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Sheikh Jarrah

by Mitchell Bard

Rabah al-Husseini, from the Husseini clan, built one of the first dwellings (now the location of the American Colony Hotel) in an area east of Jerusalem in 1865. Others joined him to live near the grave of Hussam al-Din al-Jarrahi and the town became known as Sheikh Jarrah.

Tomb of Simon the Just (1900)

In 1876, Jerusalem trusts run by the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities bought a plot of land and established a Jewish neighborhood near the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik (Simon the Just), a Jewish high priest from ancient times. A second neighborhood, Nahalat Shimon, developed nearby.

Aerial view of Sheikh Jarrah (1931)

In 1948, about 125 families lived in the area, most arrived in the 1930s and 1940s. About 80 Jewish families remained from the Ottoman era. The Haganah secured the area prior to Israel’s declaration of independence. The British, however, seized the area, forcing the Jews to leave before turning it over to Arab forces.

Sheikh Jarrah after Haganah takeover (April 24, 1948)

During the 1948 War, thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem fled their homes, leaving behind property on the Israeli side of the armistice line. A much smaller number of Jews were forced to leave property on the Jordanian side. Among them were the Jews from Sheikh Jarrah whose property was sequestered as “enemy property” by Jordan.

In 1956, the Jordanian government, which illegally occupied the area, and the United Nations built 28 homes in Sheikh Jarrah for Palestinian refugees. They leased the properties from the Jordanian government.

In 1967, Israel recaptured and annexed the area, which was strategically vital to connect Jerusalem to Mount Scopus which had been isolated after 1948. Israeli law required the release of a portion of the properties sequestered by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property during 1948-1967 (the Jordanian Custodian sequestered almost exclusively Jewish property), and this was the basis for the restoration of some Jews’ claims of ownership during the 1970’s in Sheikh Jarrah.

Some people have incorrectly insisted the law is discriminatory because, they claim, Palestinians do not have the same right to reclaim the properties they fled from in the same war. That is not true. The law says nothing about Jews, and anyone, including Palestinians, can make claims for property seized by the Jordanians.

In 1972, the Israeli Supreme Court validated the Jewish claims to owning the property they had been forced to abandon, but ruled that Arab families living in homes on those lands could not be evicted if they agreed to pay rent to the owners. 

In 1982, the Jewish owners wanted to evict 23 Arab families living in the Shimon Hatzadik area, but reached an agreement whereby the Palestinian residents accepted Jewish ownership of the land in exchange for being allowed to remain in their homes as protected tenants. The Palestinians later said they were tricked into signing the deal and began to claim they had proof of owning the land dating to the Ottoman era which was never accepted as valid by the courts.

The neighborhood is predominately Palestinian and some Jews want to expand their presence, in part, to try to foreclose the possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. 

A Real Estate Dispute

Demonstrations have been held for years to prevent Jews from reclaiming land they owned prior to the Jordanian annexation of the area. In 2021, peaceful protests turned violent over a court order to evict Palestinians whose leases expired or were squatters. 

Professor Avi Bell explained that “the current dispute in Sheikh Jarrah involves several properties with tenants whose leases have expired, and in a few cases squatters with no tenancy rights at all, against owner-landlords who have successfully won court orders evicting the squatters and overstaying tenants.”

Bell said Jordan was partially to blame for the Palestinians’ plight. “The reason the holdover tenants in Sheikh Jarrah lack ownership today,” he said, “is not because the state of Israel has denied the Palestinian Arabs any rights they acquired, but, rather, because the government of Jordan declined to give the Palestinian Arabs title to the land Jordan had seized.”

In 1993, the trusts said the tenants had failed to pay rent and asked that they be evicted. It was not until 2001, however, that the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court agreed with them. More litigation further delayed enforcement of the decision. In the interim, the trusts sold their properties to the Nahalat Shimon International organization.

In 2008, Nahalat Shimon planned an expansion of the neighborhood and resumed the effort to remove the unpaying tenants. During litigation, an Israeli court determined that the people currently living in the disputed homes had been illegally squatting for decades without paying rent or holding proof of ownership. Four families were later evicted, but 13 others continued to fight the order in court.

Protests over the expected evictions, which had gone on for years, turned violent in May 2021. The Supreme Court was scheduled to render a decision, but decided to delay issuing a ruling to avoid potentially enflaming tensions which, nevertheless, turned into a war.

Sheikh Jarrah in a 2018 United Nations map; the yellow area is the built up Palestinian area north of the Old City. |
The Israeli settlements of Givat HaMivtar, Ma'alot Dafna and French Hill are shown to the north-west and north east.

The issue in Sheikh Jarrah is about property law not ethnicity. The rightful owners simply want to recover their land, the fact that they are Jewish is irrelevant. Furthermore, this is not a decision determined by the Israeli government to advance a nefarious policy; whether the families will be evicted will be settled by Israel’s highest court, which is widely regarded as liberal.

Nevertheless, several Democrats asked the Biden administration to pressure Israel to halt the evictions. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, summed up their feelings, “we simply cannot sit by and watch this cruel, continued, illegal, forced displacement of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah. The State Department must weigh in immediately with accountability.”

The State Department spokesman said a few days later, “We’ve been clear in urging the Israelis to act responsibly, to treat Palestinian residents with compassion and with humanity in this case.”

Parties Reject Compromise

The families subject to eviction submitted documents to the court suggesting the Jordanian government intended to transfer ownership of the contested properties to the Palestinians, but the transaction did not occur because of the Six-Day War.

On August 2, 2021, Israel’s Supreme Court offered a compromise to delay the eviction of four Palestinian families if they agreed to recognize the current owners as their legal landlords in return for a special residency status that would protect them from eviction. The residents would have to pay rent to Nahalat Shimon.

Nahalat Shimon opposed the compromise because it did not require the Palestinians to recognize Jewish ownership of the land. The families rejected the Jews’ demand.

“What we are saying is, let’s move from the level of principles to the levels of practicality,” said Justice Yitzhak Amit.

The court tried again in October 2021. The new proposal would recognize three families as first-generation protected tenants, meaning they would continue to enjoy the status for two more generations. A fourth family would be deemed a second-generation tenants, meaning one more generation of the family could continue living there as protected tenants. The families would retain the right to prove they have ownership rights to the houses. They would still have to pay rent (about $62.50 per month).

The decision as to who owned the properties was left to be determined in court. In the meantime, Nahalat Shimon would agree not to evict the families or apply for building permits until the legal process is completed or 15 years have passed from the signing of a compromise agreement, whichever comes first. 

The court asked for a reponse by November 2. The families, who were asked by Hamas to reject the compromise, gave the court a negative answer.

One of the families that did not appeal the eviction order reached a deal with the property owners that will allow them to remain in their homes for at least 10 years as long as they pay rent.

In February 2022, a Jerusalem court suspended the eviction of a Palestinian family scheduled for March. Israeli officials feared the removal of 11 family members, especially just weeks before Ramadan, could reignite violence in the city. On March 1, the Supreme Court ruled four families can stay in their homes until a final decision is reached on ownership of the properties. The decision was expected to apply as well to 13 other families.

Sources: Jonathan Spyer, “Sheikh Jarrah, Shimon Hatzadik: A tale of two gravesites in Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Post, (May 12, 2021).
Avi Bell, “Understanding the Current Sheikh Jarrah (Jerusalem) Property Dispute,” Kohelet, (May 9, 2021).
(Ben Samuels, “Democrats Urge U.S. to Act Against Israel’s ‘Abhorrent’ East Jerusalem Evictions,” Haaretz, (May 8, 2021).
State Department Press Briefing, (May 10, 2021).
David Wurmser, “Anatomy of an intentional escalation: Israel’s approaching hot summer,” Center for Security Policy, (May 10, 2021).
Nir Hasson, “Sheikh Jarrah Eviction Case: Court Offers Palestinians ‘Protected Residents’ Status,” Haaretz, (August 2, 2021).
“Sheikh Jarrah: Palestinians and Israelis baulk at evictions compromise,” BBC, (August 3, 2021).
Nir Hasson and Chen Maanit, “Israel’s Top Court Proposes Compromise to Prevent Sheikh Jarrah Eviction,” Haaretz, (October 5, 2021).
Aaron Boxerman, “Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah families reject proposed Supreme Court deal,” Times of Israel, (November 2, 2021).
Nadav Shragai, “Sheikh Jarrah family agrees to return home to Jewish owners,” Israel Hayom, (November 10, 2021).
Nir Hasson, “Israeli Court Freezes Sheikh Jarrah Eviction Amid Jerusalem Tensions,” Haaretz, (February 22, 2022).
Nir Hasson, “Israel's top court lets Palestinian families keep Sheikh Jarrah homes for now,” Haaretz, (March 1, 2022).

Photos: Tomb - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Aerial - Matson Collection, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
1948 - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Map - OCHA OpT, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.