By Francesco Bortoletto and Giulia Maini
Over the last couple of weeks, the situation in Palestine and Israel quickly plunged into the most egregious armed confrontation since 2014. A ceasefire entered into force in the early hours of Friday 21 May, following 11 days of heavy rocket barrages and airstrikes between the Gaza Strip and Israeli mainland, coupled with communal violence throughout the region. The death toll has claimed more than 260 lives; most victims were civilians, and nearly 70 were children. Over 72,000 Palestinians have been displaced.
As military operations were still underway, we engaged with a Palestinian voice so as to try and understand in more detail what is going on in the region and what are the root causes of the latest escalations. We did so because we believe that putting what we have seen on tv or social media in its broader context is crucial to gain at least a minimal understanding of one of the world’s most complex scenarios.
On the evening of Monday 17 May, we had the pleasure to have a chat on Zoom with Mohammad Arekat, 26, who is a researcher in the field of law at Al-Quds University and has authored two books, one of which, The Mirage of Jasmine, is a historical novel on the Palestinian diaspora. He currently lives in the Palestinian village of Abu-Dis, close to East Jerusalem and part of the Jerusalem Governorate, one of the 16 governorates in which the occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are divided into under the Oslo Accords (1993-1995).
The interview lasted over two hours and a half and served as the basis for a dozen-page document, with our guest’s own words and our additions. For the sake of simplicity, we decided to break the whole thing down into three separate articles, or episodes, to be published in close continuity. This is the first such episode.
Timeline of a rapid escalation
We know that the recent wave of protests and ensuing violence was initially sparked by the eruption of simmering tensions that had been building for some time between Palestinian and Israeli communities. We therefore asked our guest to illustrate more precisely the unfolding of events.
Mohammad’s account started from April 13 (the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan), when Israeli police set checkpoints at the Damascus Gate, the main entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City’s Muslim quarter. The police was preventing Palestinians from entering the Al-Aqsa compound (a square surrounded by retaining walls atop of a hill at the heart of the Old City, known to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Mount of the House of God, hosting the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, and also sacred to Judaism and Christianity) from gathering around the Gate.
Cables to the loudspeakers broadcasting prayers outside the mosque were cut and worshipers inside of the latter were «brushed aside» by Israeli riot police. The alleged reason for this was that prayers would have disturbed the celebration of Israel’s Memorial Day, taking place on the same day in front of the Western Wall (which is part of the walls surrounding Temple Mount), where the country’s president Reuven Rivlin was delivering a speech.
Restrictions perceived as unfair and repeated raids on the Al-Aqsa mosque sparked protests among Palestinians, leading to clashes between protesters and law enforcers, with the latter firing stun grenades and rubber-tipped bullets while also dispatching water cannons and mounted police to respond to rock throwing. These events ignited a self-sustaining circle of violence, with Palestinians and Jews repeatedly attacking each other in Jerusalem and across both the West Bank and several mixed (Arab-Jewish) Israeli cities, resulting in the worst episodes of communal violence the region had witnessed in years.
On April 25, the Israeli government relaxed the restrictive measures, but frictions were far from over. On top of the tensions at Al-Aqsa, in fact, Palestinians (mainly youth) had been gathering regularly throughout April to peacefully oppose the looming eviction of twelve Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Arab neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, about two kilometres north of the Old City. As we will discuss later on, Palestinian residents had appealed against the eviction orders, issued by magistrate courts, to the Israeli Supreme Court. The latter’s hearing had originally been scheduled for May 10, but was eventually postponed amid mounting protests.
In the early days of May, the already deteriorated situation quickly spiralled: riot police fired stun and smoke grenades inside the Al-Aqsa mosque on the evening of May 7 (were hundreds of worshipers had gathered in the last Friday of Ramadan), setting off increasingly violent protests that were met by crackdowns (compared to a «haunt» by Mohammad), with several Palestinians getting severely injured at their eyes as rubber-coated bullets were fired at the upper body level. Skunk water tanks were deployed both against protesters in the compound and on Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Clinics were also attacked, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
Our guest explicitly notes that many attacks carried out by mobs of Israeli Jewish settlers, especially in Sheikh Jarrah, were not stopped by Israeli law enforcers standing by. On the contrary, the latter would «just protect the settlers» while allowing them to beat and throw objects at the Palestinians.
May 10 marked the point of no return. Access to the Al-Aqsa compound was restricted again for Palestinians celebrating Laylat al Qadr (the most important day in the Islamic calendar). A march across Jerusalem, where far-right extremist Jews were provoking Palestinians across the Muslim quarter, had to be rerouted owing to security concerns (indeed, May 10 is also Jerusalem Day, celebrating the «reunification» of the city in 1967 – or, rather, its occupation). Yet, this was arguably too little, too late: clashes between Palestinians and Israeli riot police continued, with the latter storming again the mosque and firing grenades and rubberised bullets inside of it for the second time in three days. More than 300 Palestinians were reportedly injured on Monday alone.
Hamas, the Islamist militant group ruling Gaza since 2007, broadcast an ultimatum warning that they would launch an attack on Israel’s towns if Israeli troops did not withdraw from both Al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah by 6pm that same day. Several minutes after the deadline, a first round of rockets was fired by the Strip towards Israel, with Hamas claiming responsibility for them since its conditions were not met. This would set the stage for the resumption of full-blown hostilities between Hamas and Israel: later on Monday, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) carried out the first airstrikes over the Gaza Strip in the «Operation Guardian of the Walls».
Sheikh Jarrah: settlers vs residents
In order to understand what happened in Sheikh Jarrah, we need to go through a synthetic timeline of the disputes revolving around the neighbourhood, bearing in mind that the issue is very complex and has many delicate legal aspects that are still unclear and/or controversial. It is important to note, however, that similar disputes also historically involve other neighbourhoods in the wider context of East Jerusalem, collectively contributing to fuel tensions between Palestinian residents (who are not citizens of Israel) and Israeli Jewish settlers.
Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Israel seized control over large swathes of Mandatory Palestine (including West Jerusalem), whereas Jordan annexed the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). As a consequence, several plots of land (including Sheikh Jarrah) in East Jerusalem passed under Jordanian jurisdiction and administration, including areas where some Jewish communities used to live in the Ottoman era and that were abandoned around 1948.
In 1956 Jordan, in cooperation with the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestine in the Near East (UNRWA), housed 28 families of displaced Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah. In exchange for waiving their refugee status, these families were granted protected tenancies by the Jordanian government; under the terms of the agreement, if the owner of the lands (the Jordanian government) was satisfied with the residents’ conduct, the former would have transferred ownership of the housing units to the latter after three years (the agreement expired in 1959).
Nevertheless, the transfer process was caught up in a bureaucratic and administrative slowness that prolonged it through the mid-1960s. When Israel occupied East Jerusalem (as well as the broader West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights) in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, this process suffered a sudden setback. Palestinian houses in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere concurrently fell under the authority of Israel’s General Custodian.
In 1972, two Jewish committees claimed ownership over lands in Sheikh Jarrah on the basis of an Ottoman-era document (a title deed or koshan) reportedly proving an 1886 transaction for transfer of ownership from the lands’ Arab owner to a Jewish community. The Israeli Custodian registered the properties under the two committees in late 1972 without deferring the case, still ongoing at the moment, to the court (as Israeli norms stipulate). Still, the koshan apparently did not provide for a complete ownership transfer over to the Jewish community and has consequently been legally challenged in Israeli courts, thus becoming a major source of conflicting interpretations.
However, the settlers’ committees started asking Palestinian residents (defined as «squatters») to pay a rent in order to stay there, or to face forced eviction. In 1976, a case involving four Palestinian families was decided by the Jerusalem District Court in favour of the latter, as they were found to be lawfully present in the area on the grounds of their «prior and legitimate» agreements with the Jordanian government and the UNRWA.
The Jewish committees thus resorted to out-of-court methods. In 1982, another legal proceeding involved 23 Palestinian families, whose was represented by a lawyer who autonomously signed an agreement with the two said Jewish committees. Such an agreement omitted to challenge the committees’ ownership claims but obtained instead the status of protected tenants for the Palestinian families (they would not face eviction provided that they paid the rent to the committees, in compliance with the 1972 Tenant Protection Law).
The families represented by the lawyer later objected that the latter had failed to fully disclose to them the nature and implications of the agreement (which he had already signed), and refrained from sticking to its stipulations as a form of protest. Crucially, all four families who had «won» the 1976 case were party to the 1982 agreement, thus somehow «resetting» the precedent for similar disputes. This way, the contested agreement came to underpin all subsequent controversies over the neighbourhood, and effectively constituted the basis for court-ordered evictions (by formalising the identification of Palestinian residents as «tenants», however protected, and of Jewish settlers’ associations as «owners»).
In 1997 the Jewish committees’ ownership claims were again challenged by a Palestinian resident, also building on the premise that the contested title deed (koshan) did not exist within the records of the Ottoman archives in Ankara. What did exist, and what the resident managed to submit to the court, was documentation of his family’s longstanding ties to that land retrieved from both the Ottoman and Jordanian archives. However, both Israeli magistrate courts and the Supreme Court rejected subsequent appeals by the resident. In 2008 and 2009 other Palestinian families were evicted from their houses in Sheikh Jarrah.
Lastly, Jerusalem’s magistrate court ruled in October 2020 that twelve Palestinian families in the neighbourhood had to be evicted in two tranches: about half by early May 2021, and the rest by early August. The court’s decision also stipulated that the homes (and relative ownership rights) would go to Jewish settlers and that the evicted families would have to pay to the latter around $20,000 to cover the legal fees for the trial. Last February, several Palestinian families, together with some human rights organisations, appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court in order for it to annul the eviction orders.
In late April, the Jordanian foreign minister travelled to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, to hand over some documents to the Palestinian Authority (PA) allegedly proving ownership of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, claiming this would help halting evictions. Nevertheless, such documents were seemingly deemed «insufficient» to support the residents’ appeal to the Supreme Court. As the court’s final decision was recently postponed, however, the outcome of the ruling and the fate of the families both remain unclear.
Dispossession by law
At this point, a brief insight on the provisions of Israeli land and property law is necessary if we want to get a sense of how and why the above could ever occur. Mohammad was so kind to disclose the legal system’s basic framework to us. In this context, two major pieces of Israeli legislation are important for our understanding: the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law (APL) and the 1970 Legal and Administrative Matters Law.
Under the former, ownership of landed properties belonging to Palestinians that qualify as «absentees» can be transferred over to the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property (a governmental body tasked with ownership and management of such properties), which in turn often transferred title and ownership over to Israeli settlers associations. Mohammad noted that the very definition of absentee is unfairly extensive, and that its application by Israeli courts has been broad: «if I just move from Jerusalem to Abu-Dis», he said, «they will treat me as if I were absent, like I was in Syria or Lebanon».
On the other hand, according to the latter law, Israelis can claim property of land owned by Jews in East Jerusalem prior to 1948 (sometimes even where compensation for loss of said land had already been provided). Crucially, as underlined by our guest, this very right is not specularly recognised to those Palestinians whose families lost properties to Jewish settlers during the same period.
The interplay between these (and other) laws effectively created a situation widely regarded as «legal discrimination», which means discrimination sanctioned by law. Indeed, many analysts contend that legislation regulating landed property enacted by the Knesset (Israeli parliament) between 1948 and 1960 «institutionalised the dispossession of the displaced Palestinians», substantially altering the legal status of unduly appropriated Palestinian land in the post-1948 period and designing a «land regime» with the objective of sustaining the new Israeli «sociospatial reality».
With specific reference to the APL, moreover, it is generally acknowledged that it provided for «permanent expropriation» of once-Palestinian land. This is particularly blatant also considering the paradoxical category of «present absentees», namely Palestinians who did not exit Israel, but got their properties confiscated (with no compensation whatsoever) nonetheless.
Actually, Israeli authorities themselves admit that evictions concur to an overarching policy of demographic engineering («more land to the Jews, and less to Palestinians», in the words of Mohammad), especially in East Jerusalem. For instance, deputy mayor Aryeh King explicitly told reporters that these actions serve the strategy of installing «layers of Jews» in the city with the objective of securing «the future of Jerusalem as a Jewish capital for the Jewish people», also with a view to prevent the «enemy» from establishing East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Quite unsurprisingly, an ever growing number of different observers (both public and private, both within and outside Israel) consider these policies as unlawful land grabbing, in some cases even amounting to fully-fledged ethnic cleansing.1
Furthermore, and aside from the actual content of the aforementioned legislation, its very application in East Jerusalem, Mohammad told us, is unlawful as it is part of Israeli civil law. Yet, since East Jerusalem is occupied territory, Israel cannot impose its own sets of laws therein: instead, the applicable body of law should be international law of belligerent occupation, a subset of international humanitarian law (IHL).2
«If you are a Jew, then you have the right to come here»
Mohammad then went on talking about another couple of Israeli laws: the 1950 Law of Return and the 1952 Citizenship Law. These two pieces of legislation regulate, respectively, Jewish immigration to Israel and the acquisition and loss of Israeli citizenship.
Under the former, any Jew or descendant of Jews from anywhere in the world is entitled to the right of «returning» to Israel, even if they have never been there before. It is largely acknowledged that among the main drivers of such legislation was the imperative of «maintaining a Jewish majority within the State of Israel by promoting aliyah [the immigration of Jews from the diaspora]». As argued above, this demographic policy aiming at the Judaization of Israel is often pursued through discriminatory legal means and arbitrary practices.
Still, our guest insisted, «if you are Palestinian, you have no right to return». It is estimated that about 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled during the Nakba, «the catastrophe» (as Arabs indicate the events following the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948). Under Israeli law, none of them is allowed to return to their home or their land, nor are their descendants. Furthermore, Mohammad told us, not only had «ethnic cleansing already commenced before the  war», but different Palestinian communities are still at risk of forced eviction also within the borders of Israel (for instance the Bedouins in the Negev region).
Today, some 5,6 million Palestinian refugees fall within the mandate of the UNRWA operating in the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Of them, 1,5 millions were living in refugee camps as of 2019.3
With regards to the Citizenship Law, albeit ostensibly enacted to extend Israeli citizenship to Arab nationals, it was recently amended (first in 2003, then again in 2017) in a way that makes it all the more difficult for them, and specifically for Palestinians, to obtain citizenship in Israel. According to recent amendments, in fact, the law basically bars inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip from automatic conferral of Israeli citizenship and residency permits that are usually granted upon marriage with an Israeli citizen, substantially amounting to a denial of the right to family reunification.
This was primarily justified on grounds of «security concerns»: namely, preventing terrorists from entering Israel or reuniting with their families therein. But there is more than that to the story: once again, among the explicit goals of the bill was that of preserving Israel’s «Jewish character», which would have been jeopardised had the grant of Israeli citizenship to Palestinians marrying Israelis continued unabated. After all, it was adamantly admitted by justices of the Supreme Court that Palestinians in the OPT are «enemy nationals».
As a matter of fact, however, Jewish ethno-nationalism is deeply rooted in Israeli law. In 2018, the Knesset passed a controversial Basic Law (one of several such laws that collectively make up for the lack of a written constitution) whose title reads, Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People. Among other things, it stipulates that, given Israel’s nature as the national home to «the Jewish People», the latter is uniquely entitled to the right of national self-determination. Many hold that this law officially enshrines institutional discrimination, effectively distinguishing between Jewish citizens and non-Jewish ones, and explicitly bestowing upon the former a unique entitlement to national self-determination while disenfranchising the latter.
For supporters of the law, its enactment was a long-due (and perfectly legitimate) recognition that Israel is, and always has been, a Jewish state – the Jewish state. According to critics, on the other hand, Israeli citizens are now classified along a very basic fault line: ethnic identity. On his part, however, then (and current) prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who long supported approval of the bill and greatly celebrated its enactment, publicly asserted that «Israel is not a state of all its citizens», hardly leaving any room for interpretation.
In addition to a growing number of various non-governmental associations’ reports increasingly using the strong expression of «ethnic cleansing» with reference to Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian population, we decided to quote here the 2011 report of the UN-appointed Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the OPT: «There is no question that, with its policy of Palestinian expulsion and dispossession in Jerusalem, Israel continues to be responsible for a gradual, incremental, yet cumulatively devastating policy designed to achieve the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians» (A/HRC/16/72, para. 19).
IHL is a regime consisting in both conventional and customary norms. The formalisation of the norms regulating belligerent occupation is contained, among others, in the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party since 1951. Here you can find a detailed analysis of both Israel’s duties under IHL and its violations thereof.
«Palestinian refugees» are defined under UNRWA’s mandate as «persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict». This definition does not account for Palestinians who fled or were expelled following the 1967 war, nor for Palestinians that were internally displaced as a consequence of either conflict, even though UNRWA is mandated to also provide assistance to them.