There has been an international furor about properties in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Shimon HaTzadik (frequently referred to as Sheikh Jarrah). For a time in early to mid-May 2021, the furor was so intense that riots, incited by Hamas, resulted. Media reports that distorted the facts also contributed to the unrest.
Following here you have both historical background and a legal explanation.
In the neighborhood that is the center of the furor lies the grave of Shimon HaTzadik (Simon the Just), who was a Second Temple high priest and one of the last of the Great Assembly.
Because of this tomb, Jews had lived in the area for a very long time. In the late 1800s (when the region was within the Ottoman Empire), the land around the tomb was purchased by the Sephardic Community Committee and the Ashkenazi Assembly of Israel on behalf of the Jewish community.
During Israel’s War of Independence, 1948-49, Jordan captured eastern Jerusalem, including this neighborhood, and drove out all Jews. Eastern Jerusalem during Jordan’s illegal occupation was Judenrein: Jews were not permitted entry. The Jewish owners of houses that had been built in the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood had no access to their property and the neighborhood came to be seen as “Arab.”
In 1956, Jordan placed a number of Palestinian Arab families in the Jewish houses. They were never given deeds to the properties by the Jordanian government. Legally, ownership of the houses still rested with the Jewish community even though Jews were prevented from reaching those homes.
In many cases, what the Arab residents were given by Jordan were leaseholder rights, via the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property.
In 1967, with the Six Day War, Israel secured control of eastern Jerusalem, which was re-established as part of united Jerusalem, now under Israeli sovereignty. (In 3,000 years, Jerusalem had never been divided except for the 19 years of illegal occupation of eastern Jerusalem by Jordan.)
In 1970, an Israeli law was passed that allowed Jews to reclaim property in eastern Jerusalem provided that they had documentation of ownership.
It is important to note here that had the Arabs living in the houses been in possession of documents legally proving they had ownership, they would have been allowed to stay permanently. The issue here is purely legal.
What must also be noted here is that there were a series of transactions between Jews who had legal ownership rights to the houses and Arabs living in the houses; these transactions established “protected leaseholder rights.” The Arabs participating in these agreements were granted rights to remain in the houses through long-term lease arrangements, even though the houses were owned by Jews. The Jews in no way relinquished their legal right to ownership with these agreements, but accorded the Arabs long-term protection as tenants.
A series of court rulings, culminating in 1982, recognized the long-term “protected leaseholder rights” of the Arabs who had participated in these agreements. These rights – which provided rent control and other protections for decades – are more extensive than the rights granted in Israeli law under the provisions of normal leases.
In the years since there have been a handful of evictions of Arabs from the houses owned by Jews. Each eviction is a legal process that proceeds through the courts over a period of years. This legal process is a routine one, no different from that found elsewhere in the world with regard to protecting property ownership.
When Israeli courts determine that Arabs who held leaseholder rights must be evicted from a house it is because: 1) the long-term lease has expired and the tenants refuse to leave, or 2) there was a serious breach of the terms of the lease, most notably long-term refusal to pay rent. Additionally sometimes there are squatters who are not protected by lease agreements and have not been paying rent.
It is important to note here that the State of Israel has not evicted anyone. Private Jewish individuals or organizations legally acting on their behalf petition the courts for their rights to the properties. In spite of this very basic fact, charges are being leveled regarding what Israel is “doing” to Arabs.
The current dispute involves four houses in the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood; altogether there are fewer than 50 people involved. The courts had already ruled that they had to be evicted, but the tenants had appealed and a ruling was to be handed down in May. Because of the riots, the prime minister requested a delay in the ruling.
It must be emphasized in the strongest terms that Israeli law is without bias with regard to the ethnicity of individuals involved in a legal case. The courts have not found that in some cases Arabs must be evicted from homes in which they have lived because they are Arabs and Jews own the homes. The decision concerning their eviction is one of law.
To refuse to evict Arabs who have not paid their rent for a very long time or who insist on their right to stay even after their lease has expired would be to deny the Jews their rights as the legal property owners.
Do not be misled by the Arabs and their supporters who have made a political football out of what should have been a routine legal process. Their goals: to incite Arabs against Israel, to lay Arab claim to Jerusalem, and to generate negative publicity for Israel internationally.
Consider what MK Ahmed Tibi said about this situation in May. His inflammatory and distorted accusations are fairly typical:
“The eviction of the residents…in Sheikh Jarrah is a political matter and not a real estate one. This eviction is aimed at Judaizing the neighborhood, by brutally evicting and throwing residents onto the street.”
“Judaizing the neighborhood” What a ridiculous and meaningless charge this is. It is intended to suggest that Jews are taking over what is rightfully Arab. But consider:
The Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood was Jewish for centuries. Only the illegal eviction of all Jews from this neighborhood by Jordan changed its character.
This neighborhood is in eastern Jerusalem, which is part of sovereign Israel. Jews have a right to live there, as everywhere in Israel.
To say they cannot live there is to deny them their legal rights to their property.
To speak about “brutally evicting” is an attempt to place Israel in a negative light internationally. Eviction processes take years and the court is ready to hear petitions from Arab tenants. There is nothing brutal about this and Arabs who are required to leave will have had quite sufficient time to secure a place to go.
In some instances, Arabs living in these houses have gone to the media, lamenting that they have been in the houses for such a long time, implying that it would cruel to evict them now. But let us be clear: they were in those houses for such a long time because the Jewish owners, once their legal ownership had been thoroughly documented, generously negotiated long-term protected leases with Arabs living in the houses rather than demanded they leave immediately.
At this late date in the proceedings claims are occasionally made by Arab tenants that lease agreements were invalid or that they were never required to pay rent. The courts have examined and rejected these claims. (It is worth noting here that it would have made little sense for Jews who succeeded in proving their ownership of houses to simply allow Arabs to continue to live in those houses indefinitely without establishing a formal understanding that they were tenants and not the owners, and that rent had to be paid.)