East Jerusalem has featured prominently in the news over the past week. On 27 April, Human Rights Watch issued a 213 page report which examines Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and concludes that there is strong evidence that Israel is committing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. This is most severe in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem.
It is not the first time the term ‘apartheid’ has been coined to describe the situation here, but the detailed report gives a thorough analysis of the legitimacy of the claim by providing a legal and evidence-based case, compiled over many years.
On the ground, it is not difficult to find examples of repression and persecution. On Friday afternoon, I joined a tour in Sheikh Jarrah to learn more about the families that face imminent eviction from the homes they have inhabited for over 50 years. Back in 1956, 28 refugee families were provided with houses from the United Nations Refugee organisation (UNRWA). Several families were from Jaffa and they had been forced out of the homes they owned there when Israel was established in 1948.
The legal case for their current eviction hinges on the fact that they were never given owners’ rights over the UNRWA housing and Jewish families are now claiming historic rights to the land. The case has dragged on for years but has reached crunch time with six families now facing imminent eviction. We were told that the last time Palestinian families were evicted to make way for Israeli settlers, they lived for six months on the pavement opposite their house. It was only the approaching winter and the threat of violence from the gun wielding occupiers that forced them to move on. We stood under the fig tree that was their home for half a year, awe struck at the injustice.
It was possible to delay the process to some extent with appeals and legal challenge, including pressure from international organisations, but the scales of justice were not evenly balanced. The legal system is one of the main tools Israel can use to achieve its aim of dominance over the Palestinians and it will always rule in favour of Israeli expansion.
The strategic importance of East Jerusalem was also in the news this week as the reason for the postponement of the much-awaited Palestinian elections. On Thursday night, the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced that the elections which had been planned to take place later in May, would not go ahead without Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem being allowed to vote. It was claimed that Israel was forbidding elections to go ahead in East Jerusalem. To exclude Jerusalem residents, would be to set a precedent that East Jerusalem was no longer part of Palestine.
Mahmoud Abbas was elected as President of the PA in 2005 to serve a four-year term. Over 15 years later, with no elections held since then, many doubted his commitment to democracy. The current stand-off over East Jerusalem gave convenient cover for him to continue to rule, unhindered by the right of the people to select representatives that could serve their interests. For many Palestinians, cancelling the elections is a bitter disappointment that has robbed them of the hope of change.
Alongside this turbulent legal and political activity, Jerusalem was caught in the fervour of religious celebration and tragedy this week. On Thursday night thousands of people gathered to celebrate the Jewish festival of Lag Ba’omer. The main site of celebration was in Mount Meron, any area several hours to the North of Jerusalem, which holds the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a prominent figure from the 2nd Century. It is thought that around 90,000 people, mainly Orthodox Jews, gathered at the site which was intended to hold 10,000 people. Tragically, 45 people were killed in a crush with many more injured. Authorities are being blamed for poor crowd management and unsafe routes which forced people into narrow passageways. Israel remains in a state of mourning over how such an awful event could unfold.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem over the weekend, Christian crowds gathered to witness the Holy Fire spectacle. This occurs every year on the day before Orthodox Easter Sunday. A flame is spontaneously lit in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, deemed a miracle of light, and the Holy flame is passed between the observers. Amazing photos have emerged of the Church, virtually engulfed in flames, as the fire spreads across different candles and torches.
On Saturday, the police held crowds outside of the city gates to prevent overcrowding within the Old City. In the wake of the Mount Meron tragedy this is understandable but was still criticised as state interference in religious observation.
After a year of Covid-19, it feels like the lid is coming off, and the tensions that have always been here are re-surfacing and boiling over more intensively than they have in a while. The East Jerusalem question sits at the heart of the future for both Israel and Palestine, and I hope that the time for burying heads in sand is over and that justice will finally be served.