led by Prof. Yitzhak Reiter and Lior Lehrs, sought to analyze the strategic implications for Israel of Jewish settlement in the heart of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. It then examined the various tools available to the authorities in addressing this issue. It now seeks to convey to decision makers the need to formulate a policy of action that accords with the interests of the state. 

The researchers found that while there have been a few instances of reclaimed ownership and possession of Jewish property in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, the Sheikh Jarrah affair is an overt effort to evict the residents of two entire compounds that dozens of Palestinian refugee families have called home since the 1950s. This effort "reflects a growing pattern of Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem on the basis of legal proceedings addressing the private property rights of Jews," Reiter and Lehrs explain. However, they add, through such actions, private Jewish entities are establishing facts on the ground that do not necessarily accord with the vital interests of the State of Israel.

"Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab neighborhoods has significant implications for Israel’s vital interests," say the authors, and elaborate thus: The state must maintain a negotiating framework that addresses the issues arising from the events of 1967, leaving 1948-related issues out of the discussion. The Israeli interest regarding refugee property is to formulate an equation of mutual concession over property – both Palestinian and Jewish – that was lost as a result of the 1948 war.  The reclaiming of Jewish ownership and possession rights in Sheikh Jarrah specifically and in East Jerusalem generally could lead to the opening of the “1948 files,” inspiring and even encouraging claims for restitution of refugee properties within West Jerusalem neighborhoods and in other parts of Israel. 

"The inequality between Jews and Arabs on matters involving the return of property abandoned because of the 1948 War is unacceptable to the international community and unexplainable for Israel. So, despite the legal context of an issue involving property rights, this complex reality cannot be left to the care and judgment of private entities. The government has the tools to take action – and has used them in the past – to ensure that Israel's best interests are upheld. We urge the government to formulate a clear policy on the matter."   

Reiter and Lehrs outlined the potential strategic implications of the affair in a number of areas. The main message is that Jewish settlement in Sheikh Jarrah combined with the eviction of Palestinians adds yet another layer of tension to inter-communal relations in East Jerusalem, exacerbating the existing tension and giving the "naysayers to peace" new sources of ammunition to delegitimize a return to the negotiation table. This reinforces the negative image of the city – and continues the cycle of hatred.
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