FRESH AIR

PA apparently seeks to get Palestinian residents evicted in Sheikh Jarrah

Nov 4, 2021 | Ahron Shapiro

Israel's Supreme Court offers a compromise on August 2, 2021 which was ultimately rejected.
Israel's Supreme Court offers a compromise on August 2, 2021 which was ultimately rejected.

Readers will probably recall that one of the purported triggers for the May explosion of violence between Israel and terrorists in Gaza, initiated by Hamas, was a property dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

The properties are tenanted by Palestinian families that moved there during the period of Jordanian occupation, but are owned by a Jewish organisation.

Now it looks like another explosion may soon occur because by pressuring those families to refuse a compromise that would guarantee they can stay in their homes, the Palestinian Authority is sabotaging efforts to defuse this dispute.

The Jewish organisation – which courts have repeatedly found has valid title to the land and which purchased it from another organisation that had owned it since the 1870s – had brought action to evict the Palestinian tenants. The tenants were never given title to the land by Jordan, but have nonetheless been refusing to pay nominal rent, and had committed various other breaches of their lease, despite having earlier agreed to a court-ordered compromise that, in return for paying a token amount of rent, they would be entitled to remain on the land as “protected tenants”.

After many years in the Israeli legal system, the case reached the Israeli High Court early this year.

A new compromise now offered by the High Court to four of 28 families under threat of eviction would guarantee they could stay in their homes, and thus defuse the issue (it is presumed the same compromise would also later be available to the other 24 families potentially affected by this legal precedent). The compromise would see these families recognised as “protected tenants” for the next 15 years, without prejudice to future proceedings, and with the tenants able to continue to seek legal support for their claim that the land is rightfully theirs.

However, this compromise was rejected on November 2 after the families had initially agreed to the offer, after intense political pressure was reportedly applied to the families by Palestinian Authority officials.

Ha’aretz’s Nir Hasson reported on the details of the deal that was ultimately rejected due to the pressure:

According to the detailed compromise proposed by the justices, three Palestinian families would receive the status of first-generation protected tenants – in other words, another two generations of the family can remain in the houses with this status – and one of the families will be recognized as second-generation protected tenants, which will apply to the next generation too. They would be allowed to remain in their homes for the next 15 years, or until the legal proceedings between the parties in the matter are completed.

In return, each family would have to pay an extremely low annual rent of 2,400 shekels ($750) to the Nahalat Shimon nonprofit that controls the Jewish religious trust that owns the property. The families would also be able to continue with their claims to ownership of the properties with the land office in the Justice Ministry.

The episode surrounding the residents provides a glimpse into the way the dispute has been perpetuated by a Palestinian political culture that rejects engagement and compromise with Israeli laws in any way, and at any cost – with violence often the outcome.

According to Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh’s report on the rejection of the court’s proposed compromise:

The PA Jerusalem Affairs Ministry said the Sheikh Jarrah case is a purely political issue.

“The occupation courts are only a tool in the service of the Israeli government to implement its schemes in the State of Palestine in general and the occupied city of Jerusalem in particular,” it said in a statement.

Ahmed Rwaidy, a senior PA official, arrived in Sheikh Jarrah and announced his strong opposition to the compromise.

“We reject all Israeli measures and any offer presented to the families of Sheikh Jarrah by the occupation because of the dangerous national repercussions,” he said. “The occupation wants to drag us to its courts.”

According to Abu Toameh, seven other tenant families that had reportedly suggested they would accept the compromise are expected to recant, and they, along with 17 other families affected in this case, are now also seen to be less likely to strike a deal.

In other words, the Palestinian Authority is insisting it would rather see these 28 families evicted than accept arrangements that would let them stay without prejudice to their claims to own the land, because it wants Palestinians to reject any dealings whatsoever with Israeli courts.

The High Court’s compromise offer is only the latest effort by the Israeli judiciary to avoid a confrontation in this case that has spanned many years. (And contrary to many incorrect reports in Australia on the case – this is completely a private civil dispute over land ownership, with no intervention by any Israeli government.)

In May 2021, during the height of tension at Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem Post legal affairs reporter Yonah Jeremy Bob looked in depth at the laws surrounding controversial owner-tenant disputes in Jerusalem, with an emphasis on the case at hand.

At that time, Bob wrote:

The question is whether [Israel’s Attorney General Avichai] Mandelblit and the court will reach some similar creative compromise as it did in 2015, whether a new government might freeze the issue indefinitely or whether [evictions] – and all of the geopolitical backlash that will come with them – will finally go forward.

The High Court did indeed offer a compromise, and it has now been rejected.

What we have seen on November 2, once more, is the Palestinian Authority clinging to the Sheikh Jarrah dispute as political theatre and an international cause celebre, rejecting any form of legal compromise and essentially baiting Israeli authorities to enforce property law and evict the tenants.

The families assert that their decision had not been influenced by the Palestinian leadership, though this appears hard to believe. But regardless, the rejectionist and nationalistic sloganeering by PA officials who intervened in the Sheikh Jarrah issue betrays an inescapable reality where the Palestinians in such land dispute cases are treated as pawns by the PA leadership, who demand these families lean into the role of victims of supposed Israeli cruelty rather than act in their own interests.

Moreover, the PA constantly talks up its anger about Jews moving into Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. The most likely net effect of the rejection of the High Court compromise is that, instead of these Palestinians staying in their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, the Jewish organisation which owns the land will evict them and replace them with Jewish residents.

Whether evictions will take place in the future remains unclear, but what cannot be denied from the Palestinian statements themselves is that the PA officials are seeking to inflame tensions in Sheikh Jarrah and perpetuate instability, not find a solution to keep the Palestinian residents in their homes.

It will be worthwhile to keep Tuesday’s rejectionist statements in mind should such instability and confrontation eventuate – as well as the fact that it all could have been easily avoided if not for Palestinian Authority rejectionism and incitement.

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