Evicting the Chance for Progress

Hi everyone, I'm excited to be joining the talented team here at The Mantle. Lots of interesting stuff in the news these days, let's jump right in.

Word comes in from East Jerusalem that a group of Jewish settlers, wielding an Israeli court order, evicted a Palestinian family from their home, igniting a clash between human rights protesters and the settlers over the true rights to the property in question.

Of course, this is only the latest in a series of property disputes between Jewish Settlers and Palestinians. The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, site of the recent confrontation, has been particularly fertile ground for these sorts of politically demoralizing incidents. Of the many consequences of the 1948 war, Jewish families previously living in East Jerusalem neighborhoods were forced from their homes as the new territorial lines were drawn. After Israel assumed control of the land west of the Jordan River in 1967, a number of religious Jews appealed to the Israeli government for the rights to specific properties in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, producing documentation they hoped would prove their original pre-1948 ownership. Having lived on the land for decades, Palestinian families understandably challenged this claim.

And thus began a divisive legal battle that continues to this day. Although a 1972 Israeli court decision granted Jewish families the rights to a number of Sheikh Jarrah homes, Palestinian residents in these properties were allowed to stay if they agreed to pay rent as tenants. Rather predictably, the Palestinian families not only protested the ruling, but ignored subsequent solicitations for payments. Mindful of the explosive implications of expeditious evictions, the Israeli government for years avoided pressing the issue to its full extent politically and instead left the larger and wholly related question of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas (or on Palestinian-owned land) subject to the courts on a case-by-case basis.

Unfortunately, the consequence of this political inaction is coming to a head, and at a most inopportune time. Earlier this year, President Obama dramatically reframed the dialogue by declaring the settlement issue, in both East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank, paramount in order to jumpstart political reconciliation. But truculent political forces compounded by blowback from the Goldstone report and Secretary of State Clinton's thoroughly mangled attempt at diplomatic appeasement have prevented any progress on that front. Indeed, the more often these property disputes require police intervention, which invariably invites international press coverage, the less likely elected officials will be able to consolidate sufficient support for a political solution.

Though disheartening, the Sheikh Jarrah saga is illuminating in one sense. It makes it increasingly clear that deferring to the courts on these most delicate property matters is tantamount to treading water. Sometimes rulings benefit Palestinians, sometimes the settlers. That's certainly not to say that the courts don't provide a valuable service for families seeking justice, nor does it mean we should ignore the nuance of individual cases. But what those families really need is a reliable precedent derived from a negotiated (read: Not unilateral) policy. And once in place, let that be the standard by which future judgments are rendered.

Difficult as it is, and as intractable as the settlement conflict may seem, Obama, Clinton, and Special Envoy Mitchell must not hedge on this issue. Though the short-term politics have proven to be turbulent, Obama and Co. are right and wise to pursue a singular settlement policy—one that both freezes all new construction and prevents new evictions. Not permanently (the Netanyahu government would never agree to it), but as the first step to promote a full-faith negotiation. The key, it seems, is to establish a layer of trust and the appearance of forward-moving momentum—however superficial it may be—upon which to slowly produce stronger commitments from those leaders who were previously disengaged.

But one thing is certainly clear: in an increasingly tense environment of Temple Mount altercations, events like the recent Sheikh Jarrah property clash are only adding to the frustrations of the last few months. It will be interesting to see Team Obama's next move... stay tuned. 

Israel, Palestine, Jewish Settlements, Barack Obama