If the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is going to be resolved anytime soon, the beginning of the solution could be happening in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. That is where a struggle has been going on since last year over the "right of return."
The "right of return" has referred to the Palestinian people's insistence on acknowledgment of the dispossession of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, through campaigns of violence, terror and fear, to create what is now the state of Israel.
The right of return has been a hot-button issue, fiercely rejected by Israeli leaders. But Palestinians have long been willing to compromise. They say any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must involve acknowledgment of Israeli responsibility for what Palestinians call the Naqba (disaster), and some mutually agreed on combination of compensation for the losses and a limited number of returnees. The widely accepted fundamentals of a peace accord also include sharing Jerusalem, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
But now the Israeli "settler" movement has turned the "right of return" on its head by insisting that Jews who lived in East Jerusalem before 1948 have a right to retake their homes there, even by force.
In so doing, many believe they are actually giving legitimacy to the Palestinians' arguments about their 1948 dispossession, and even undermining the Israeli government's own position.
A year ago, on Aug. 2, Israeli police in riot gear carried out a pre-down eviction of nine Palestinian families, 53 people in all, from two homes in Sheikh Jarrah. In their place, Jewish settlers have moved in.
Another 24 Palestinian families in the neighborhood are battling eviction. The total comprises more than 500 people, including old people and children.
Israel's Supreme Court ordered the eviction, following a 37-year legal battle during which Israeli courts repeatedly upheld claims that Jews have a right to the land because it was owned by Jews before 1948.
After the creation of Israel in 1948, Jordan occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees who fled to East Jerusalem during the 1948 war were resettled on abandoned land in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood by UNRWA (the United Nations agency responsible for the Palestinian refugees) and the Jordanian government in 1956.
Then Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 war, and unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980. No other country, including the U.S., recognizes that annexation.
At the time of the evictions a year ago, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, called the actions "contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions related to occupied territory," and said they "heighten tensions and undermine international efforts to create conditions for fruitful negotiations to achieve peace."
The Communist Party of Israel points out that the Israeli "occupation of Sheik Jarrah is part of a series of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian neighborhoods that encircle the Old City." These settlements include Sheikh Jarrah to the north, the Mount of Olives to the east and Silwan (the so-called "City of David") to the south.
"The intention is to move settlers into the area and to move the Palestinians out," the Israeli Communist Party says. "It's not about Jews and Arabs living together, and it's not a really great way to make peace."
Over the past year, there have been weekly joint non-violent demonstrations by Israelis and Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah protesting the evictions. They have drawn an increasing array of Israeli public figures. They include poet and journalist Haim Gouri, novelist David Grossman, former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, and philosopher Moshe Halbertal, a co-author of the Israel Defense Forces code of ethics. Police brutality and arrests of demonstrators have made freedom of expression another issue in the protests.
On Friday, some 1,000 Israelis and Palestinians marched in Sheikh Jarrah and another thousand marched in Tel Aviv to mark the one-year anniversary of the evictions. Protests also took place in Haifa, Beersheba and other Israeli cities and towns. "I hope that this is just the beginning," Grossman told the Israeli news website Y-Net.
A July 9 peaceful protest of 300 at Sheikh Jarrah, including Grossman and Yair, was roughed up by police.
A few weeks earlier, several hundred Hebrew University students. lecturers and well known professors marched from the Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem to Sheikh Jarrah to protest the settlers' takeover of residents' homes. The protesters carried signs calling for an end to settlements in East Jerusalem. Some signs read, "Stop ethnic cleansing."
A March 6 demonstration of several thousand Israelis and Palestinians drew wide international media coverage.
"Ironically," notes Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg, "by claiming former Jewish property in Sheikh Jarrah, the settlers are also asserting the right of 1948 refugees or their heirs to reclaim their homes."
The right-wing settler movement really doesn't care about that because their aim is to sabotage peace negotiations altogether, he observes.
But the "blatant injustice" of the evictions and the rashness of the Israeli right is fueling the Sheikh Jarrah protests, Gorenberg writes.
And the "disciplined nonviolence - on the part of the demonstrators, if not the police" - has attracted Israeli "moderates."
Furthermore, "the protests answer a gut need to speak out," says Gorenberg. "To come to Sheikh Jarrah on a Friday is to emerge from slumber and demand a change in Israel's direction."
"It is entirely too soon to know where this will lead," he says. "But if a vibrant Israeli left is reborn, history will mark that it regained life facing the blocked entrance of Sheikh Jarrah."
Photo: A May 21 protest in Sheikh Jarrah. (photos from zion, cc 2.0)