Israel’s attorney general announced this week that he would not intervene in the case of the Palestinian families’ eviction from the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, leaving the issue to Israel’s Supreme Court veridiction, in a move that brings the case closer to an end by forcing the slated eviction of the Palestinians.
Avichai Mendelblit, whose decision on the case had not been made till 8 June, stated that “a multiplicity of legal cases over the years” makes his argument unlikely to change the outcome.
The Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood committee warned of the repercussions of the decision, stressing that it puts the neighborhood’s residents at “risk of actual displacement” and “violates human rights”.
Tempers flared in Gaza and Israel as violent clashes took place between Palestinians and Israelis over the likely displacement of 28 families from their homes by a court ruling that Israel calls a property dispute while the Palestinians consider a settlement and displacement act. The conflict in Sheikh Jarrah dates back to 1972 when Jewish settlers started launching legal challenges to the Palestinian claims to the land based on an Israeli law that permits Jews to recover property abandoned during the war in 1948. There is no equivalent law for Palestinians.
Bilal Dahir, the Israeli affairs editor at the Arab 48 website views Mendelblit’s withdrawal as a reflection of Israel treating the Sheikh Jarrah displacement as a “real estate issue that to be referred to legal courts”, ignoring the rights of the Palestinians to the homes where they lived for more than 60 years.
Following its occupation of East Jerusalem in the June 1967 War, Israel sought to broaden its settlements range in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods, as is the case in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods, and the Old City, as part of a Judaisation scheme for East Jerusalem.
“The withdrawal of Mendelblit transforms the case into a legal case, not a political one, closing the door to the government solving the crisis in Sheikh Jarrah on a political basis, and assuring the affected families that their case is handed to legal judgement,” said Nasser Al-Hadmi, secretary of the Jerusalem Commission Against Demolition and Displacement.
However, Saleh Shweiki, a member of the Committee for the Defence of Jerusalem Lands and the Committee for the Protection of Al-Aqsa, views the move as useless. “It makes the Israelis the judge, the jury and the executioner.”
Mendelblit who was appointed attorney general in 2016, has pushed for legalising 2000 settlements in the West Bank, an area occupied by Israel outside the Regularisation Law which controls settlements under the Oslo Accords. However, the Sheikh Jarrah eviction that mobilised the world’s solidarity was a different, high-profile case that sparked 11 days of war between Hamas and Israeli forces inside Gaza and Tel Aviv. The reverberations of the case apparently made the Israeli attorney general retreat at the last moment.
“The position of the attorney general in the Sheikh Jarrah case is linked to a green light from Netanyahu, who is a close ally of Mendelblit’s. He agreed to take part in the case upon the premier’s request. Due to the political games ongoing in Israel during the government formation, it’s likely that Netanyahu wants to foment a clash inside the Bennet-Lapid coalition in front of the international community, which may generate more confrontations in the Sheikh Jarrah case,” said Essam Arouri, director general of the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC).
For Antoine Shulhut, a Palestinian author who wrote a book titled Netanyahu: The Nonsolution Doctrine, thought that Mendelblit’s retreat on the Sheikh Jarrah case is “a cue for the court to issue a rule legalising the evacuation. Jerusalem is the epicentre of the conflict with Israel and its policies. Israel, emboldened by Trump’s measures to Israelise Jerusalem, proves that its destination isn’t reaching a peace settlement but continuing with ethnic cleansing and spreading more settlements.”
Settlements in East Jerusalem and other parts of Palestine are guaranteed by an Israeli law that allows Jews to request the “return” of their homes and lands if they can prove that their families lived there before the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, even if Palestinians are residing in the same homes.
Arouri explained that Israel devised the Absentee Property Law in 1950 that any property of an internally or externally displaced Palestinian goes under the possession of the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property, which later transferred these properties to Israeli companies and settlement associations. However, the Ottoman Tapu Records don’t recognise any Jewish lands in Sheikh Jarrah while Palestine was ruled by Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, who did not permit Jews to own any properties in Jerusalem.
“This law allows not only the ownership of the descendants of Jewish families who owned those lands, but gives the settlement associations the right to claim these lands as Jewish heritage,” Arouri noted.
Sheikh Jarrah can be seen as a microcosm of the greater cause of Palestine, which is the struggle for land and geography.
“The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a struggle for existence. Israel is practising replacement policies, not just occupation, by which it replaces Palestinian residents with Israeli settlers,” said Mounir Izghir, head of the northern neighbourhood committees in Jerusalem. “The Sheikh Jarrah case is part of a broader plan to evacuate Palestinians in Jerusalem to its outskirts and outside.”
Sheikh Jarrah, which lies in the Old City of Jerusalem close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, was a part of the Islamic endowments lands leased to a Jewish person, Shweiki told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The lease on Sheikh Jarrah, which is eligible to the right of usufruction, not ownership, ended after the Israeli occupation of 1967, but Israel attempted to renew the contract despite it being an endowment.
“Israel seeks to establish a settlement belt to change the reality of Jerusalem,” said Fakhri Abu Diab, member of the Popular Committee for the Defence of Threatened Homes in Silwan, Jerusalem, who highlighted the necessity of the international and Arab community to continue pressures against Israel to stop the evacuation of Sheikh Jarrah and deter a larger Israeli settlement plan under the name of the Holy Basin that will extend from Sheikh Jarrah north of the Old City to Silwan in the south.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly