Who owns Sheikh Jarrah anyway?

How a legal battle over real estate got blown out of proportion

Palestinian riot in Jerusalem. “Save Sheikh Jarrah” makes the rounds on Twitter. Palestinians cry for help, but do not offer details, and instead depict their problem as part of a long battle for national liberation. In reality, this particular Sheikh Jarrah problem is a purely legal one over real estate. 

According to Palestinians, the story is as such: Since the 1800s, Jews from around the world have been migrating to Palestine to settle its land and displace its natives. The most recent round of displacement is now taking place in the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Israelis suddenly show up, drag Palestinians out of their houses, and occupy the houses. As a result, residents who have been living in their neighborhoods for millennia, are now being displaced by Israeli colonizer conquerers. Therefore, Palestinians took to the streets, demanding global attention to the injustice befalling them. 

Meanwhile, global reaction has varied between those who argued that Israel is committing war crimes, like Iran and the Human Rights Council, and others who called for self restraint, like America and Europe.

Now the facts. First, no Israeli government is involved in anything connected to Sheikh Jarrah or the legal battles over who owns which real estate. If anything, the caretaker Israeli cabinet is trying to convince the judiciary to delay its ruling until things cool down.

Second, the battle over real estate and subsequent eviction is nowhere near sudden. Litigation before Israeli courts has been going on at least since 1972. In the case of Sheikh Jarrah, save for a single deed, Palestinians have failed to prove ownership. Instead, they have argued that the UN and the Jordanian government built these houses and were about to register them in the name of their Palestinian residents, but then Israel took over East Jerusalem and no deeds were ever produced.

Third, if the court orders eviction, it is improbable that Israeli civilians, always called settlers by Palestinians, will carry out the order. It is more likely that Israeli law-enforcement will evict Palestinians and hand over the property to whoever the court establishes as the rightful owner, in this case, Jewish Israelis.

The story of Sheikh Jarrah in particular departs from the colonizer conquerer narrative. In 1948, Palestinians from Haifa took refuge in East Jerusalem, which had just fallen under Jordanian sovereignty, as Israel took control of West Jerusalem. But the line that divided the two sides was the result of military developments followed by a truce, not one that separated between two monolithic ethnic blocs. At the time, most Arabs lived to the south of the city, while most Jews lived to the north.

Jerusalem had been a destination for Jews and Christians long before Zionism. By the 1940s, Palestinians owned one third of its real estate, while the Jews owned another third. The rest belonged to Greeks, Armenians, Germans, Latin Romans and others. When a line was drawn between a Jewish West Jerusalem and an Arab East Jerusalem, many Arabs owned property and lived in the West while many Jews owned property and lived in the East. 

In 1948, each side ejected the other. In 1967, Israel won Arab East Jerusalem and united the city. A few years later, Israel passed a law allowing Jewish Jerusalemites, who owned property in East Jerusalem from before 1948, to reclaim their property. This is where Israeli law inflicts injustice on Arab Jerusalemites. For such law to be fair, Israel should have also legislated that any Arabs of East Jerusalem who owned property in the western part of the city before 1948, could reclaim their property, or at least get compensated for it (if it had already changed hands under the 1950 Law).

Sometimes, states practice “imminent domain” or “compulsory acquisition,” which is the purchase or confiscation of private property for public use. In the case of Israel, a law was passed in 1950 that let the state confiscate real estate that belonged to Palestinians who had left Israel (whether forcefully or willingly) . The state then either auctioned such property or used it as public housing to manage the influx of Jewish migrants and refugees from parts of Palestine that came under Jordanian control. Whatever laws Israel passed in 1950, private ownership of real estate remained sacrosanct. Arabs who stayed in Israel kept their property. 

Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah engaged in decades of litigation to prove ownership of the real estate they had moved to in 1948. After failing to convince the courts, they now face eviction. Such an issue happens daily, everywhere on the planet, and no reason why, in Jerusalem, it has to turn into a battlefield.