Jerusalem’s district of disputes

While the world condemns Israel’s actions in Sheikh Jarrah, dubious British practices quietly continue


The district of Sheikh Jarrah lies in the north-east quarter of Jerusalem. Beyond it rises the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University, reached by a highway that was, in 1948, the scene of the massacre of 78 Jews — many of them doctors and nurses — by Arab terrorists.

Today, the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood houses the headquarters of Israel’s police service, the ministry of justice, and the British consulate.

Many years ago, at the commencement of a sabbatical in Israel, I took the trouble to visit this consulate in order to register the presence, in Jerusalem, of myself and my family.

The then vice-consul was charming — until I pointed out enthusiastically that the British government was funding my research, that my Jerusalem landlord was actually residing in Gush Etzion, and that, therefore, the British taxpayer was, albeit indirectly, subsidising Jewish settlement in “the territories” — or, as the esteemed vice-consul preferred to put it, “the occupied territories”.

The UK has been engaged in espionage: monitoring Jewish settlement in Israel’s capital

The charm quickly disappeared. For it was made clear to me that the vice-consul regarded “watching over Arab interests” as a major part of his responsibilities.

I recalled this charged dialogue to mind as I read of the strange goings-on in the very same Sheikh Jarrah district over the past couple of weeks.

On Sunday August 2, to an avalanche of international media attention, two Arab families were evicted from houses in Sheikh Jarrah which the Israeli Supreme Court had ruled belonged to Jewish landlords. These evictions were not capricious. They were for non-payment of rent. Evictions and repossessions are never a pretty sight. But landlords also have rights.

Clearly, however, the nearby British consulate was less than pleased, and said so. But before we come to what it said — or, rather, to why it said what it said — we must consider another incident, that had taken place in Sheikh Jarrah some days previously.

This concerned the Shepherd Hotel complex, which lies just a stone’s throw from the consulate.
The imposing central building in this complex was constructed by the then Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, an ally (it will be recalled) of the Nazis.

The British government confiscated the building (the irony of this confiscation could not be deeper) but, after the 1967 Six-Day war, the Israeli government conferred on two Christian brothers living there (and still paying rent to the exiled Husseini family) the status of protected tenants.

Some 20 years ago, the widows of these brothers sold the hotel, and it is now owned by the American businessman Irving Moskowitz, well-known for his efforts to redeem Jerusalem-based property for Jewish settlement.

On July 2 this year, the Jerusalem municipality approved an application to build 20 housing units on the site. From the British consulate, the reaction can only be described as semi-hysterical. A despatch was immediately conveyed to Whitehall and, on the pretext that one or more of these housing units might be used to spy on the consulate, the Obama administration was asked to bully the Israeli government into preventing the development.

But what the UK government really objected to was Jewish settlement in this part of Jerusalem. And it now appears that the UK government, through its Sheikh Jarrah consulate, has for some months been engaged in espionage of its own — namely, the monitoring of Jewish settlement in Israel’s capital city.

What is more, at the end of July an official spokesman of the UK government boasted on the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV station that Whitehall was “taking practical steps towards freezing settlement activities. For instance, we finance projects aimed at halting settlement activities … we also finance organisations that monitor settlement activities.”

Yossi Levy, of the Israeli foreign ministry, has condemned such activities as “the height of chutzpah.”
Tom Phillips, Britain’s ambassador to Israel, has been asked to furnish an explanation.

But diplomatic protests will, by themselves, achieve nothing. May I respectfully suggest, therefore, that a much better way of dealing with this chutzpah would be to require the closure of the Sheikh Jarrah consulate, the legitimate activities of which can be transferred to the west Jerusalem consulate, located at 101 Hebron Road?

Not the least virtue of this solution would be a most welcome saving to the British taxpayer.

    Last updated: 2:58pm, August 13 2009