Sheikh Jarrah, parts of which were historically known as Shimon Hatzadik or Nahalat Shimon, has become one of Jerusalem’s tensest neighborhoods. Writes Hugh Fitzgerald
There were more clashes this past weekend (Feb.11-13) between Arabs and Jews in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. A report on the latest Arab-Jewish fighting is here: “Clashes in flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah after far-right MK opens protest ‘office,’” by Aaron Boxerman, Times of Israel, February 13, 2022:
Israelis and Palestinians hurled chairs at one another during clashes in the flashpoint East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on Sunday morning after a far-right Israeli parliamentarian opened a makeshift office on the scene.
The latest clashes did not begin when that MK, Itamar Ben Gvir, set up his tiny makeshift outdoor office consisting of nothing more than a table and chair under an awning, but when Arabs firebombed a Jewish home on Friday night. That led to Ben Gvir’s denunciation of the Israeli police for not adequately protecting the Jews In Sheikh Jarrah, an area where for months tensions have been high, as Israeli courts have been settling longstanding property disputes, leading to eviction orders fo Arab squatters. The international media have covered the Sheikh Jarrah contretemps not as property disputes, but as part of a sinister plot by Israel to “judaize” east Jerusalem. This is nonsense; in 1967, when Israel took possession of east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, there were 66,000 Arabs in east Jerusalem; now there are 350,000, more than a fivefold increase. If Israel had been trying to “judaize” east Jerusalem, the results would have been very different.
Itamar Ben Gvir, a member of the hard-right Religious Zionism party, had announced on Saturday that he would set up an office — a table under an awning — in Sheikh Jarrah, following the firebombing of a Jewish home.
Ben Gvir said he aimed to protest what he called the failure of police to protect Jewish residents in the mostly Palestinian neighborhood.
On Sunday morning, right-wing Jewish Israelis, including Ben Gvir, gathered in the front yard of a home currently lived in by the Salems, a Palestinian family.
The 11 residents are set to be evicted in March by the home’s new owner, far-right Jerusalem city councilmember Yonatan Yosef.
The Salem family arrived in Sheikh Jarrah as refugees from Qaluniya, near
Jerusalem, following the 1948 war that saw the establishment of Israel, and moved into a home that had been owned by Jews before 1948, and after the war, was administered by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property. After Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, it passed legislation that allowed Israelis to reclaim their property which includes the Salem family home.
The Salem family at no time owned the property it is now living in in Sheikh Jarrah. The original Jewish owners, to whom that property ought to have been turned over in 1967, for decades had tried to get the Salem family at least to pay rent, but failed. Then a new Jewish owner tried to have them evicted; he has finally won his case. After more than fifty years of living rent-free in property owned by two different Jewish owners, the Salems are at long last going to be evicted. This is no different from the three million evictions that take place every year in the United States.
According to videos from the scene on Sunday, Israelis and Palestinians began shoving one another in an altercation that soon devolved into an all-out brawl.
Israel Police said that officers had arrested two participants in the clashes, without specifying whether the detainees were Israeli or Palestinian.
The latest clashes took place on Sunday. But it was on Friday night that Arabs began the most recent violence, when they firebombed a Jewish-owned house. Though the family was out, the house badly damaged. Then, on Saturday, an Arab driver hit a Jewish pedestrian. He claims it was the result of an unintentional swerve, after he had been hit, he says, with pepper spray.
Sheikh Jarrah, parts of which were historically known as Shimon Hatzadik or Nahalat Shimon, has become one of Jerusalem’s tensest neighborhoods. Far-right Jewish nationalists have sought to evict Palestinian residents in decades-long legal battles that helped touch off violence between Israel and Hamas last May. Scattered acts of violence have taken place in the area for months since then.
It’s not “far-right Jewish nationalists” who have “sought to evict Palestinian residents,” but the Jewish property owners whose politics we do not know and that in any case are irrelevant. All that counts is that they can show that they have title to the properties in question. At one site, the owner is the Jerusalem municipality itself. It is not out to turn the property over to Israeli Jews, but wants to remove Arab squatters who illegally built houses on public land, in order to build a school for Arab children with special needs. Reports in the international press seldom mention that plan.
On Friday, a Jewish house was firebombed by unknown assailants; the family was away from home at the time. A firefighter was lightly wounded from smoke inhalation.
Right-wing Jewish activists went to the area of the firebombing on Saturday to protect the house, saying it had been repeatedly targeted and blaming police for failing to protect the family. Clashes broke out between the two sides, leading to two injured and six arrests.
A Jewish man was moderately injured by an Arab driver in the neighborhood around midnight. Police arrested the driver, who claimed he had been pepper-sprayed prior to the collision, apparently by Jewish protesters.
It’s important to get the timeline right. The latest cycle of violence did not start on Sunday, but late on Friday night, when Arabs firebombed a Jewish-owned house. On Saturday, Jews who had lost faith in the ability of the Israeli police to protect the Jews in Sheikh Jarrah arrived at the house which had been targeted to protect what remained from further damage, and as they stood there, on guard, local Arabs attacked them; the Jews under attack fought back. On Saturday night an Arab driver hit a Jewish man, moderately wounding him. The driver claimed that he had swerved into the man because he had been hit with pepper spray; the police, properly skeptical, arrested him. From Saturday and into Sunday, reinforcements arrived, and a general melee occurred, with rock throwing on both sides.
As for MK Ben Gvir, his decision to open an office – a table, a chair, and an awning – was a sign of we-shall-not-be-moved solidarity with the Jewish families who are under attack in Sheikh Jarrah, and in particular, with the latest victims, those whose house was firebombed on Friday night.
Meanwhile, Hamas spokesperson Mohammad Hamadeh threatened on Sunday that the rising tensions in Sheikh Jarrah would “explode in Israel’s face.”
“The attack by bands of settlers led by Ben Gvir against our people in the middle of the night is brazen aggression. It is playing with fire in Jerusalem, for which all of Palestine may ignite,” Hamadeh said in a statement.
The “playing with fire” began, quite literally, with the Arab firebombing of a Jewish-owned house in Sheikh Jarrah late at night, a house that they had attacked several times before. It was the Arabs who were “playing with fire” when they attacked the Jews who arrived on Saturday to stand guard around what remained of that greatly-damaged house. It was an Arab driver who was “playing with fire” when he tried to run into, but only knocked down, a Jewish man. Those are the events – the firebombing, the attack on Jewish volunteers who arrived to guard the fire-damaged house, the attempt at car-wounding — that set off the latest round of fighting between Jews and Arabs. The aggressors were Arabs, the Jews who had descended on the spot to help defend Jewish properties, were prepared to fight back. And Ben Gvir did not, pace Mohammad Hamadeh,” lead bands of settlers” to attack Arabs in the middle of the night.
The land on which the Salhiya family (8 adults, 5 children) had built a home and a plant nursery was never theirs; they had no title to what was always owned by the municipality; they had built on it illegally. When first requested to leave, the Salhiya family falsely claimed that it belonged to them, though they could show no proof of ownership, and in January, after lengthy litigation, they were finally evicted. The city of Jerusalem plans to build a school on the land for Arab children with special needs. That hardly shows an intent to “push the Arabs out.” Such a school will only make Sheikh Jarrah more desirable to live in for certain Arabs — the parents of such children.
The Sheikh Jarrah properties are being contested in what, rightly understood, are simple property disputes, between Jewish owners and Arab (non-rent-paying) squatters. But the Arabs have portrayed the Jewish owners’ efforts to take possession of their properties as something sinister, a deliberate campaign to “judaize” east Jerusalem by forcing Arabs out. It’s nonsense. Fewer than 50 Arabs are so far facing possible eviction; the Arab population of east Jerusalem was 66,000 when Israel took possession of the area in 1967 and is now 350,000; fifty Arabs less, or even 500, is not going to make a noticeable demographic difference.
There will be more clashes in Sheikh Jarrah. Arabs will attack Jews; Jews will fight back. And every attempt by the Israeli police to enforce a judgment of a court allowing eviction to take place, will become – as Palestinian propagandists want – the site of violence, as Arabs try to prevent any eviction by attacking both the Israeli police and any Jews who arrive to back up the police and the property owners. The international media will film, as it so often did when it covered the Great March of Return, not the Palestinian attackers, but the armed Israelis — police in Sheikh Jarrah, the IDF at the security fence — responding to their attacks.