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It’s complicated

Dr. Bren Carlill

This article originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News 14/05/2021

On Tuesday, Australians woke up to news of violence in Jerusalem, rockets from Gaza, and protests in other Arab-majority cities. In the next 24 hours, things only got worse. For many commentators, the likely eviction of Arab families from buildings in Sheikh Jarrah is the cause of the violence.

And, indeed, the Sheikh Jarrah issue is vexed and complex. But the firing by Hamas of well in excess of 300 rockets into Israeli cities in a 24-hour period evolved this situation from what was fundamentally a property dispute layered with historical and nationalist complexities into a much more black and white situation: Once again, Israel’s civilians are under attack and, once again, Israel is forced to defend them.

But Sheikh Jarrah is in the headlines. Even Greta Thunberg has used the #SaveSheikhJarrah hashtag. So let’s start there.

The issue is much more complicated than an eviction of tenants who refuse to pay rent or a ‘land grab by settlers’. Rather, it is a consequence of two wars, deeply held nationalist sentiment (with competing versions of who is justified), and a decades-long legal process.

Sheikh Jarrah houses the tomb of Simon the Just. Jewish organisations bought the tomb and the land around it in the 19th century. After Jordan annexed the area in 1950, it built housing on the vacant land (the Jews were expelled in 1948) and leased it to Palestinian refugees.

Israel took control of the land in 1967 and, from 1982, a court process both established the original Jewish ownership and protected the tenants from eviction for as long as they paid rent. When the residents stopped paying rent, legal proceedings were launched to evict them.

While all the above is correct, a focus on the legal dimension risks downplaying the complexities and emotions created by wars won and lost, changing legal regimes, nationalist sentiment on both sides and the genuine grievances held by many Arab residents of Jerusalem.

Violence has sparked, but the Sheikh Jarrah dispute is a catalyst, not the cause. There are many interwoven factors that act as multiplying agents, making it near impossible to single out one issue as being the sole reason for the violence.

It is true that the Supreme Court was due to make its final decision on the evictions this week. However, Palestinian violence against Israel has been increasing in recent months. This includes 40 rockets fired from Gaza into Israel in April, the filming (and sharing on social media) of violent attacks against Orthodox Jews and a fatal drive-by shooting in the West Bank last week.

An additional factor is incitement to violence. After the 29 April postponement of the Palestinian elections, the Palestinian leadership ramped up incitement to violence against Jews. (There is historical precedent of increased incitement to violence leading, within weeks, to mass violence. I’m old enough to remember that, two weeks before the second intifada in 2000, a report noted the dramatic increase of incitement to violence in Palestinian media.)

There are also many Palestinians who want to destroy Israel and who will use any pretext to urge or commit violence.

Of course, all of the above is just the Palestinian side of the equation. I haven’t mentioned the provocative protests in Arab areas by a handful of Jewish Israelis, the occurrence of Jerusalem Day—with its flag-waving marches through the Old City—or the state of flux in Israeli politics, where far-right parties and populist leaders see Arab violence as an opportunity to derail Yair Lapid’s chance of forming government. Hence the Otzma Yehudit-led rally in the heart of Sheikh Jarrah, specifically designed to stoke tensions. Ra’am, the Islamist party central to Lapid’s chances, has temporarily called off coalition talks in response to the violence.

To the casual observer, tensions appeared to explode on Friday, when thousands of Palestinians vented their fury by hurling paving stones at Israeli police on the Temple Mount and at Jews worshipping in the Western Wall plaza 20 metres below them. But photographic evidence that the violence was planned—that stones had been stockpiled in al-Aqsa Mosque, for instance—undermines this argument.

And herein lies the tragedy of the situation. That Palestinians, who have lived in the same house for almost 70 years, are at serious risk of eviction might have garnered the sympathy of hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

But when the Sheikh Jarrah predicament becomes the pretext to throw rocks at innocent worshippers, or to store such rocks in a mosque—surely a gross desecration of a holy place?—or to set fire to Israeli fields using arson balloons, or, indeed, to launch hundreds of rockets into Israeli cities, then much of that sympathy dries up.

And when Israelis see a video of a Hamas leader beseeching Jerusalem’s Muslims to cut the heads of Jews (note: not Israelis) with a five-shekel knife, they remember again what Hamas is really fighting for.

The reality is, Hamas isn’t motivated by Muslim well-being in Jerusalem, or by the eviction of Sheikh Jarrah residents. Arguably, it isn’t even that motivated by its supposed love for Jerusalem. Seven of the rockets fired by Hamas were aimed at Jerusalem. I cannot help but think of the Solomonic wisdom that one is incapable of causing harm to something one truly loves.

Dr Bren Carlill is the director of public affairs at the Zionist Federation of Australia