In East Jerusalem, a defining battle over Palestinian ownership in Sheikh Jarrah

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 14, 2010

JERUSALEM -- The small Palestinian community in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem began as an experiment by the United Nations after Israel was created in 1948 -- an effort to keep 28 families out of refugee camps by providing them with homes of their own.

But the promised property titles were never delivered, and more than a half-century later, with the original dwellings expanded into multi-family, multi-generational compounds, the residents face eviction as a long legal battle nears its end in the Israeli courts.

The fight is in many ways a defining one in the debate over Jerusalem, as Palestinians try to hold on to Arab neighborhoods to establish a future capital and Israel asserts its jurisdiction over the entire city -- including Arab areas it captured in a 1967 war and annexed in a step not recognized by the international community.

The dispute in Sheikh Jarrah is ostensibly over ownership. Two Jewish groups say they owned the land there before Israel was created and have succeeded in forcing the removal of some Palestinian families for nonpayment of rent. But the larger stakes are well understood as Jewish residents move into the emptied apartments of the small but centrally located Arab neighborhood.

"We know the ramifications of a Jewish family moving in -- that it can have a ripple effect on the peace process. But that is no reason to stop," said Daniel Luria, director of Ateret Cohanim, an organization that promotes Jewish housing in Arab neighborhoods. "One thing has been learned: that the world does not like Jews in East Jerusalem."

The evictions in Sheikh Jarrah have drawn protests from the Obama administration, the United Nations and others, all arguing that any change in the status quo of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods undermines prospects for a peace deal.

On a citywide scale, the stakes do not seem so momentous, involving just a few acres of land and a few dozen families. Jerusalem's Arab population as a percentage of the city's total is about 35 percent and climbing -- in seeming contradiction to charges that Israeli policies are "Judaizing" the city.

Some of the most populous Arab neighborhoods, however, are far from the areas around Jerusalem's Old City that Palestinians regard as the anchor of their presence.

The current municipal boundaries, greatly expanded by Israel's annexation of land after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, extend almost to Ramallah in the north and Bethlehem in the south, hubs of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank. Those borders include thousands of homes hived off behind the West Bank barrier that Israel erected in recent years, accessible only through a military checkpoint.

Jewish attachment

It is in other neighborhoods -- from Sheikh Jarrah, north of the Old City, to the hillside neighborhood of Silwan and beyond to the south -- where the tension with Jewish attachment to the area becomes more acute, playing out on a house-by-house basis.

On Silwan's northern ridge, for example, a community that began as a haven for Yemenite Jews in the late 1800s is now virtually all Arab -- except for the seven-story Beit Yonatan building, marked by a Star of David flag hanging down its length. To Luria, Beit Yonatan's presence in Silwan simply marks the return of Jews to a neighborhood where they had lived until the ethnic strife that preceded Israel's founding forced them out.

To others, it illustrates how the enforcement of Jerusalem's land and building laws has become "very asymmetrical and blunt," to Palestinians' disadvantage, said Orly Noy, spokeswoman for Ir Amim, a group that monitors housing issues in Arab neighborhoods.

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