Israel's Jerusalem evictions defy Obama, undermine peace process

The international community objected strongly as Israel moved settlers in and longtime Palestinian residents out.

Israel said the evictions were legal and mandated by a ruling of its supreme court. But the country's decision Sunday to forcibly remove two Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem – and to immediately usher in Jewish replacements – has complicated the prospects for successful peace talks any time soon.

On Monday, three people protesting the eviction were arrested by the police. The two families had lived in the homes for almost 50 years. They moved in to the neighborhood after being evicted from their homes in West Jerusalem in 1947 by Israeli forces.

Two families might not seem like much after a 50-year conflict that has displaced hundreds of thousands and cost countless lives. But they came in symbolically fraught East Jerusalem, where President Barack Obama has practically begged Israel to stop settlement expansion to give peace talks a chance. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 - a move that the international community has not accepted -- and Palestinians hope the eastern portion of the city will one day form the capital of their own independent state.

The images beamed around the region were a stark illustration of the Israeli-Palestinian divide as could be imagined: Israeli soldiers force distraught families from their homes and then stand guard as Orthodox Jewish settlers bring in moving vans and take possession (an Al Jazeera English video report on the event is here). The event will have likely deepened a growing Arab belief that Obama will not be more successful than his predecessors in advancing the peace process.

The Times of London quoted chief Palestinian negotiator Saab Eraket as saying Israel was not committed to a renewed peace process. "While Israeli authorities have promised the American administration that home demolitions, home evictions, and other provocations against Palestinian Jerusalemites would be stopped, what we’ve seen on the ground is completely the opposite," he said. The paper also quoted an unusually stern statement from the British consulate in East Jerusalem.

Israel’s claim that the imposition of extremist Jewish settlers into this ancient Arab neighbourhood is a matter for the courts or the municipality is entirely unacceptable... Their actions are incompatible with Israel’s desire for peace. We urge Israel not to allow extremists to set the agenda.”

As we reported in July, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively told the Obama administration to buzz off when it asked him to suspend settlement expansion in Jerusalem last month. That dispute was over the plans of American Bingo magnate Irving Moskowitz, a major bankroller of settler activity, to convert a hotel he owns in East Jerusalem into apartments for settlers. Then, when Obama's Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell visited Jerusalem in late July to press again for a settlement freeze, 11 new settler outposts were set up in the West Bank.

Moskowitz's hotel, like the houses seized on Sunday, lies in Sheikh Jarrah (a map of the area, with a rough idea of the Palestinian and Israeli breakdown, is here), a largely Palestinian neighborhood that is home to the famous American Colony hotel and has seen a number of evictions of Palestinians over the years in favor of religious Israeli settlers.

Palestinians charge that the idea is to place enough Israelis in East Jerusalem, whose annexation by Israel has not been recognized internationally, to make it impossible for any compromises over sovereignty in the area to be made in a theoretical future peace deal. In particular they allege an effort to isolate the Palestinian community in Jerusalem's Old City from the heavily Palestinian northern neighborhoods of the city by taking control of Sheikh Jarrah, which would essentially cut the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem in half.

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