Politics Surrounding Sheikh Jarrah Case Could Put Off Legal Ruling for Years, Argue Experts
The decades-old dispute between Jews and Palestinians over the ownership of properties in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah appears far from coming to an end, even as Israel’s Supreme Court proposed a compromise on Monday to resolve the case.
In response to an appeal by four Palestinian families facing eviction from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, where Israelis have long claimed land ownership, justices at Monday’s court hearing proposed that the Palestinians stay in the properties as “protected tenants” for the next two decades, paying symbolic rent while recognizing the Israelis’ ownership.
“There have been multiple rulings that the Jewish plaintiffs are the lawful property owners, regardless of ethnicity, and it seems that the Supreme Court is not going to overturn that, because there is really no way to argue that they are not,” Eugene Kontorovich, director of the Center for the Middle East and International Law at the George Mason University School of Law, told The Algemeiner.
“The Supreme Court is looking for a way to say that yes, Jews own the property, but we are not going to let them use their property rights, we are not going to let them evict the tenants, we are not going to let them live there, we are not going to let them rent it out to whoever they want,” he argued.
“We are going to basically say they own it, but let the squatters stay, and it was clear from the judge’s comments that they are doing this, because they are in fact afraid of international diplomatic pressure and Hamas,” Kontorovich continued.
Alan Baker, who heads the international law program at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, asserted that the importance of the Sheikh Jarrah case has been exaggerated by both international media and extremist groups to blame Israel as violent disturbances broke out in the neighborhood in May, which helped trigger the 11-day clashes between militants in Gaza and Israel.
“As a lawyer I am aware of the damage the incitement of political pressure is having on a case which is a civil property dispute and should be a purely legal issue,” Baker, a former ambassador and legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Algemeiner.
Kontorovich explained that historically, the properties of the kind at issue were owned by several different Jews and Jewish organizations before they were taken over by the Jordanians, in 1948, when they occupied east Jerusalem, expelled Jews and seized their property. In many instances Jordan transferred the title of Jewish-owned properties to Palestinians, he said, until Israel captured the territory following the Six-Day War in 1967 and returned ownership of the Sheikh Jarrah homes to the Jewish trusts.
“For all those properties that Jordan gave to local Palestinians, Israel respects those transfers, and no longer considers them as belonging to a previous Jewish owner,” Kontorovich said. “But these properties being battled in court now were actually not given to the people living there or their predecessors. They were not handed over to anyone and can be reclaimed by their owners, and there is no question that these people are still legally the owners. Even the plaintiffs admit that Jordan did not transfer the title to them, but they claim that they were about to.”
Critics of the possible expulsion of the Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah contend that even if their homes originally belonged to Jews before 1948, the parties campaigning to regain control of them do not represent the original owners — and that moreover, Palestinians lack equivalent legal recourse to pursue such property rights in Israel.
According to both Baker and Kontorovich, the Supreme Court’s compromise is very unlikely to be accepted by the plaintiffs due to the heightened political pressure. Back in May, the Biden administration said it was “deeply concerned about the potential eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhoods of Jerusalem, many of whom have lived in their homes for generations.”
“There is no reason to think that the defendants are going to accept the compromise, because as soon as they see that this court is scared of US pressure, Hamas rocket fire that is going to lead to more pressure, so now they just have to wait to get a better compromise suggested by the court,” Kontorovich contended.
Should there no compromise agreement, Kontorovich believes that the Israeli court will try to drag a final ruling on the case out for many years to delay the enforcement of controversial evictions.
“I think it’s important that the Israeli government takes the position that any diplomatic headaches are our problem, not the courts problem, and the court should enforce the law and leave the diplomacy to the government,” he concluded.