Tuesday, August 04, 2009

East Jerusalem evictions

Jews & Sheikh Jarrah

It was not a pretty picture. The belongings of two Palestinian Arab families dumped in the street after they were evicted from their homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. They were expelled on Sunday after Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the land upon which their homes were built belonged to the Sephardi Jewish community.

This area, also known as "Simon the Just," was purchased by Jews at the end of the 19th century during the Ottoman Empire. According to The New York Times, the evacuated houses were built in the 1950s by the United Nations for refugees who had fled west Jerusalem during the 1948 war. When Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan and united the city, after the 1967 Six Day War, the families were permitted to stay on as tenants. At some point, they stopped paying rent having become convinced - we know not by whom - that the Jews' deed to the land was a forgery.

It took a large force of police to carry out the evictions in the face of opposition from the residents, left-wing Jewish supporters and foreign demonstrators.

Coming on the heels of the controversy surrounding the nearby Shepherd Hotel complex, which was also purchased to create Jewish residential housing, the evictions drew worldwide condemnation. The international community says Israel has no legal claim to east Jerusalem; nor does it accept Israeli sovereignty over west Jerusalem.

Israel finds itself in the anomalous position in which not a single nation recognizes Jerusalem as our capital. All foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, European governments, with Britain often in the lead, have invested vast resources, sometimes surreptitiously, in promoting Arab claims to east Jerusalem (and the West Bank), bankrolling organizations, many staffed with Israelis and sporting Hebrew names, whose mandate is, in effect, to promote EU policy vis-à-vis Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The British Consulate in Jerusalem explicitly denies that Israeli courts have jurisdiction over east Jerusalem. Its diplomats term the Arab connection to Sheikh Jarrah "ancient."

Media coverage of the issue has been overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinian position.

THERE happens to be another side to this argument.

Put aside, for our purposes here, the ancient Jewish connection to Jerusalem and Zion's centrality to Jewish civilization over the millennia.

Begin instead with the fact that there is no neatly delineated "east" and "west" Jerusalem - one section housing Arabs and the other Jews. Jerusalem beyond the Green Line is home to some 200,000 Jews and 270,000 Arabs, though 66 percent of all residents are Jewish. The city is built on a range of hills and valleys. Arab and Jewish neighborhoods crisscross in the north, east and southern sectors.

Sheikh Jarrah, in the northeast, is strategically situated on the way to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. During the 1948 war, Arabs massacred 78 doctors and others who were heading by convoy to Hadassah hospital, also on Mount Scopus. Today, in addition to the hospital (which serves both Israelis and Palestinians) and the university (which has thousands of Arab students), the area is also home to Israel's police headquarters and Justice Ministry.

Staunchly right-wing Orthodox groups have been competing with Gulf Arabs in the quest to purchase properties in the area. (Israel does not forbid Arabs from buying land in Jerusalem.)

In this particular rivalry, we side with the Jewish groups, even if this newspaper is sometimes put-off by the way they see the world, because whatever arrangements may ultimately be negotiated for sharing Jerusalem, mainstream Israelis will insist on unfettered access to Mount Scopus via Sheikh Jarrah.

As far as British claims of an "ancient" Arab connection to the area, Nadav Shragai convincingly documents, in the latest "Jerusalem Issue Brief" published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (www.jcpa.org), that the Jewish connection to what is today Sheikh Jarrah predates the founding of both Christianity and Islam.

That said, we are not enthusiastic about the purchase of property or the construction of Jewish residential housing in heavily Arab neighborhoods when not dictated by strategic imperatives.

Jews and Arabs are destined to share this city. Both peoples would be wise to avoid actions that exacerbate tensions.

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