How East Jerusalem went from Jordanian to Israeli to disputed control

A little history behind Israeli-Palestinian property disputes in East Jerusalem.

By , Staff writer

Ilene Prusher's story Tuesday explored the symbolic and emotional dispute over control of East Jerusalem by telling the story of the Hanoun family, who were evicted from the home they'd occupied for 50 years by Israeli forces over the weekend – and immediately replaced with Jewish settlers. The eviction was legal under Israeli law, but Israel's decision to do so will at minimum slow the Obama administration's efforts to restart Middle East peace talks.

In helping to edit Ilene's story, I found I needed a refresher on the broader issues surrounding sovereignty in East Jerusalem, which in the twentieth century passed from the hands of Britain to Jordan to Israel, though the last case is hotly disputed. I figured some readers might be in the same boat, so below are links to maps and a little background that explain how the Hanouns ended up in this position.

Both sides draws red lines around East Jerusalem

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East Jerusalem is by far the stickiest of sticking points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu has made it clear that while he might make concessions in the West Bank in exchange for peace, East Jerusalem – which he and many Israelis consider the "eternal and undivided capital of Jerusalem" – is off the table.

The Palestinians, for their part, want East Jerusalem as the capital of an eventual independent state. Just like for Bibi, that's a demand they say is beyond compromise. Complicating matters is that the historic Old City is in the east (here's a tourist map of the Old City). This is where Islam's third holiest location, the Dome of the Rock, abuts Judiasm's holiest, the Western Wall (or "Wailing Wall"), considered by Jews to be the last vestige of King Solomon's second temple. Oh, and Calvary, where Jesus Christ was killed, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where he's thought to have been buried, is there too. [Editor's note: This version has been updated to correct the relative importance of the Dome of the Rock.]

After 1948, Jordan seizes Jewish-owned properties – some in Sheikh Jarrah

Also in East Jerusalem is the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which the Hanouns have called home for 50-odd years. They arrived there in 1948 in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war came what Palestinians call the nakba ("catastrophe"). During that time about 860,000 Palestinians living in what is now Israel were displaced from their homes, according to the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), which has provided aid to Palestinian refugees since 1951.

Many refugees ended up in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which is the west bank of the Jordan River and whose western border was defined by the end of the Jewish forces' advance. An armistice signed in 1949 essentially established this border – called the "green line" – as the eastern extent of the new Jewish state. (Click here for a map showing where the line was drawn in 1949). East Jerusalem and the West Bank came under Jordanian control.

Immediately after the war, Jordan passed an "Enemy Property" law that gave the state ownership of previously Jewish-owned property in the West Bank. (Israel passed a similar law for the property of Palestinians who had been displaced from Jerusalem and other cities, including Haifa, where the Hanouns' home was seized.)

The land controlled by Jordan after all this included a small parcel in Sheikh Jarrah, and UNWRA convinced the Jordanians to resettle 28 families there, according to Orly Noy, spokeswoman for Ir Amim, an Israeli group that opposed the evictions and wants the government to compromise with the Palestinians over Jerusalem. She says the original plan was for Jordan to transfer title to the families but that Jordan never did. As a practical matter it was irrelevant, because the families were left alone.

Hanouns' home returns to Israeli control

Then came the second Arab-Israeli war in 1967. Israel had a crushing victory and seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Nevertheless, the families in Sheikh Jarrah were allowed to stay in their homes.

In 1972, a settler group began to advance claims in Israeli courts that Jordan's Enemy Property law had been illegal so the land, which originally belonged to a community of Sephardic Jews, should be returned. The Israeli court agreed, though under a fairly liberal compromise: Ownership would be transfered to the group, but the Palestinian residents would be considered "protected tenants." They could stay in perpetuity in exchange for paying nominal annual fees.

But a few of the families challenged the arrangement on principal and refused to pay. Decades of legal wrangling ensued, and the settlers eventually won in July. The settler group in question has filed plans with the Jerusalem government to build apartments for 200 settlers in the area, to be called Shimon HaTzadik. (Here's a map showing Sheikh Jarrah and the proposed location of Shimon HaTzadik, as well as Shepherd's Hotel, site of a recently approved settlement. )

No more legal options

"I can sympathize with the principled stand but this whole thing could have been prevented if they [the families] had received better legal advice,'' says Ms. Noy. But the real issue, she says, is a lack of equity. "The problem here is a legal system that allows Jews to reclaim property from before 1948 but does not allow the Palestinians to do the same thing. Some of these families have proven they own property in western Jerusalm, but no one could imagine them ever being allowed to reclaim that land by an Israeli court."

With no more legal options, she says, the Palestinians in the case can only hope Israel will decide thatallowing settlers to carry out their plans is too damaging for peace prospects. "They're out of legal options,'' Noy says. "The only resolution possible now is a political one."

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