The trickiest issue in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks
As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks get under way in Washington, the largely Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem shows the intensifying battle for control of the city.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas enter direct peace talks on Thursday, an intensifying battle for Jerusalem has rendered the conflict’s trickiest issue even more intractable.Skip to next paragraph
A key flashpoint in this battle is Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Arab neighborhood revered by religious Jews. While the number of new Jewish residents remains small, Palestinians and human rights activists see their expanding presence as fulfilling a larger plan.
Overall, some 2,000 Jewish residents have moved into strategic locations in every Palestinian neighborhood around the Old City, home to key holy sites.
Many Israeli Jews see the “redemption” of such areas as crucial to cementing Israel’s sovereignty over its “undivided and eternal capital” and preventing the kind of partition of Jerusalem that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested yesterday.
“It’s not that there is this one little [Jewish] settlement in Sheikh Jarrah; it’s part of this bigger strategy,” says Orly Noy of Ir Amim, a human rights group that seeks to make Jerusalem a city of two peoples. “Fifty residential units in Sheikh Jarrah are part of a ring of settlements that aim to foil any possibility of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.”
Under a plan preliminarily approved by Israel’s Interior Ministry in March, several dozen Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah would be demolished to make room for 200 Israeli housing units. Also being advanced by Jewish groups are plans for 20 units in the Shepherd Hotel and a conference center known as the Glassman Campus.
And for decades, Jewish families whose relatives fled Sheikh Jarrah amid ethnic violence leading up to Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence have sought to reclaim their property.
But their efforts have been complicated by the fact that after Jordan took over East Jerusalem in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, it allowed the UN refugee agency to settle Palestinian refugees in Sheikh Jarrah who had fled their homes elsewhere in Israel amid the fighting.
After Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war against its Arab neighbors, it annexed the territory – an act that the international community has declared illegal – and applied Israeli law there. Using the Israeli legal system, Jewish groups have pushed for the eviction of Arab residents and won support from the Supreme Court.
Maher Hanoun worries about his home
In one of the most high-profile cases, two of the original Palestinian refugee families – the Hanouns and the Ghawis – were evicted for a second time in August 2009. Israeli Jews who, citing Ottoman-era documents, convinced the court that they were the rightful owners of the properties, moved in while the families watched from a makeshift camp nearby.
Maher Hanoun has been looking forward to Sept. 2, when the families return to court. At issue is what they say was an attorney's forgery that resulted in the entire families being evicted rather than just the heads of the two households.