Sheikh Jarrah: History shows that empires have colluded to legalise ‘settler colonialism’ in Palestinian territories

 Sheikh Jarrah 1

On 8th May, Israeli occupation forces attacked the Palestinian protestors outside the old city, a day after they stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque and injured about 200 Palestinians. According to the reports, 90 people have been grievously injured so far. Israeli police used bullet and stun grenades to inflict violence on the protestors, made several arrests and destroyed solidarity tents.

The police crackdown has come in the background of protests against the decision of the Jerusalem District Court, which ruled, on May 2, that six Palestinian families must vacate their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, despite having lived there for generations. Earlier this year, The Israeli Central court, too, approved a decision to evict four Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah in favour of Israeli settlers. Israel’s Supreme Court was scheduled to issue a ruling on the evictions on May 6, but the decision was delayed amidst demonstrations and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers.

What we are witnessing in Sheikh Jarrah right now is just the tip of the iceberg. Israeli forces are culpable of using excessive force during the law enforcement activities, unlawfully killing indigenous Palestinians without provocation, using blockade to subject them to collective punishment and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and arbitrarily detaining and torturing them (including children), among committing other war crimes, with impunity, that has caused several thousand Palestinians to lose their lives and family members.

Justice long due

The roots of this conflict go way back to the birth of nationalism in nineteenth century Europe, which led to the rise of Zionism. It is an ideology which identifies Jewish religious identity with the territory of Israel. In 1917, in the hopes of winning the support of European Jews during the war years, the British Government issued the Balfour Declaration, in which it promised to establish a ‘national home’ for the Jews in Palestine. At the time, this territory was still under the control of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War was ongoing. After winning the First World War, the British colonised Palestine and facilitated Jewish Immigration in an attempt to honour the Balfour Declaration. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Jewish population increased dramatically, and the Jewish immigrants focused on purchasing land from absentee Palestinian landowners and evicting Palestinian farmers who lived and worked there. Hence, began the period of Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine, as the Jewish population started controlling the land as well as labour.

The first Palestinian Revolt in 1936 was brutally suppressed by the British with the help of Zionist militias. These were the precursors to the illegal settlers in the West Bank who are backed by the Israeli Defence Forces today. The British limited the Jewish Immigration and called for the establishment of a joint Arab and Palestinian state. This left no one happy.

After the Second World War, the British handed the issue of Palestine to the newly created United Nations, which divided Palestine into two roughly equal parts in 1947. However, soon after, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war broke out. Palestine and neighbouring Arab countries were on one side and Israel, with European and American support, on the other. Israel won and occupied a third more land than agreed to under the initial UN proposal. Meanwhile, Jordan controlled and later annexed the West Bank and Jerusalem and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip. However, these regions were annexed by Israel during the next war in 1967. While the 1948 war was the beginning of a nation for the Zionists, it was a catastrophe, or Nakba, for the Palestinians, as 700,000 of them became stateless.

Has Israel legalised apartheid?

After the 1967 war, the United Nations drew a resolution for the withdrawal of Israelis from the Palestinian territory. Israel refused. Instead, it started establishing illegal settlements in what had historically been Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are now over 3,50,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, where the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood is located, which are illegal according to international law.

While Palestinians make up 88 per cent of the population there, they only have access to 0.24 per cent of the public land, while the 12 per cent Jewish population has access to the remaining 99.76 per cent. When the West Bank was under Jordanian Rule (from 1951 to 1967), 28 Palestinian Family were promised housing in Sheikh Jarrah but the process halted in 1967 due to Israeli occupation.

In 1970, the Law on Legal and Administrative Affairs in Israel was enacted, which stipulates that Jews who lost their property in 1948 in East Jerusalem could reclaim it. However, the Palestinians who lost their territory in Israel could not. This marked a milestone in Israel’s descent not just into ‘settler colonialism’—where the coloniser resides in the same territory as the colonised—but also an apartheid state, with separate rules for Arab and Jewish citizens. In 1972, two Israeli associations, namely the Sephardic committee and the Knesset committee, alleged that they owned the land on which the houses were built as early as 1885 and asked the court to Evict four Palestinian families. This led to a legal battle, as they appointed a lawyer to defend their rights, which they won. In 1976 a verdict was issued in their favour by the Israeli courts. However, the same year, using a new registration made in the Land Registry Department, the Israeli Court ruled that the land in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood belongs to the Israeli AssociationsThey started harassing the Palestinian families by serving them eviction notices and threatening them to make refugees again. The legal battle continued, however, according to the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, they were deceived by a lawyer appointed by, by the Israeli court, to defend them.  He signed an agreement in 1991, without their knowledge, that the land belonged to the Israeli Settlements Association while Palestinian residents of the neighbourhood were only ‘tenants’.

Israeli courts have been hearing cases submitted by the settlements association against Palestinian residents, as well as Palestinian appeals against court rulings issued in favour of settlers, for years on end. Still, decisions have always been made favouring the former, resulting in the eviction of families from their homes. Thus, these unjustified court rulings result from Palestinians’ decades-long struggle to retain their homes and lands. According to Grassroots Jerusalem, an NGO that is dedicated to community based mobilisation of Palestinians, it is “absurd” to depend upon the Israeli Judicial System to prevent the violation of rights of Indigenous Palestinians, for it is a major constituent of the Zionist colonial-apartheid state, whose policy is to displace and dispossess Palestinians.

The Zionist settlement organisations ensured the displacement of 43 Palestinian families in 2002, the Honoun and Ghawi families in 2008 and the Shamasneh family in 2017. They are heavily funded by donors from the United States. In fact, the US has historically been against allowing the oppressed, stateless indigenous Palestinians to use internationally recognised tools, like the International Criminal Court, to hold Israel accountable for the unimaginable amount of suffering it is causing. It has shielded Israel’s war crimes in the UN Security Council by vetoing and blocking international intervention. While it often maintains an equidistance to both Israel and Palestine on paper, it dishes out unconditional financial, military and diplomatic support to Israel in reality. In fact, no other country provides as much military assistance to Israel as the US. In 2018, the Trump-led US administration recognised occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While British imperialism started the process of the destruction of the Palestinian homelands and lives, US imperialism is sustaining it today.

Pooja Kalra is a graduate of history from Lady Shriram College, Delhi University, and a member of the progressive student organization COLLECTIVE.



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