A bone of contention - GulfToday

A bone of contention

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Palestinians are under pressure to emigrate from East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

I spent my first night in East Jerusalem in Shaikh Jarrah in the family home of a new-found Palestinian friend. In the morning, I was introduced to an Italian architect who was also staying there. He was involved in renovations at the Dome of the Rock in the Haram al-Sharif, the mosque compound on the summit of Mount Moriah in the Old City. He took me on a tour of the project, where medieval Iranian tiles were being replaced by new tiles and the old lead dome by a gold-coloured aluminium structure —which has since been replaced by gold. Jordan was then in charge of the Haram and involved in the renovations. East Jerusalem was a peaceful quiet, sleepy, comfortable West Bank backwater.  

Israel’s conquest of the city, the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967 has changed the character of East Jerusalem and led to never-ending confrontations between Palestinians protesting deportations, mistreatment, evictions, usurpations, home demolitions, and, above all, aggressive colonisation by Israelis who, under international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention are barred from residing in occupied territory.

The current crisis involves Israeli efforts to evict imminently four Palestinian families living in Shaikh Jarrah. Another four face removal on Aug. 1. The 30 other families are fighting protracted court cases against powerful colonist factions who generally win as they are carrying out the Zionist mission of taking over the land. Palestinians are under pressure to emigrate from East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Refugees from Jaffa and the coast were settled in 1956 in Shaikh Jarrah by Jordan and the UN agency which built housing for 28 families driven from their homes during Israel’s 1948 war of establishment. Jordan has provided the families with documents showing they owned the land but Israeli legislation has allowed for a land grab.

In 2002, 43 Palestinians were ousted and Israeli colonists took over their properties. In 2008, the Kurd family was removed; in 2009, the Hanoun and Ghawi families were evicted; and in 2017, the Shamasneh family was rendered homeless. All resisted. This time, the evictees have the support of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. In front of the targeted homes Palestinian Jerusalemites set up an encampment, which the Israeli police dismantled, and colonists have gathered across the way. Clashes have erupted and Israeli police have intervened.

Timing of the evictions is significant. The Shaikh Jarrah protests have coincided with Israeli efforts to limit Ramadan religious observances at the Haram al-Sharif and ban post-iftar gatherings at the Old City’s Damascus Gate. Violent confrontations ensued and engulfed Shaikh Jarrah.

Enervated by daily fasting and angered by constant challenges mounted by Israel, East Jerusalemite Palestinians have been lashing out. They have been joined by brethren in the West Bank and Gaza who have been staging demonstrations. Some observers believe Palestinians — who now form the majority in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River — are on the brink of a Third Intifada since they have lost all hope of an end to the Israeli occupation.

The Second, al-Aqsa Intifada, was launched by a visit to the Haram in September 2000 by militant Likud leader Ariel Sharon and party members under the protection of scores of armed Israeli police. The Israelis remained for 45 minutes but Palestinians in the compound were imprisoned for several hours. This was seen as a major provocation by Sharon who was reviled by Palestinians for his role in the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s Sabra and Chatila “camps” which are, in fact, poor urban districts. As usual, Jerusalemite youths responded to Sharon’s invasion by throwing rocks and bottles, chairs and paving stones at Israelis. Israeli forces countered with live fire. The Second Intifada was, however, not an uprising of stones, as was the First, but a five-year revolt involving bombings and shootings which killed 1,000 Israelis and left 3,000 Palestinians dead.

Shaikh Jarrah is not only a place of contention but also an historic location. It was given its name because the tomb of a physician was sited in the area, which stretches two kilometres north from the Old City.  Hussam al-Din al Jarrahi was attached to the army of Salaheddin when he liberated Jerusalem in October 1187 from the Western Crusaders. The shaikh established a small mosque at what became the entrance of the quarter and was buried in the courtyard.

During the 19th century, due to crowding in the Old City, leading families, notably the Husseinis, moved into the Shaikh Jarrah quarter. A new mosque housing the shaikh’s tomb was built on on Nablus Road where the American Colony, a Protestant religious establishment now a hotel, and the St. George’s School, attended by children of the elite, were, and are, located.     

The Husseinis built large, handsome stone mansions in Shaikh Jarrah. One became Orient House where Faisal Husseini established his Arab Scientific Association to gather material on Palestinian property ownership throughout the country. Although protected by the 1993 Oslo accord, the association was closed and its collections seized by the Israelis shortly after Husseini died in May 2001. A second Husseini villa became the Shepherd Hotel which was expropriated by Israel after 1967 and bought by a US Jewish millionaire who built the first Israeli colony in Shaikh Jarrah since the Israeli occupation.

Israeli claims in Shaikh Jarrah go back to 1874 when the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities acquired 18 dunums (4.4 acres) of land around a burial site said to have contained the remains of Shimon the Just, a revered 1st century Jewish cleric. However, the inscriotion on the tomb identifies it as belonging to a second century Roman matron named Julia Sabina. Scholars argue Shimon’s tomb is elsewhere. First century underground cave burials of 63 minor Jewish clerics are located nearby. Although Palestinian owners have provided Ottoman documents showing that the land was rented to the Jewish communities, Israeli colonists have produced other documents saying the land was purchased. Colonist organisations are known for forging documents but the latter claims were accepted by the Israeli courts.

Shaikh Jarrah is high on Israel’s list of colonisation priorities under the “Holy Basin” long-term project which targets Palestinian properties in the Old City, including the Haram; adjacent Silwan; and the Mount of Olives.

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