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Country Report: Sheikh Jarrah

Editor’s Note: The authors of this country report have chosen to stay anonymous. The Loch Johnson Society respects their wishes to do so.


An Introduction and History


Sheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian populated neighborhood in Eastern Jerusalem. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Israeli government expelled 750,000 Palestinians out of the 1.9 million population from the land of modern-day Israel and West Jerusalem. This event is referred to as the ‘Nakba’ or catastrophe. Israeli forces destroyed 530 cities and villages and killed 15,000 Palestinians throughout the Nakba. Israel sought to reestablish their claim over the land, citing historical and religious rights over the borders established after World War II in addition to the Palestinian West Bank.


The first housing projects in Sheikh Jarrah were erected in 1865 by Muslims residing in the Old City. The neighborhood, as part of East Jerusalem, was governed by the Jordanian Kingdom at the time. In the 1950s, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) was established to aid the Palestinians displaced during the Nakba. The UNRWA funded a Jordanian project to build housing for 28 Palestinian families that settled in Sheikh Jarrah in 1956. Later in the 1960s, the families and the Jordanian government reached an agreement that gave the families ownership over the land and houses to end their refugee statuses.


After the Six-Day War in 1967, Jordan lost control over East Jerusalem. As a result, Israel began occupying the West Bank and East Jerusalem, now referred to as the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Since then, Israeli settler organizations have claimed ownership over the land in East Jerusalem, including Sheikh Jarrah, while the Palestinian families argued their ancestral claim to the ground. The decades-long conflict has escalated in recent months, with Israel issuing forced evictions, lawsuits, and indiscriminate attacks on Palestinian civilians.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict recently escalated after Israeli courts called for the evictions of six Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah to make vacancies for Jewish settlers. The court’s decision is reflective of a broader Zionist goal to take land that they believe is rightfully theirs. This goal includes creating and living in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and an overall refusal of autonomy or rights for those in Occupied Palestine. According to Israeli law, Jewish people can reclaim property that their families owned before the division of Jerusalem in 1948 if they have proof of ownership; however, the law does not apply to Palestinians. Through this justification and various settler organizations, Israelis have moved into areas of the West Bank to shift the demographics of the predominantly Arab region. The picture below depicts the migration of Israeli Jews into Palestinian territories, prompting further displacement.



The Israeli government subjects Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories to second-class citizenship under Israeli law. To date, 65 laws are discriminatory against Palestinians to restrict their political, social, economic, and human rights. Israel placed Gaza under an illegal land, air, and sea blockade after Hamas took control in 2007. The blockade prevented Palestinians from leaving the territory even when undergoing heavy rocket fire from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The blockade worsened the humanitarian crisis by restricting the import of fuel, clean water, and food in addition to movement restrictions. Further, Israel has launched rocket attacks that have killed thousands of civilians in the densely populated Gaza Strip. The Israeli government states that they are aiming at Hamas targets; however, these attacks often indiscriminately kill civilians and children due to the population density in Gaza. In addition, according to Amnesty International and a publication from the UN, Israel systematically denies permits to live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and destroys homes for “administrative” reasons.


The U.S. and Israel


The United States and Israel have a long history of mutual support since Israel's inception in 1948 following the post-World War II Zionist movement. By 2020, the U.S. has given roughly 146 billion dollars in aid in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding to Israel. A 2021 deal by Congress will give 3.8 billion dollars in military assistance annually, with 3.3 billion focusing on military grants that Israel can use to purchase American-made weapons and training. In 2018, President Donald Trump moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. More recently, President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Anthony Blinken have warned Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israel's Opposition Leader, Naftali Bennet, regarding the continuation of the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, leading to further tension, conflict, and war. President Biden spoke with Benjamin Netanyahu on May 15, 2021, expressing his continued support for Israel's right to defend itself and his concern for inter-communal fighting and its effect on the safety of Israelis, Palestinians, journalists, and NGOs in the region. The American President ended the call by expressing his optimism for a peaceful, shared city of all faiths and backgrounds and reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution.

In the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. has vetoed any resolution proposals against Israel. Since May 19, 2021, the U.S. has vetoed three resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. In 2018, Nikki Haley (then U.S. Ambassador to the UN) said the resolutions presented were "a grossly one-sided view of what has taken place in Gaza in recent weeks."

The U.S. is not only motivated by the security needs of Israel or the moral commitment; Israel is a crucial ally to American foreign policy in the Middle East. Currently, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that possesses nuclear weapons and has one of the most advanced militaries in the world, largely assisted by military grants from the United States’ long-term partnership. Israel has assisted in the American fight against radical movements and terrorism as their geographical position and military posture has helped maintain checks on Assad’s government in Syria and acts as a U.S. arm in the event of nuclear war. Their alliance combined with Israel’s geopolitical advantages allows the U.S. to use Israel's regional conflicts to test American weapons. It serves as a proxy for the U.S. to help allies in the region (UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman) indirectly without provoking adversaries like Iran, Russia, and China. Israel's Mossad, its intelligence agency, and the IDF cooperate and collaborate with the U.S. intelligence community to develop offensive and defensive military technologies and improve nuclear systems.

Hamas, the Israeli Government and the IDF, and the Palestinian Authority


Hamas

Hamas is the most prominent Palestinian Islamist militia group with ties in the conflict dating back to 1987 after the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas’s name is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. In its charter, it is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel through armed resistance. It also ruled out any permanent peace with Israel and refused to recognize it as a legitimate state. While Hamas originally began purely as a militia group, it gained political representation by winning the most legislative seats in the 2006 election. In 2007, Hamas gained complete control over Gaza after ousting the Palestinian Authority, the government body dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas, forcing him to reside over the West Bank solely. Since then, Hamas, out of the Gaza Strip, has launched thousands of attacks on Israel, including suicide bombings. Hamas holds responsibility for the deaths of around 250 Israelis and the injuries of 5,600 people from 2008 to 2020.


While Palestine does not have a standing army, air force, or military, many perceive Hamas as Palestine’s only defense system. While Hamas’ extremist and separatist points of view from their charter are not consistent with the ideologies of most Palestinians, support for the group has increased in times of confrontation. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a June 2021 survey found that President Mahmoud Abbas’s approval levels have plummeted to only 14% supporting his secular Fatah party. The same poll found that 53% of Palestinians believe Hamas is the ‘most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people.’ Further, the Palestinians surveyed said that Hamas fought against Israel to defend Jerusalem and its holy sites, such as the Al Aqsa mosque. From the perspective of Palestinians with no state autonomy or military, many may perceive Hamas as their only option for self-defense and survival.


The international response to Hamas varies significantly from country to country. A handful of western nations, including Israel, the United States, members of the European Union (except Norway and Switzerland), Japan, and Canada, have listed Hamas as a terrorist organization. On the other hand, Qatar supports Hamas diplomatically and financially, as their government has given $1.8 billion to the militia group so far. Turkey is also a known supporter of Hamas.


The Israeli Government and the IDF

The Israeli government structure is similar to many western nations. It is a parliamentary democracy with legislative, executive, and judicial branches ensuring a separation of powers. The main institutions are the presidency, the Knesset (parliament or legislative branch), the government (cabinet of ministers or executive branch), and the judiciary.


On election days, Israelis vote for one of the handfuls of political parties rather than an individual politician to serve in the Knesset. Elections for the Knesset legislative seats occur every four years in October or November. In Israel, election day is a national holiday with free transportation given to those far away from their polling stations. Voting is easily accessible and provided to military members, hospital patients, and prisoners of the Israeli justice system. The high percentage of voter participation (70% to 90% of all registered voters) results from the accessibility and high interest in civic involvement and national pride. Therefore, the Israeli government is democratically elected and is reasonably representative of the voting population's preferences.


The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is the state's military force consisting of its army, air force, and navy. Their security objectives are “to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State of Israel, deter all enemies, and curb all forms of terrorism that threaten daily life.” The majority of Israeli citizens hold favorable views of the IDF. A May 2021 poll on Israelis found that 78% approved of the IDF’s military operation in Gaza during the 11-day conflict. A separate poll conducted after the ceasefire in June resulted in 68% of Jewish Israelis saying the IDF’s operation against Hamas ended prematurely and that it “should have continued until Hamas’s ability and will to attack Israel was destroyed.” However, the IDF has strategically framed the narrative around Hamas to justify their air strikes.


The IDF often claims on their social media platforms that all of their targets are Hamas members or their headquarters; however, most of these claims have yet to be proven. For example, on May 15, an Israeli airstrike hit a refugee camp and killed ten people, eight of them children. During the same day, the IDF bombed and destroyed a 12-story building containing offices for the U.S.-based Associated Press (AP) and the Qatar-based Al Jazeera networks along with dozens of apartments. The two media networks had been documenting the conflict and the carnage inflicted upon Palestinian civilians residing in Gaza. In response, the AP president stated “the world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened.” The IDF said the building “contained military assets belonging to the intelligence offices of the Hamas terror organization.” However, the IDF gave a ten-minute warning to civilians in the building to evacuate which alleged Hamas members could have utilized as well. Journalists were also prohibited from retrieving their equipment by the IDF. The Israeli government has not publicly provided intelligence that proved Hamas was occupying the building or the refugee camp, despite international law prohibiting targets against journalists and refugees under the Geneva Convention.


The Israeli government and Hamas' conflict is comparable to how the United States deals with enemy states: retaliatory airstrikes and ground forces in artillery and tanks. The Israeli Iron Dome is one of the most advanced mobile air-defense systems in the world designed to track and intercept roughly 90 percent of rockets. According to the United Nations, the conflict from 2008 to 2020 has killed 250 Israelis and 5,590 Palestinians. Further, around 5,600 Israelis and 115,000 Palestinians were injured. In the 11-day conflict in 2021, the IDF was responsible for killing over 200 Palestinian civilians, including 66 children.


The Palestinian Authority

Palestine's government, or lack thereof, contrasts significantly with Israel's political system. The Palestinian Authority is the governing body of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Established in 1994, the Palestinian Authority was part of the Oslo Accords peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Under the agreement, both sides accepted mutual recognition and gave the West Bank and Gaza governing functions to the Palestinian Authority. The government has a president appointed for four years; currently, Mahmoud Abbas, the commander in chief of security forces, manages foreign relations. The prime minister, appointed by the president, has executive authority and is subjected to the confidence of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The PLC's term is four years through a mixed majority system and a proportional representation system. This voting system is how Hamas won 74 seats in 2006 with only 44% of the vote, overtaking Fatah with 41%. Since Hamas ousted Abbas and his Fatah party in 2006, the Palestinian Authority only represents the West Bank with Hamas governing the Gaza Strip.


However, there has not been another election since 2006. President Abbas remains in power despite being elected for a four-year term that many Palestinians perceive as a corrupted government. The first elections in 15 years were supposed to occur in mid-2021; however, Abbas postponed the election, calling for Israel to allow Palestinians to vote in occupied East Jerusalem. Palestine's government was once democratically elected but has now fallen into a pattern of corrupt leadership that no longer accurately represents the views of the Palestinian people.


What’s Happening Now?


There have been reported attacks by Arabs against Israeli Jews in Jerusalem, restrictions placed on Palestinians entering Jerusalem during Ramadan (Islam's holy month), and an Israeli right-wing extremist group named Lehava marched through Jerusalem and chanted 'death to the Arabs.' At the end of April 2021, Palestinians began political demonstrations at the al-Aqsa mosque when they saw Israeli police awaiting them after their last Ramadan service. The al-Aqsa mosque, built on the Temple Mount after Muhammad's death, is the third holiest site in Islam. Muslims say that Muhammad was moved here from the Great Mosque of Mecca during the Night Journey. The Temple Mount is the first and second Hebrew temples site for the Jewish people and is the holiest site in Judaism. Israelis argue that the raid was in retaliation for the Hamas attacks days before, and Palestinians argue the attack was a continuation of the crackdown in Eastern Jerusalem. In response, Israelis celebrated the displacement of Palestinian families in front of the homes of those facing eviction. Later, Israeli occupation forces beat Palestinian youth at the Damascus Gate, a main entry point into the Old City. Throughout May 2021, violent demonstrations escalated to deadly attacks on Palestinians, the Supreme Court of Israel ordered evictions, and Israel started utilizing military force.


Several Palestinian activists have been at the forefront of peaceful organizing and protests and information sharing on social media platforms. For example, Muna and Mohammed al-Kurd, twin siblings, have been the founding voices for the #SaveSheikhJarrah resistance after an Israeli court ordered their family and several others from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Their activism dates back to when they were children after Jewish settlers moved into their home and occupied half of it. On June 6, 2021, Israeli forces entered Muna al-Kurd's home and arrested her for allegedly participating in “riots.” Under Israeli law, demonstrations, organizing, and raising the Palestinian flag have been banned and made illegal in the occupied territories since 1967. Later that day, Mohammed al-Kurd turned himself in to Israeli police after being summoned. They were both released a few hours later.


In April of 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's former Prime Minister, failed to hold a successful election then brokered a deal with Israel's Opposition Leader to form a national unity government, which collapsed in March of 2021. On June 12, 2021, Netenyahu's tenure ended as Israel's prime minister as eight political parties led by the Opposition Leader, Naftali Bennett, formed a government. An independent Arab party called Raam joined the coalition, making it the first Arab Israeli party to help form a government in half a century. On June 16, journalists reported that in response to the Jerusalem Day flag march through Eastern Jerusalem, Hamas sent incendiary balloons to southern Israel, creating 20 fires. The annual march is significant for Israelis as it celebrates the capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war; however, Palestinians see it as a provocation. After this, Israel launched airstrikes into Gaza aimed at Hamas compounds, sparking violence again after a brief ceasefire following the 11-day conflict in May 2021.


The Israeli High Court of Justice will hold a hearing on August 2, 2021, regarding the eviction of four families from Eastern Jerusalem. Since the recent conflict began in April of 2021, there have been 303 Palestinian deaths, 11 Israeli deaths, 11,000 Palestinian injured, and 47 Israeli injuries.


What is the Human Rights and the International Community Saying?


The international community and various human rights organizations have studied and reported various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below are the main findings from each organization’s recent reports and press releases on the broader conflict and recent escalations with the Sheikh Jarrah evictions.


The United Nations

The United Nations has been fairly critical of Israel by calling out their various breaches of international law, such as the expanding settlements into the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The UN Mideast envoy, Tor Wennesland, stated that the 600,000 to 750,000 Israeli settlers living in 250 ‘illegal’ settlements jeopardizes the possibility of a Palestinian state under the two-state solution. Further, Wennesland and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the Israeli government to end the demolition of Palestinian homes and forced evictions with the added goal to “approve plans that would enable these communities to build legally and address their development needs.”


In a May 2021 press conference, UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet condemned the indiscriminate attacks by both Hamas and the IDF. However, Bachelet raised concerns regarding the “high level of civilian fatalities and injuries as well as the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure” as a result of Israeli airstrikes in the densely populated Gaza Strip. She also said that Hamas’ barrage of rockets towards Israel is a clear violation of international humanitarian law.


B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

B’Tselem is an Israeli-based human rights organization that, according to their website, “strives to end Israel’s occupation, recognizing that this is the only way to achieve a future that ensures human rights, democracy, liberty, and equality for all people.” In a January 2021 report, the organization labeled Israel as an ‘apartheid regime’ for the first time, citing the fewer rights Palestinians have throughout Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Furthermore, they claimed that Israel could not be a democracy while maintaining the occupation of Palestinian territories.


The organization outlined the foundational principle of “Jewish supremacy” with “Jews living in a space where they enjoy full rights and self-determination, while Palestinians live in a fragmented territory, each with their own different set of rights given or denied by Israel, but always inferior to the rights accorded to Jews.” B’Tselem outlined two main developments that point to this organizing principle: Basic Law- Israel the Nation State of the Jewish People (2018) and formal talks by Netanyahu to annex the West Bank. The 2018 law declared that only Jews have the right to self-determination and stripped Arabic as an official language of Israel. The organization claimed that the announcement by Netanyahu in 2019 to formally annex the West Bank debunked the Israeli claims of a “temporary occupation.” Israeli officials have strongly denied all claims of apartheid and human rights abuses alleged by B’Tselem.


Amnesty International

Amnesty International publishes annual reports on various aspects of human rights in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories. Their areas of focus include forced evictions, forcible transfers, demolitions, discrimination, unlawful killings, excessive use of force, freedom of movement, and freedom of association and expression. In 2020, Israel demolished 848 Palestinian residential and livelihood structures in the West Bank, displacing nearly 1,000 people. Israel claims that the buildings were close to military zones or did not have Israeli-issued building permits; however, building permits are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain. Amnesty also highlighted discrimination embedded into Israeli law, citing that there are 65 prejudiced laws against Palestinians.


A recent report dated June 24, 2021, discussed the Israeli police’s use of discriminatory arrests, torture, and unlawful force against Palestinian protesters and activists. Further, Israeli security forces failed to protect Palestinian citizens of Israel from publicized premeditated attacks by armed Jewish supremacists that the police likely knew about. Most Palestinians were detained during protests for illegal gatherings rather than violent attacks on people or property. Amnesty International also condemned police brutality against groups of peaceful protesters, as there are several documented incidents of security forces physically beating protesters without warnings to disperse the crowd.


Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch is an international human rights organization that documents events globally, similar to Amnesty International. Their reports mirror the same rhetoric Amnesty International does; however, in April 2021, Humans Rights Watch accused Israel of committing crimes of apartheid and persecution. The Apartheid Convention under international law defines apartheid as ‘inhumane acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.’ Further, there are three key elements under the crime of apartheid: an intent to maintain a system of domination by one racial group over another; systematic oppression by one racial group over another; and one or more inhumane acts carried out on a widespread or systemic basis following these policies. The inhumane acts defined in the convention include forcible transfers, expropriation of landed property, creation of separate reserves and ghettos, and the denial of the right to leave and return to their country and a right to a nationality.


The organization, like B’Tselem, points to the 2018 Israeli law that states self-determination is unique to the Jewish people as the stated aim for Jewish Israeli domination in Israel and the OPT. Human Rights Watch said this is compounded with policies aimed at limiting the political and voting power of Palestinians and movement restrictions in Gaza and the West Bank. To enforce the goal of domination, the organization states that the Israeli government systematically and institutionally discriminates against Palestinians. For example, a two-tiered citizenship approach prohibits Palestinians from having the same rights as Israelis. Some of these inequalities include restrictions on accessing land confiscated from them, home demolitions, prohibitions on family reunification, and segregation by forbidding Palestinians from entering settlements.


What’s Next?


The United States is highly concerned with the ongoing conflict in Jerusalem. An agreement was facilitated in the Israel Knesset between Israel's opposition parties, forming a coalition towards a new government structure and removing Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's former Prime Minister (1996 - 1999, 2009 - 2021). The two resolutions considered are the two-state or one-state solutions. A two-state solution consists of two independent states: an independent State of Palestine and an independent State of Israel. A one-state solution is a bi-national government, giving citizenship to all who inhabit Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.


Without significant action, the conflict will continue and sway between periods of peace and violence. While the United States has its attention on Israel, it gives states with weaker militaries time to develop their capabilities. For example, Iran has increased support for Houthis in Saudi Arabia and UAE. Others support unilateral action where Israel and the U.S. take actions such as ending settlement expansion, releasing Palestinian prisoners, and ending collective punishment. In 2015, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed that Palestinians will not accept half-measures or temporary solutions but want foreseeable answers. President Biden resumed aid to the Palestinians that former President Trump halted. The Biden Administration's plan to restore peace is to reinstate bilateral communications with the Palestinians and move towards a two-state solution.

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