JERUSALEM – A group of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem whose imminent postponement led to an 11-day war in Gaza on Tuesday rejected a compromise that would have allowed them to stay in their homes for decades if they agreed to pay nominal rent to a Jewish settler group, which the courts have decided, are the real owners of the buildings.
The four families from Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem that was annexed by Israel after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, said in a statement that they rejected the agreement. The agreement, proposed by Israel’s Supreme Court, did not recognize them as owners of their homes, they said, and it would obscure what they see as a broader Israeli strategy to expel Palestinians from East Jerusalem.
If they had accepted the agreement, “our disposal would still be imminent and our home would still be considered someone else’s,” the families said. “Such ‘agreements’ distract from the current crime, ethnic cleansing committed by a settler-colonial justice system and its settlers.”
The threat of their postponement was one of the reasons why Hamas, the militant group controlling the Gaza Strip, fired rockets at Jerusalem in May – launching a short-lived conflict that killed more than 250 people in Gaza and 13 in Israel. and incited ethnic violence in several Israeli cities.
The Israeli government has characterized the dispute in Sheikh Jarrah as merely a property dispute between private individuals. Palestinians see the case as a symbol of an Israeli effort to cement control of the eastern half of the city, ultimately making it harder for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Some settlement leaders have said their goal was to relocate Jewish residents to strategic eastern areas, such as Sheikh Jarrah, to undermine Palestinian demands on the city. In recent decades, settler groups have moved into several neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, leading to dozens of deportation struggles.
In the days before their decision, Sheikh Jarrah residents had been under constant pressure from Palestinian politicians and activists to reject the agreement, and they had initially disagreed on how to respond to it, according to residents and community activists.
Their rejection of the proposed compromise may entitle them to uphold an earlier decision to evict them. There is no court hearing where the judges can answer.
The case involves four families, but could have consequences for dozens of other residents who are also facing eviction in the same neighborhood.
A representative and a lawyer for the Jewish settler group, Nahalat Shimon, declined to comment, as did the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. Ministry of Foreign Affairs has previously described the case as “a property conflict between private parties”, which the Palestinian leadership has used “to incite violence in Jerusalem.”
The conflict in Sheikh Jarrah has its roots in the 19th century, when the city was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The parties disagree on the history of the neighborhood’s ownership, but an Israeli court has found that in 1876 Arab landowners sold land there to two Jewish trusts. Tradition has it that the country housed the ancient tomb of an honored Jewish priest, Shimon Hatzadik.
Jordan conquered the site during the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and later built dozens of houses there for Palestinian refugees who had fled their homes during the war.
After Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967, the land was returned to the Jewish trusts, who then sold it to various settler groups. These groups, in turn, have spent decades trying to expel the Palestinian refugees. Some Palestinian residents have already been forced to leave, while others – such as the four families who rejected the agreement on Tuesday – are still appealing their postponements.
The postponements have highlighted what critics say is an imbalance in who is allowed to reclaim land in Jerusalem. A 1970 law allows landowners to reclaim certain properties in East Jerusalem that were conquered by Jordan in 1948. Although the law does not refer to the ethnicity of the recipients, experts and officials say it overwhelmingly benefits Jewish owners.
Myra Noveck and Hiba Yazbek contributed with reporting.