The Sheikh Jarrah crisis: What is happening in Jerusalem, Palestine?

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    Activists protest Israeli occupation in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, on 19 March 2021 (AFP)

    Between May 7 and 10, Israeli Defence Forces stormed Masjid Al Aqsa in Jerusalem unleashing tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber-tipped bullets on Palestinian worshippers which seriously injured many. The violence took place during the final days of Ramadan, the holiest of months and in Al Aqsa, the third holiest site for Muslims. Palestinians had gathered in Al Aqsa to protest Israel’s plans to forcibly evict more than 200 Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and allocate their homes and property to settler colonialists coming from different countries.

    Sheikh Jarrah is a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, 2 km north of the old city. While the western half of Jerusalem is totally under Israeli occupation, eastern Jerusalem which is beyond the Green Line or Israel proper still has Palestinian owners to land and properties. Sheikh Jarrah is home to about 28 Palestinian refugee families who were ethnically cleansed from their original homes during the Nakba of 1948. East Jerusalem is internationally recognized as a future capital of the independent state of Palestine but Israel would never want that to happen. Forced evictions are Israel’s way of destroying the Palestinian identity of the whole of Jerusalem and colonizing it with a Jewish settler majority so that the city in no way happens to have any Palestinian connection in the future.

    Under an agreement between Jordan and UNRWA in 1956, these refugee families were promised housing and land in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah. The families were meant to receive ownership titles after only 3 years but that never happened as Israel illegally occupied the whole of Jerusalem before the titles could materialize.

    Forced evictions are not new to Sheikh Jarrah. Zionist settler organizations have been trying to seize it since 1972. Backed by soldiers, police and private security firms, settlers routinely drag Palestinians out of their homes and throw all of their possession into the street. Not only are they left homeless, without state support, but Israeli authorities even charge these families extortionate fees to pay for their own evictions.

    After reading this, one thing can cross the reader’s mind: Isn’t forced eviction illegal? Yes, under International law (Rome Statute) it could be a war crime as the neighborhood does not fall under Israeli jurisdiction but not according to the Israeli state law. Laws like the 1950 Absentee’s Property Law allow forced evictions and land confiscations. While Palestinian families are allowed to file appeals to Israeli courts, the court usually refuses to check a Palestinian’s ownership document.

    In October 2020, an Israeli court ruled to forcibly evict 12 Palestinian families from the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and hand their properties to Israeli settlers. As a result, over 550 Palestinians face the threat of dispossession and homelessness. The court also ruled that each evicted refugee family must pay $20,000 to cover the settlers’ legal expenses. Israel’s Supreme Court had been expected to deliver a ruling on 10 May 2021 on whether to uphold the eviction of Palestinian families from the neighbourhood that had been permitted by a lower court. On 9 May 2021, however,  the Supreme Court delayed the expected decision on evictions for 30 more days.

    The ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah is just one example of Israeli settler-colonialism, which aims to create a Jewish majority not just in East Jerusalem but across Palestine by establishing segregated Jewish-only settlements. Through these measures, the Israeli government seeks to entrench de facto annexation. If Sheikh Jarrah falls, Jerusalem will follow. Sheikh Jarrah is one of the last fronts resisting colonization today. Losing Sheikh Jarrah would represent the loss of Jerusalem’s Palestinian identity. It signals a horrifying fate for the remaining dwindling indigenous population of East Jerusalem.

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