Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, earlier today.(Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)
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East Jerusalem Neighborhood Encapsulates Conflict

Sheikh Jarrah shows that right-of-return goes both ways

Marc Tracy
March 10, 2010
Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, earlier today.(Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

The small neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah has become the focal point for questions concerning the future of East Jerusalem and of the so-called right-of-return—both the right of Palestinians to return to their ancestral homes in Israel proper, and the right of Jews to do the same in places on the far side of the Green Line. So the New York Times reports (and it has an excellent, complementary video).

The history of Sheikh Jarrah, and specifically of a certain compound in it, is pretty complicated. I’ll let Liel Leibovitz, who wrote about it a few weeks ago, summarize:

in the late 19th century, a small Jewish community settled in the neighborhood, believing, as some Jews do, that the 4.5-acre compound they had purchased was the burial place of Shimon Hatsadik, a great high priest of the Second Temple. Arab violence in the 1920s and 1930s forced the Jews to disperse, and by 1948 none remained in the neighborhood. In 1956, the Jordanians, then East Jerusalem’s sovereigns, settled 28 Palestinian families in the compound. When Israel took over in 1967, these families were sued by the original Jewish owners; in 1982, the Israeli court ruled that the Palestinians were “protected tenants,” but that, as they didn’t own the property, they were required to pay rent to their Jewish landlords. The Palestinians, on their end, refused to accept this premise …

A settler organization named Nahlat Shimon bought the land from its original Jewish owners and renewed the legal campaign to clear the compound of Palestinians. Incredibly, in the summer of 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in Nahlat Shimon’s favor, arguing that since the property was once owned by Jews, the original owners still held the rights to the homes they were forced to abandon decades ago.

The Palestinians were evicted, and a group of Israeli religious nationalists immediately moved in. It is now the subject of weekly, sometimes daily, protests that draw not just the Israeli left but even moderates like novelist David Grossman and intellectual Moshe Halbertal. (There may be a hint of radical chic to these protests, too: “Accessibility is another draw,” the Times notes. “Unlike the relatively remote Palestinian villages where young Israeli leftists and anarchists join local residents and foreigners in protests against Israel’s West Bank barrier, Sheikh Jarrah is a few minutes’ drive from downtown Jerusalem.”)

The more immediate and, given recent events, timely provocation concerns East Jerusalem’s final status. Israel claims sovereignty over all of Jerusalem; the Palestinians want East Jerusalem (which falls on their side of the Green Line) to be the capital of their future state. Israeli settlement and construction there is seen, therefore, as an attempt to alter the “facts on the ground” in its favor in advance of final-status negotiations. This is why there was such an uproar, from none other than the U.S. vice president, over yesterday’s announcement of 1600 new Israeli homes in East Jerusalem.

(Israel’s interior minister has apologized for the announcement’s timing, saying there was “no intention of provoking anyone.” He stands by the substance of the announcement, though, which is the main provocation anyway.)

But the Sheikh Jarrah dispute involves a broader question hovering over the entire debate: the question of right of return. And the lesson of Sheikh Jarrah, particularly for Israel, might be: be careful what you wish for.

There is a very real basis for supporting the right of Jews to occupy a compound that was built and at one time owned by Jews, no matter the side of the Green Line it falls on. The problem is that if you grant that right, then the only just thing to do would be to grant the right of Palestinians to live in places built and at one time owned by Palestinians, no matter the side of the Green Line those places fall on. And make no mistake: plenty of those places are in pre-’67 Israel.

Says the Times: “Halbertal said he supported Israel’s policy against the right of return for Palestinian refugees—a position meant to ensure a Jewish majority in the Israeli state. But when it comes to Sheikh Jarrah, he added, Israel cannot have it both ways.”

Well, actually, being the far stronger power, Israel can have it both ways (if anything, Sheikh Jarrah proves that, to some extent, it currently does). But then it loses the claim to the moral high ground, which ought to be more important to Zionism than the Samarian, or East Jerusalem, high ground.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.