Roman Koblov
Last updated: 26 March, 2012

A Divided Capital: Photo Essay on the Sheikh Jarrah Movement in East Jerusalem

In light of the Arab Spring, many have questioned why the domino effect of neighbouring revolutions have not brought about greater impact to Palestinians, who continue to be stateless despite their bid for UN statehood in September last year. Decades of peace talks have come to no avail.  The revelation of the ‘Palestine Papers’ by Wikileaks last year revealed not only the division of both parties but further highlighted the distinct unequal relationship the two sides share in negotiating a settlement to a conflict that has spanned over sixty years.

One key issue that has yet to be addressed in meaningful negotiations is that of Jerusalem, a city that holds important religious, cultural and economic significance for both Israelis and Palestinians. Since 1967, Israel has retained full control of Jerusalem, and in 1980 passed the ‘Jerusalem Law’, a controversial act condemned by the U.N, declaring Jerusalem to be the united capital of Israel. This position has further been reiterated by several Israeli Prime Ministers who have called Jerusalem the ‘undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people’.

Today Jerusalem is a divided city with stark contrasts. The west of the city is generally referred to as the Israeli side and the East as Palestinian. The West boasts tree-lined sidewalks, good infrastructure and high street shops, while the East is ridden with poor infrastructure and considerable poverty in comparison. Because of discriminatory urban planning, Palestinians living in East Jerusalem continually live under the threat of house demolition as they are constantly denied building permits to lawfully meet the housing needs of a growing population that represents around 30% of Jerusalem but yet reside in around 7% of the city’s area. According to the Israeli human rights group ‘B’tselem’ 392 homes from 2004-11 had been demolished in East Jerusalem leaving 1,546 people homeless. Israel’s imposition of its building permit laws on Palestinians has been considered to be a violation of international humanitarian law for protections of private property.

Human rights groups and solidarity movements have been taking notice of the situation and demonstrations have been growing, attracting a diverse range of both Israeli leftists and Palestinian and International activists.

One such demonstration is held every Friday afternoon in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. The weekly protests started in November 2009, following the eviction of four Palestinian families. The area houses 28 refugee families who had been displaced during the 1948 Israeli independence, or what Palestinians refer to as nakba.  Tensions first began in the 70s when religious Israeli settlers belonging to the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee produced Ottoman-era title deeds alleging Jewish ownership of the land. The group’s desire for this land is embedded in its religious significance, as it houses the tomb of Simeon the Just, a Jewish high priest.

The Supreme Court’s decision to award the deeds to the SCC has been controversial. While the authenticity of the land deeds have been put under scrutiny, protestors also object to the double standard imposed on Palestinians who are unable to reclaim lost land under the 1950 Absentee property law.

When the al-Hanoun and al-Ghawi families were evicted from their homes on the night of 2 August 2009, one witness, Liam O’Hare, a student from the University of Edinburgh recalls the events:

‘I stayed in the Hanoun house in Sheikh Jarrah for four months when they were under constant threat of eviction. We would stay awake through every night until 5am, waiting for the police to arrive and forcibly evict the family from the house in which they had lived all their lives. The police announced their arrival at 4am on the 2nd of August 2009 by throwing a brick through the window, before charging into the house and forcibly evicting all inside. Soon after all 50 family members from the two houses had been violently thrown out of their homes, we witnessed settlers from Eastern Europe and the USA move into the Palestinian houses’.

Sheikh Jarrah continues to be a symbol of both struggle and discrimination but also of unity. ‘The movement is an example of how Jews and Arabs can work together in successful ways, and this can be translated to other areas” according to Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity spokesman Avner Inbar. The movement attracts a predominantly Israeli audience from the political left, which stands as a positive confirmation of grassroots efforts by both Israelis and Palestinians for peaceful resolution. However in the current political climate, of the mostly right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli liberal left has been increasingly losing its voice in mainstream discussion.

At the moment Jerusalem remains much divided. Despite international law, and the implications that Jerusalem has for the viability of a future Palestinian state, the city has yet to be put on the negotiating table. Meanwhile it is highly unlikely that any Palestinian leader would be willing to sign an accord that does not include East Jerusalem in a Palestinian state, and as it stands Israel continues to reaffirm its commitment for an undivided Jerusalem.