Sheikh Jarrah: A microcosm of the Palestinian struggle to exist

This struggle is much more than a private dispute regarding land ownership; it is a struggle that demands equality and justice after years of suffering.

Mohammad Shamasneh in front of his home in home in Sheikh Jarrah, August 15, 2017. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mohammad Shamasneh in front of his home in home in Sheikh Jarrah, August 15, 2017.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Last month, Hamas sent an ultimatum to Israel, binding together the issues of al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah. To many people, the connection between a small neighborhood in east Jerusalem and al-Aqsa is not immediately apparent. To Palestinians in Jerusalem and beyond, the connection is clear: Both are related to the trials and tribulations of living under Israeli occupation and control. 
As we find ourselves in the midst of yet another escalation of the conflict, we are mindful of how it began this time – with the repression of justified and peaceful demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah and excessive use of police force by Israel at al-Aqsa Mosque. 
Why is Sheikh Jarrah such a symbol and how has it turned into a microcosm of the Palestinian struggle to exist in east Jerusalem?
Sheikh Jarrah is located in central east Jerusalem, north of the Old City, adjacent to the demilitarized zone along the Green Line that was the border between Israel and Jordan from 1948 to 1967. After 1948, the neighborhood remained on the Jordanian side of the line, together with the Old City, Silwan and Wadi Joz, and was separated from its neighbors Musrara and Lifta, which remained on the Israeli side.
Sheikh Jarrah has two parts. The northern part sits on a hill and is well known because of the large homes, even mansions, built by Arab aristocratic families moving out of the Old City beginning at the end of the 19th century. Many of these homes serve as consulates and offices of international organizations. 
The southern part of the neighborhood, located in the valley below, is the part we hear about in the news. It too is separated into two sections: east (Karm al-Ja’ooni) and west (Kobbaniet Umm Haroun). Parallel to the urban development in the northern part of the neighborhood, two Jewish associations purchased parcels of land in the valley, which was also known as the location of the tomb of “Simon the Righteous” (Shimon HaTzadik). Until 1948, Karm al-Ja’ooni remained unbuilt, while a small Jewish complex (Nahalat Shimon) was built in part of Kobbaniet Umm Haroun. 
As a result of the 1948 War of Independence, the Jewish residents of Nahalat Shimon fled from their homes. Some of them were housed in homes of Palestinian refugees in west Jerusalem. The Jewish-owned land and homes in Sheikh Jarrah were transferred to the Jordanian custodian of “enemy property” which, in turn, allowed Palestinian refugees from west Jerusalem and the surrounding villages to live there. 
In Karm al-Ja’ooni, the Jordanian government, together with UNRWA, built a housing project for Palestinian refugees, in which 28 families were offered apartments on the condition they surrender some of their rights as refugees. To this day, Palestinian refugees from 1948 live in Sheikh Jarrah, on land and in homes that used to belong to Jews, while their property in west Jerusalem and in other places throughout Israel has been confiscated by Israel.
In 1967, Sheikh Jarrah was occupied by Israel, together with the entire West Bank. Shortly thereafter, the State of Israel unilaterally annexed Jordanian Jerusalem and many surrounding villages, creating what has been known since then as “east Jerusalem.” After this, Israel began to strengthen its hold on these areas by expropriating large swaths of unbuilt land, mostly owned by Palestinians, and building Israeli neighborhoods on them (the original expropriation maps are now available at In Jerusalem today, many people no longer distinguish between west Jerusalem and Israeli neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
Expropriation was a useful mechanism of appropriation of open space, but inside the Palestinian villages turned neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, another mechanism was necessary. The “Absentee Property Law” was, and still is, used widely by the State of Israel to achieve appropriation of Palestinian property. 
IN 1970, another law was passed creating a similar mechanism for east Jerusalem whereby property that was considered “enemy property” under Jordanian rule (i.e. Jewish property) was transferred to the General Custodian of Israel (not to the custodian of “absentee property”). The general custodian is permitted to release properties to previous owners or their inheritors. In this way, it became possible for Jews to reclaim their pre-1948 property in east Jerusalem (and the rest of the West Bank). However, property in east Jerusalem owned by Palestinians from the West Bank was transferred to the custodian for “absentee property” and could not be reclaimed (like in the rest of Israel). 
In spite of the opening of a legal window, inheritors of Jewish refugees did not rush to reclaim their property. This was done in their name by right-wing settler organizations, with the backing of the state and the judicial system. Over the last three decades, these organizations have been working to locate inheritors, encouraging them to demand their property from the general custodian, and in many cases purchasing the land from them at the end of the process. They also work to appropriate historic public property (owned, for example, by associations and not individuals). Time and again, this activity is ratified by the courts, eventually leading to painful evictions of Palestinians from their homes. It is not surprising that the Palestinian struggle against this injustice is growing; it is a struggle against repeated displacement. 
However, despite all the legal “success,” even the right-wing settler organizations were not able to register their new acquisitions and receive formal title to them in the Land Registry. This is because after 1967, the State of Israel froze all land registration processes in east Jerusalem that were first begun by the British and continued under Jordanian rule. This caused much chaos and uncertainty with regard to the ability to properly develop land in east Jerusalem. 
In recent years, responding to pressure from many directions, the State of Israel has changed its policy and even allocated budgets to resume land registration as part of a government decision in 2018 intended to “close socioeconomic gaps” in east Jerusalem. In recent weeks, it became known to the residents of Umm Haroun in Sheikh Jarrah that the land registration process had been completed in their neighborhood without their even knowing about it or having the opportunity to make legal claims. This discovery brought them, supported by Israeli nonprofit organizations (Bimkom and Ir Amim), to file an urgent administrative appeal to the Israeli High Court of Justice.
The acceleration of the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah is now defined not only by the justified resistance to evictions but also by the urge to halt the underhanded manner in which the State of Israel is now promoting the land registration so as to benefit the Jewish right-wing settler movement and deny Palestinians the ability to make claims as protected residents. This struggle is much more than a private dispute regarding land ownership; it is a struggle that demands equality and justice after years of suffering. It is a struggle for the right of Palestinians to live, claim their rights and even thrive in east Jerusalem. 
Land registration is undoubtedly crucial for urban development, not to mention prosperity, but only if it is done credibly, transparently and fairly. In order for this to be the case, the State of Israel must act without bias, avoiding discriminatory legislation, rulings and urban planning schemes. To plant some trust and hope, a first step could be to cancel the use of the Absentee Property Law and the 1970 law in the city of Jerusalem.
The writers are architects and urban planners with Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights.