What's behind the Sheikh Jarrah dispute

The disputed East Jerusalem neighbourhood has become a symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict


JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - MAY 08: Palestinians escape from a stun grenade fired by Israeli police officers during clashes at Damascus Gate during the holy month of Ramadan on May 8, 2021 in Jerusalem, Israel. Tensions continue in Jerusalem's Old City after clashes in Al-Aqsa Mosque where dozens of Palestinians were seriously injured. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

May 09, 2021 11:38

Sheikh Jarrah has become the latest international talking point relating to Israel, a place that is mentioned in the halls of Congress in the US, throughout Europe and in international media, often by people who have never been there and can’t really describe what the issue is about.

This is because Sheikh Jarrah, like other property disputes in the past that gained international rally-cry-attention against Israel, are symbols of the conflict, not the conflict itself. 

Sheikh Jarrah is a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem that abuts the picturesque American Colony Hotel and is between some Orthodox neighbourhoods and a large police compound and the Hebrew University. Jewish property owners have claims in the area and some Jewish families live in the neighborhood.

A court case relating to several homes has been winding its way through courts for years and reached the High Court. The details of the case are not as important as the fact that it has gained international attention, focusing critique on Israel for evicting Palestinians. This is similar to numerous controversies that emerge every year.  

Sheikh Jarrah is, in essence, another Khan al-Ahmar or Susiya or Al-Araqib. These are places where a property dispute, usually going back decades, became an international symbol of Israel attempting to displace Palestinians. In some cases, the places are inside the Green Line, sometimes in Jerusalem, sometimes in the West Bank, but the overall context is the same.

For many readers those other names may now seem like a distant memory. Al-Araqib, the Bedouin settlement in the Negev whose residents claim they have a long history on the land, has been "demolished" 186 times by Israeli authorities. There was a time when it got international attention. Back in April 2013 Al-Jazeera reported that Israel had already “flattened” Al-Araqib 49 times

By January that had reached 182 times, according to reports. In this case "flattening" means removing a few caravans and temporary structures at this site in the Negev. 

In January 2017 an Israeli policeman and a local Bedouin man were killed in clashes at another contentious site called Umm al-Hiran. In 2018 the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, called on Israel to halt the demolition of Umm al-Hiran.

In November 2017 US Senators wrote to Prime Minister to urge Israel not to demolish Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar, two Bedouin communities in the West Bank. In all 74 Democrat lawmakers urged Israel to stop the process of demolitions or removing the communities.  

Now US Congress member Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has joined those protesting about Sheikh Jarrah. “We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Israeli forces are forcing families from their homes during Ramadan and inflicting violence. It is inhumane and the US must show leadership in safeguarding the human rights of Palestinians,” she wrote on Saturday.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren said that “the forced removal of long-time Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah is abhorrent and unacceptable. The Administration should make clear to the Israeli government that these evictions are illegal and must stop immediately.” 

Sheikh Jarrah is one of those Israel-Palestinian conflicts in microcosm that goes back many years. Some may say it goes back to the pre-state era and argue that Jews have long-standing rights in this east Jerusalem neighbourhood. Others will argue Palestinian families face an unfair eviction.

Back in 2010 there were protests in Sheikh Jarrah against basically the same issue. Today the UN, European countries and US are all focused on the situation in Sheikh Jarrah again. The EU has expressed concerns about evictions before, relating to the Batal al-Hawa area in Silwan or other places.

Concerns were also raised about plans for Givat Hamatos. In Sheikh Jarrah evictions in 2009 and incidents in 2013 gained international attention. The New Yorker even had a whole story on the issue in 2013.  

It’s worthwhile seeing this as a cyclical news cycle, both symbolic and used for larger agendas. It’s not clear if people will ever be evicted in Sheikh Jarrah or whether court cases are really what matters. Israel often wins court cases in these property disputes, meaning that the government or claimants are often legally correct, but that doesn’t mean that when it comes to policy that anything actually takes place. Often Israel backs down and doesn’t evict people.

Israel also seems incapable of foreseeing which of these issues will become a major cause every year and predicting accordingly. It also fails to find compromises that work, such as paying compensation and removing the issue of contention. 


May 09, 2021 11:38

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