Zeev Sternhell
Haaretz (Opinion)
April 16, 2010 - 12:00am

Thanks to an attempted settler takeover of the Sheikh Jarrah quarter, that quiet neighborhood of East Jerusalem has turned into a kind of microcosm of the illnesses that are poisoning relations between Jews and Arabs. The worst of these is the refusal to recognize the finality of the situation that was created at the end of the War of Independence. It is possible to understand the settler right, whose existential aim is the continued conquest of the land. But how is it possible that state institutions will lend a hand to an act that destroys the very land under our feet?

Indeed, this time the settlement is not being carried out merely with brute force like in other parts of the West Bank, but with documents from the days of the Ottoman Empire. The settlers appeared in court armed with Turkish title deeds, which originally were in the hands of the Committee of Sefardic Jews, and on this basis eviction orders were issued for the Arab residents. The Jews came to prove a principle - land that was once owned by Jews is required to be returned to the hands of Jews. The question is, how much longer will it be possible to maintain a situation in which the Jews will have the right to demand ownership of Jewish property that has been left on the eastern side of the Green Line, while the Arabs are forbidden to demand rights of ownership to their property that has been left on the western side of that same line?

After all, there are Palestinians, among them those who live in East Jerusalem, who have title deeds to homes in Talbieh, Old Katamon, Baka, and other neighborhoods in the western part of the city. If Jerusalem is a united city and all its residents, as the authorities claim, are equal before the law, on what moral basis can they decide that what is permitted to the Jews is forbidden to the Arabs? The state institutions now have a golden opportunity not only to show that equality in the eyes of the law is more than an empty, flowery phrase, but also to declare that there is no way back from the political and legal situation that was created in 1949. Any other approach will be considered intolerable discrimination and will serve as a preface to endless appeals to international institutions.

Sheikh Jarrah has symbolic significance also from a different point of view. The 28 homes that are earmarked for rapid evacuation are those of refugees from 1948 from all over the country. In return for the strip of land on which every family built its house, the residents renounced their status as refugees and the assistance that accompanies this status. These people who are about to be evicted, in actual fact, realized an Israeli interest of first-rate importance - they stopped being homeless and receiving welfare and became integrated in the fabric of life at their place of residence. Had this path been followed in Lebanon or in the Jordanian West Bank, a large part of the problems facing us now would have been solved a long time ago. Therefore, what is better from Israel's point of view - Sheikh Jarrah as a residential neighborhood through which hundreds of Israelis pass daily on their way to the Hebrew University and the government offices or Sheikh Jarrah as another refugee camp that is poverty-stricken and filled with hatred?

Instead of turning Sheikh Jarrah into a paragon of coexistence, Israel is about to enable the settlers to reinstate its residents with refugee status and to turn the entire area into a new symbol of Israeli arbitrariness, aggressiveness and distortion of justice.

Indeed, Jerusalem is not a settlement, but those who are turning it into a settlement now are the settlers themselves. It is not difficult to forecast how this additional fuel will fan the growing flames of delegitimization of Israel in the world.

In this context it is worth noting a fact that was published at the beginning of the week. One of the institutes studying anti-Semitism reported a dramatic increase, in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, of incidents defined as anti-Semitic. It is highly doubtful whether in all the cases, or even most of them, the motives were indeed anti-Semitic. It is reasonable to assume that part of the incidents were caused by growing anti-Israeli feelings. One of the characteristics of anti-Semitism is that it is not conditional on objective acts on the part of Jews or even on their presence. Anti-Semitism existed even in places where they did not see Jews. On the other hand, there is a clear and consistent connection between hostility toward Israel and Israel's actions.

It is no coincidence that "anti-Israelism" is a phenomenon of this generation and its source lies in the intensification of the occupation and the feeling that is taking root, even among veteran supporters of Zionism in the world, that Israel does not have the desire or the capability of putting an end to the control over the lives, freedom and independence of another people. That, too, is something worth dwelling on, between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day.


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