Explainer: Land Rights Dispute Leads to Clashes in East Jerusalem
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Explainer: Land Rights Dispute Leads to Clashes in East Jerusalem

This article was co-authored by Daniel Klapper (University of Pittsburgh School of Law, US) and Lubaina Baloch (University of Calgary School of Law, CA)

What started as a local conflict in East Jerusalem in early May has rapidly emerged as a microcosm of the enduring land rights disputes between Israel and Palestine. A protest over evictions escalated into clashes with police, before spurring an exchange of rocket fire, and prompting world leaders to call for peace. In JURIST’s latest explainer, we explore the conflict from a variety of perspectives.

What historical factors underpin the current conflict?

Put simply, Palestinians and Israelis assert competing historic claims to the land, and therefore, both argue that their respective land rights supersede those of the other. Though the two have coexisted peacefully near Jerusalem for centuries, the present conflict originated with a series of evictions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood established in 1865 with strong Jewish roots. In particular, it is the site of the tomb of historically prominent Jewish high priest Shimon HaTzadik, who was buried there circa 51 BCE.

In 1874, Sephardic Jews purchased the land surrounding the tomb from the Ottoman Empire, forming a small neighborhood, named after the leader, within the Arab neighborhood. Arabs and Jews coexisted in the area until the British Empire aided local Arabs in pogroms, expelling Jews from the neighborhood between 1936 and 1938, and again in 1948.

When in 1948 the United Nations approved a partition plan establishing separate Jewish and Arab states, Jerusalem was split, with the western side belonging to Jews , and the eastern side belonging to Arabs (controlled by Jordan until the Six-Day War in 1967). In March 1950, Israel established the Absentees’ Property Law which provided for the management/expropriation of abandoned properties—including properties abandoned by war refugees. The Israeli government enforces the Absentees’ Property Law under the Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law.

How did the present conflict arise?

Against the backdrop of widespread criticism of the State of Israel over the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes and the annexation of many areas in Palestine, eight Palestinian families currently face eviction. Palestinians on May 6th began protesting evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Local residents have called on the international community to support their fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, freedom of movement, and freedom of expression.

On May 7th, confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinians took place at the Al-Aqsa mosque. Both sides argue over who escalated the violence. Israeli police stormed Al-Aqsa, where Muslims held evening Ramadan prayers. Palestinians threw stones, shoes, and chairs at the police, who in turn fired rubber bullets and used stun grenades. Israelis argue that Palestinians were stockpiling stones and concrete slabs, and shot fireworks at Jews praying below, prompting the police response. Palestinians argue that Israeli police stormed Al-Aqsa and fired stun grenades, prompting their response.  Muslim worshipers at Al-Aqsa and Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall below were evacuated by police. Ultimately, more than 500 Palestinians and 21 Israeli police officers were wounded.

On May 9 (the first day of the Jerusalem Day celebration), the Israeli Supreme Court delayed an eviction hearing of four Palestinian families of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. A new date will be set within 30 days and a freeze was ordered for the evictions until then. The evictions, if approved, will affect over 70 Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, with Orthodox Jewish Israelis set to replace them.

On May 10th (the last day of the Jerusalem Day celebration), Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in Gaza fired more than 2,900 rockets at Israel, targeting urban areas. In response, Israel launched 950 airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, which is mostly urban. The ICC prosecutor expressed concern over the continued violence, resulting in 12 Israeli deaths (including 3 children) and at least 523 injuries, as well as 192 Palestinian deaths  (including 58 children), and at least 900 injuries.

The UN Secretary-General warned that this conflict is heading for an “uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis.” The conflict coincided with the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr, Israel’s Independence Day, and the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and is currently ongoing.

Additionally, some peaceful protests against the conflict around the world have turned violent.

How do the Israelis view the current conflict?

In Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon HaTzadik, Israeli families claimed rights as landlords, under which Palestinian tenants were required to pay rent, arguing that they own the land because their families were historically expelled from it. The Israeli families further argue that this is no more than a landlord-tenant issue, where they have a right to evict tenants who have not paid for 73 years (citing the Absentees’ Property Law). The Israeli families also argue that the issue has been litigated in multiple Israeli courts over the last 50 years. These families argue that in 1982, many residents (including those whose descendants appealed to the District Court in 2020) agreed in the Magistrate Court that the two Israeli nonprofits were the legal landowners. The families also argue that in 1991, the Palestinian appellants claimed to have purchased the land from “Ismail,” but did not further explain the details of the purchase. The families argue that prior courts settled this matter before, and the Supreme Court should similarly rule.

The Jerusalem District Court upheld the October 2020 Jerusalem Magistrate Court decision, requiring a number of residents to vacate by May 2, 2021. The decision was supposed to go to the Israeli Supreme Court on Monday, May 10, 2021, before the Court delayed due to safety concerns.

US President Joe Biden condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including against Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people while protecting civilians. He also conveyed the United States’ encouragement of a pathway toward restoring a sustainable calm. He shared his conviction that Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith from around the world, must be a place of peace.

How do the Palestinians view the current conflict?

The Palestinian families at the center of dispute argue that the land they are living on has been theirs since the Jordanian rule of East Jerusalem, and the Israeli families are attempting to occupy Palestinian-owned land.

The Palestinian families cite a 2008 Israeli Supreme Court ruling to evict the Palestinian al-Kurd family from their home of 50 years, arguing that it allowed a family of settlers to move in. Although Israeli officials defended this eviction, Palestinians argue that Israel is attempting to reduce the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem through these evictions. The al-Kurd family argues that they have lived in the home since the Sheikh Jarrah district was under Jordanian control. The family argues that their eviction was a result of the ensuing litigation regarding Jewish groups’ attempt to reclaim the property. Like the other Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, this family has lived in their home under an agreement with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. This agreement allowed Palestinian refugees to lease properties for 33 years that would convert to full ownership upon payment of a token rent. The Palestinian families argue that the Absentees’ Property Law strips them of their right to the land. They argue that they have lived there for decades and have a right to continue living there.

The Palestinian families also cite the International Criminal Court (ICC) launching an investigation in March 2021, alleging Israel committed war crimes in Palestinian territories since June 2014. The families argue that the Israeli Prime Minister should not have rejected the ICC’s authority to conduct this investigation. The families also cite Human Rights Watch accusing Israel of crimes against humanity, specifically concerning apartheid and persecution against the Palestinian people in a 213-page report, and expressed their contempt with Israeli authorities for their rejection of these findings.

How has the United Nations responded?

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called on Israel to halt forced evictions and to exercise restraint in using force, further stating that these evictions would violate international law. The OHCHR denounced the evictions under International Humanitarian Law, claiming Israel is occupying  Palestinian territory under the 1949 Armistice Lines. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and senior UN officials expressed great concern regarding the violence in East Jerusalem. The OHCHR echoed this concern, mentioning that more than 900 Palestinians had been injured between May 7 and 10. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) raised alarm over the upcoming forced evictions.

Both sides await the Israeli Supreme Court decision amidst high political tensions and escalating violence.