By Alon Harel

There are very few events in Israel today which are more indicative of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and which reflect better the shortsightedness of contemporary Israeli policies in Jerusalem than the recent events in Sheich Jarach. These events include the forceful displacement of Palestinian families living on that land since 1948 and the violence inflicted on peaceful demonstrators protesting against the forceful removal of Palestinians from their homes.

Sheich Jarach is a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem. After the Independence war, refugees from Jaffa settled in Sheich Jarach which was under Jordanian sovereignty. The land in Sheich Jarach was bought by Jews in 1875 but deserted by its Jewish owners since the 1920's. It was confiscated by the Jordanian government and given to refugees of the 1948 war by the Jordanian government. The refugees have lived there peacefully since the 1948 war. Similar statutes authorizing confiscation of land on a much larger scale were passed in Israel at the same time. After the 1948 war, Israel confiscated all the land which was owned by Palestinians who escaped during the war (including land owned by the Sheich Jarach's Palestinians).

For many years the Israeli government and the Israeli public as a whole has rejected almost unanimously "the right of return" of Palestinian refugees to their pre-1948 land. The opposition to recognizing the right of return is based on the recognition that such a right would undermine the identity of the state of Israel as a Jewish state. It is also based on the view that the cost of trying to redress all past injustices may be too high. Houses, land and villages owned by Palestinians before 1948 have been transformed so radically that an attempt to restore ownership would generate new injustices and would trigger violence.

Yet, this reasonable rejection of the right of return has been based on mutuality and reciprocity. It has been understood that (the very few) Jewish refugees of 1948 ought also to renounce their own rights. It is only this mutuality and reciprocity that legitimates the confiscation of Palestinian land in Israel after 1948. How can an Israeli court restore ownership of a Jew over land in Sheich Jarach while denying at the same time the claim of the displaced Palestinian refugee to restore her ownership of her house in Jaffa? Is not it absurd that the very same Palestinian whose property was confiscated in 1948 finds that his new home is confiscated on the grounds that it was owned previously to 1948 by Jews? What is it precisely that distinguishes the claim of the Jew from that of the Palestinian? Is it mere racism disguised under layers of legalistic distinctions?

Let me at this point leave the legalisms and examine the realities. The Jewish settlers in Sheich Jarach are not innocent refugees trying to make a living on a land previously owned by them. The settlers in Sheich Jarach are fanatics who bought the rights from its previous owners with the aim of establishing Jewish presence in the heart of the Palestinian city and expelling its Palestinian residents. To substantiate this claim, it is sufficient to walk into the neighborhood, watch the provocative flags and racist graffiti or, if this is too inconvenient, just follow the weekly news about the violence of the settlers against their Palestinian neighbors.

The process of settling Jewish fanatics in the heart of a Palestinian city was the process which destroyed the heart of the Palestinian city of Hebron. The tours conducted by left wing organizations into Hebron expose the visitor to a ghost city deserted by its Palestinian inhabitants. The few remaining Palestinians living in the Jewish part of the city are subjected to humiliating restrictions imposed on them by the security services. The violence perpetrated by few hundreds zealots left thousands of people homeless and destroyed what used to be a rich and flourishing city.

The fear of Hebronizing Jerusalem led large groups of Jerusalemites to join the peaceful demonstrations conducted every week in Sheich Jarach. These demonstrations united members of the Israeli academy, professors and students with left wing activists of various groups including Taa'yush and "Anarchists against the Wall". Yet, for some reason this union was perceived as highly dangerous by the Israeli police which decided to use extreme violence against these peaceful demonstrations. Israeli prisons have seen in recent weeks many young men and women put into custody for no reason other than their will to protest against the policy of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem.