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.
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.
But he has been dreading the day his daughters start school this fall.
He hopes that when he comes to the part of the school application that asks for an address, he won’t have to write again: “Under an olive tree.”
“To lose your house means you lose security – you lose everything,” Mr. Hanoun says, ducking beneath the visor of his New York Yankees hat to hide tears. “My two daughters, they get so mad because we don’t have any address.”
He had tried to appeal to international leaders, plastering his house with a big sign that said, "Mr. Obama, please help if you can."
"But I see you can't," he says, recounting the day Israeli police came and tore it down before his eviction.
Arieh King worries about his homeland
While Hanoun is worried about his home, Arieh King – one of the most prominent Jewish activists in Sheikh Jarrah – is concerned about homeland.
On a recent morning, he pulled his scooter up to a curb near Sheikh Jarrah and began a tour of the area, which he refers to by the historical Jewish names of Nahalat Shimon and Shimon HaTzedik.
Donning a soft-brimmed hat and wraparound sunglasses, he looks more like a safari guide than the founder and director of the Israel Land Fund, one of several groups spearheading the “redemption” of Jewish property in Jerusalem.
His sandaled feet pause in front of a massive black gate labeled only in French, “Tombeau des Rois.” The Tomb of the Kings is a sacred Jewish burial ground obtained by France in the late 1800s, though the exact circumstances of the transaction are fuzzy.
Mr. King says France’s custody of the site was conditional on keeping it holy, providing free access to Jews, and displaying signs – including in Hebrew – about the nature of the site.
“Today, nobody has access here,” he says, throwing his weight back against the imposing black gate that rattles under his force. “This is a symptom of what’s going on in East Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem is part of our body and it should be the heart of every Jew,” he adds, noting that devout Jews pray facing Jerusalem three times a day and see the city as the heart of a country that is their sole guarantee of survival as a people. “If you want to cut the heart of Jerusalem, you are wanting to kill Jews."
Not a universally shared point of view
But not all Israelis share King’s point of view. In fact, Sheikh Jarrah has become a rallying point for Israel’s beleaguered left wing. Every Friday since late 2009, Israeli protesters have met in the neighborhood – any easy walk from west Jerusalem – to make their disapproval of Israeli policies felt and to show solidarity with the families.
Hanoun says he and his family are buoyed by the weekly demonstrations, which they often attend.
“We’re staying close to let our message be heard around the world,” he says.
Dina Goldstein – a soft-spoken Israeli Jew who spent many nights last year sleeping on a spare mattress at the family’s home with other activists in a failed bid to prevent their eviction – says that while the affair has been a real trial for the Hanouns, their support for each other has been touching.
“They are such a gentle, loving, close family,” she said after an Aug. 6 protest marking one year since their eviction. “Despite this whole continuous nightmare, that’s the one thing that no one can take away from them.”