Sheikh Jarrah ruling will likely calm Jerusalem tensions – for now

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The Supreme Court ruling on the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood is a tangled, complex document. It was written by three justices, each providing a different opinion on the Palestinians’ right to the homes, and there are many disagreements.

But the bottom line is an extremely important achievement for the battle against the families’ eviction. This is a joint Israeli-Palestinian struggle that has been ongoing for 13 years.

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The ruling will not only prevent the four families in question from being evicted in the foreseeable future, but will almost certainly prevent the eviction of another 20 or so families. It will delay right-wing activists’ grand plan for a new Jewish neighborhood there, possibly for years. And it may also affect other suits seeking to evict Palestinians from their homes because they were built on land owned by Jews before 1948 – for instance, in the Batan al-Hawa section of East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood.

The Palestinian appellants’ most important victory was the fact that at least two of the justices – Daphne Barak-Erez and Isaac Amit – agreed to hear them. Legal proceedings in Sheikh Jarrah have been conducted for decades and before dozens of different judges, but they always revolved around technical questions: What was the residents’ status in these homes? Did they pay rent? Did they recognize the Jewish owners’ rights? Were they squatters? And so forth.

When the Palestinians tried to raise substantive arguments relating, for instance, to the neighborhood’s complex history, such as the rights they were granted by the Jordanian government when it controlled that section of the city, those arguments were rejected. Moral arguments, like the fact that they are refugees who lost property in 1948 – but, unlike the U.S.-owned Nahalat Shimon company, aren’t allowed to reclaim their lost homes in Jaffa and western Jerusalem – were also rejected. Time and again, the judges restricted the discussion to questions of real estate law.

Israeli troops during the eviction of a Palestinian family refusing to leave their home in Sheikh Jarrah, January.Emil Salman

But in the current ruling, only Justice Noam Sohlberg stuck to this approach. “In the background of the legal discussion hover public and political questions that are not at all simple … the court’s ears aren’t deaf to these,” he wrote. “But in the end, out job is to rule on the concrete legal property dispute that was brought before us.” Consequently, he thought the relevant legal questions had already been decided and the families’ request for permission to appeal should be rejected.

Barak-Erez and Amit, in contrast, chose to go down the historical and legal rabbit hole. They made note of the Jordanian government’s actions. Amit wrote that the Jordanians effectively expropriated the land for a public purpose — housing refugees — and that this gave the residents rights that must at least be examined before they can be evicted.

Israel’s top court lets Palestinian families keep Sheikh Jarrah homes for now

Barak-Erez went one step further, ruling that the Palestinians have a right to use the properties — that the Jordanian government gave them permission to live there, and that permission is still valid.

“Correcting past injustices caused by wars and regime change not infrequently also includes restoring rights to stolen property,” she wrote. “At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore actions that were taken and the life that has been lived in the time that has passed. These may well influence the extent of the restitution.”

Amit, who had to decide between his two colleagues’ opposing views, did not accept Barak-Erez’s conclusion that the Palestinians have a definite right to use the properties. But they do have strong claims to ownership, he said, and these claims must be considered before any eviction.

The bottom line is that the Palestinians can remain in their homes in exchange for paying a nominal rent. This rent will be held in escrow until the Justice Ministry decides the ownership question. That could take months or years, depending on how motivated the justice minister and ministry officials are to make a decision.

Over the past year, Sheikh Jarrah has become a Palestinian national symbol. The threatened evictions played an important role in the chain of events that led to last May’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and intercommunal riots in mixed Jewish-Arab cities. And with Ramadan starting next month, many people had feared that evictions would spark another round of violence.

Tuesday’s decision joins last week’s decision by a magistrate’s court to defer the Salem family’s eviction from their home on the other side of Sheikh Jarrah. Both decisions ensure that at least on the Sheikh Jarrah front, and at least for the next few weeks, we can hope for calm.

This calm may yet be disrupted by the constant friction among residents, police and people visiting the office lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir opened in the neighborhood, which is still there. Monday’s violence near the Old City’s Damascus Gate also shows that Jerusalem can provide plenty of other pretexts for violence.

But for now, Sheikh Jarrah residents can breathe a little easier. They are no longer squatters.

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