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Hamas and Netanyahu Are Gambling Dangerously in Jerusalem

At 6:03 P.M. on Monday, right on time, air-raid sirens sounded over Jerusalem. Hamas’s normally secretive military head, Mohammed Deif, abetted by a spokesman for the Qassam Brigades, which Deif commands, had issued a warning. If, by 6 P.M., Israel did not remove its forces from the al-Aqsa Mosque, and, notably, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, in East Jerusalem, where Jewish settlers are trying to evict Palestinian families, Israel would pay a “heavy price.” His only means to exact a price were rockets, launched from Gaza.

Deif had inserted himself into a troubled moment. Last Friday, three days after he issued his statement, more than two hundred Palestinians were injured at the al-Aqsa Mosque, as police using stun grenades dispersed rock-throwing protesters, who were incensed, in part, by the presence of police during Ramadan. During the same period, the police violently dispersed hundreds of Palestinians and their Israeli-Jewish supporters who were demonstrating in Sheikh Jarrah, with tear gas and skunk water, a foul-smelling liquid developed for that purpose. By late afternoon on Monday, the city was bracing for a march by rightist youth, who typically taunt Palestinians with nationalist slogans, in celebration of Jerusalem Day. This event commemorates the Israeli conquest of the city in 1967, and its route passes through the Nablus Gate, itself the site of protests two weeks before, when police—unaccountably and, owing to the protests, temporarily—barred Palestinians from socializing on the steps of the gate’s plaza after breaking the Ramadan fast.

Few people living where I do, in the part of the city known as the German Colony, just a mile and a half from the Old City, scrambled to shelters when the sirens sounded. We reckoned that, as in 2012, Hamas rockets, not known for their accuracy, would land short. Indeed, of the half-dozen rockets launched at Jerusalem, one landed in Kiryat Anavim, a kibbutz nine miles to the west of the city, hitting a home; others went similarly astray. Nevertheless, and in spite of Israel’s provocations, Deif’s rockets were an obvious escalation. By morning, Israel had escalated further, with air strikes, reportedly killing twenty or more people, including at least nine children. By Thursday evening, more than seventeen hundred Hamas rockets, aiming to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome air defenses, and targeting the cities of Ashkelon, Lod, and Tel Aviv, among others, had killed seven Israelis, including a young boy. Israeli strikes in Gaza have now killed eighty-seven people, assassinated Hamas leaders, and levelled a multistory apartment block. Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced that the purpose of the strikes was to make Hamas “regret its decision.” Meanwhile, clashes in the cities of Lod and Ramla have led to more than twenty arrests, the burning of three synagogues, street attacks on Palestinians, and the trashing of homes in both communities. “We will not tolerate this. We need to restore calm,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, during a nighttime visit to Lod. “If this isn’t an emergency situation, I don’t know what is. We are talking about life and death here.” Other mixed Jewish-Arab cities also reported widespread violence.

Who benefits from this violence? Given how standard Deif’s and Netanyahu’s claims are, it may seem superfluous to ask. Palestinian grievances almost always attach the charge of Zionist displacement, such as that occurring in Sheikh Jarrah, to the fear of losing custodianship of the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, where al-Aqsa stands on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple. In 1920, Zionists began to purchase large swaths of land throughout Mandatory Palestine, in a process that often led to the eviction of tenant farmers; in May, 1921—exactly a hundred years ago—bloody attacks and counterattacks erupted in Jaffa, leaving scores dead on both sides. By 1929, when riots broke out in Jerusalem, it had become common wisdom among Palestinian leaders that supplanting the Palestinian poor was a prelude to supplanting Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Indeed, there are radicals studying in the Jewish Quarter a few hundred yards from al-Aqsa who are committed to building a “third” temple on the Temple Mount.

And Sheikh Jarrah, Deif knows, exposes the asymmetry of ordinary life under the occupation. Before 1948, Sheikh Jarrah was a mixed neighborhood, including the homes of leading Arab families, and some pietistic Jewish communities, drawn to the cave assumed to be the tomb of Shimon the Just, a priest from Hellenic times. In 1956, after Jordan and the United Nations had reached an agreement, twenty-eight Palestinian refugee families who had been displaced from their homes were housed in a residential compound in the neighborhood, some on land once owned or claimed by Jews—though the rights to at least a portion of the land were subsequently challenged by an Arab Jerusalem resident who claimed to have found documents proving long-standing title to it. In exchange for the small houses, the refugees were required to relinquish ration cards that had qualified them for material assistance from the U.N. Relief and Works Association. The property was controlled by Jordan, which promised, in effect, perpetual renewal, and, over time, families built onto their homes.

After the 1967 war, however, Israel moved quickly to claim custodianship of Jordanian-administered land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the land under these compounds. And, in 1972, the land was signed over to two Jewish trusts purporting to be the representatives of the dispossessed communities. Ten years later, they sued to evict twenty-three Palestinian families, who, owing allegedly to their attorney’s carelessness, were subsequently registered as recognizing the trusts’ ownership. Serial court cases were launched from there, with the trusts demanding rent, and filing for eviction of families who could be shown not to have fully paid it. The trusts, upping the ante, then sold the land for three million dollars to a wealthy settlers’ organization, which planned to move the families out. Finally, in 2008 and 2009, in the face of mounting protests by East Jerusalem Palestinians and sympathetic Jewish-Israeli activists, dozens of residents were forcibly evicted by police. A number of Jewish families and a few young zealots moved in. Now the settler organization is pressing for seventy more Palestinian residents to be thrown out of their homes. The settlers’ obvious hope is to do in Sheikh Jarrah what other settlers have done in the Hebron Casbah: empty it of Palestinian residents and businesses. In recent weeks, Netanyahu’s ultra-right allies in the Knesset, including the Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, have made brazen, carefully publicized appearances outside the al-Aqsa compound and at the Nablus Gate and Sheikh Jarrah. (On Monday, coincidentally, the Supreme Court was scheduled to have heard, in effect, the residents’ appeals. The hearing was postponed.)

So, the case is complex, but the larger provocation is simple. After 1948, many Arab lands and residences on the Israeli side, including the house that I live in, were legally declared to have been abandoned, and thus available to the Israeli government to lease or sell to Israeli Jews. Jordan did the same regarding Jewish property on its side of the city. Israel is now in charge on both sides, and in recent years courts have allowed the enforcement of old Jewish claims, but not those of Arabs. Within blocks of my home are three houses once owned by the families of a friend, Yasir Barakat, an antiquities merchant in the Old City, who is now a resident of Sheikh Jarrah. Barakat told me, “My family, thank God, had the means to remake our lives after the war”—they had to leave their home in 1948—“and I don’t claim those houses, which I pass when I drive to yours. But now they throw these poor people out. And I could smell the stink from the police water cannons from my window.”


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