By now, news of Palestinian being evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem is routine. Last week, two more Palestinian families were thrown into the street to make way for Jewish settlers in the neighbourhood of Beit Hanina. The mechanism of land confiscation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has become a near science for Israeli authorities, ensuring that the exact borders of Israel remain unclear and constantly shifting.
During the last days of the peace talks in 2001, Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Barak is rumoured to have informed former president US Bill Clinton that Israel had no intention of relinquishing sovereign control over Jerusalem and delineating clear borders around the holy city. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem, Mr Barak purportedly told Mr Clinton, were an unfortunate reality that Israel would deal with in due time.
More than a decade later, Israel is demonstrating exactly how it intends to deal with the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. The strategy has a number of fronts: dispossess Palestinians through the creation of national “heritage parks” that lay claim to land through archaeological speculation; deprive Palestinian areas of necessary municipality services; and deny almost every building permit required for natural Palestinian growth in the city. In short, take as much land as possible while making Palestinians’ lives as difficult as possible.
These tactics have been successful throughout the West Bank for nearly 45 years, especially in the impoverished areas around Hebron. Yet, there is another element that Israel is employing in Jerusalem, one not commonly found in Israel’s colonial practices in the West Bank. The Israeli court system has been called upon to review cases claiming Jewish ownership over properties in East Jerusalem before Israel’s 1967 annexation.
Settlers, supported by significant funding from US non-profit organisations as well as Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, have demonstrated that some houses were owned by Jews before Israel controlled the territory. The settlers demand to return to these properties and the court system provides them with a legal justification to do so. Palestinians are being forcibly evicted from their homes, often for the third time since 1948.
While the process has a legal veneer, the application of this precedent is, of course, not extended to Palestinians who wish to return to homes in West Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa which were taken in 1948.
Court-sanctioned land confiscation in East Jerusalem received enormous media attention in 2009, when a group of Israeli settlers took over three houses in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The neighbourhood forms part of the “holy basin of Jerusalem”, the areas directly surrounding the old city to the north, east and south.
An increased Jewish population in the holy basin makes a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital a virtual impossibility by cutting off the old city from the rest of the West Bank. Israel has placed settlers throughout the holy basin to ensure a Jewish presence dividing the old city and the rest of the West Bank. To control the holy basin is to control Jerusalem.
Aside from sharply but carefully worded statements from the United States and the European Union deploring the unravelling of the Oslo peace process, the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah went off without a political hitch. Settlers remain in the houses today and the majority of the Israeli public remains ambivalent or supportive of the policy. After the evictions in Beit Hanina last week, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told reporters to expect more evictions in Sheikh Jarrah soon.
But there was one unforeseen development in the takeover of Sheikh Jarrah. Palestinians, embracing the idea that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violence, began to demonstrate with unlikely supporters: Israelis.
The story of this partnership is the subject of a new short film, My Neighbourhood, produced by Just Vision, the production outfit responsible for the successful 2009 documentary Budrus, about a West Bank village’s struggle against the Israeli separation barrier. The film (which I worked on as an assistant producer) premières at the Tribeca Film Festive this week and will be showing on Al Jazeera English until the end of the month.
My Neighbourhood follows Mohammed El Kurd, an exuberant young boy from Sheikh Jarrah, as he experiences the dramatic changes happening around him. When Mohammed turned 11, Israeli settlers moved into part of his house. Mohammed’s playset now sits in front of the settler entrance to his house.
When nonviolent protests started in Sheikh Jarrah three years ago, Mohammed befriended a number of Israeli activists including Zvi Benninga, a medical student from the other side of Jerusalem. The relationship between Mr Benninga and Mohammed, political and across generations, succinctly captures the human element all too often lost in the relentless political agendas typical in coverage of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem remains the beating heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The systematic land reallocation and continuing Palestinian expulsions are perhaps the best examples of Israeli policy in historic Palestine over the past 60 years. Yet, as My Neighbourhood demonstrates, not all Israelis and Palestinians buy into the hysterical rhetoric of their respective leaders. In fact, increasing numbers prefer to embrace non-traditional methods of co-habituation and nonviolent resistance to combat the sinister forces which surround them.