The recent protests in Sheikh Jarrah against the eviction of two Palestinians have once again focused international attention on East Jerusalem. International condemnation of Israel has come from a variety of sources. Robert Serry, a special coordinator with the UN, has argued that he “deplores today’s unacceptable actions by Israel.” The EU Presidency has condemned what it calls “unacceptable evictions” and secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the events are “not in keeping with Israeli obligations.” A member of one of Jerusalem’s former leading families, Hasib Nashashibi claims “The recent evictions are part of a plan to surround the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah with Jewish settlements, in order to separate the approximately 500 Arabs from the rest of the city and take control of the major roads in the area.”
But the events in Sheikh Jarrah are, like so many things in the conflict, part of a larger history that the international community and Jerusalemites sometimes seem to forget. What is today called Sheikh Jarrah in the 19th century included two Jewish neighborhoods known as Nahalat Shimon and Shimon HaTzadiq. The latter commemorated Simon the Just, a Jewish high priest from the 4th century B.C and was purchased by Jews in 1876. Nahalat Shimon was built by Sephardic and Yemenite Jews in 1891. Sheikh Jarrah was primarily a Jewish neighborhood in the late 19th century and remained so up until 1948.
According to research carried out by Prof. Ruth Kark of the Hebrew University the Jewish housing developments were bordered by villas constructed by Jerusalem’s leading Arab families. East of Salah a Din (Saladin) street was the ‘Husseini Quarter’ which included six houses of the Husseini family which were constructed beginning in the 1890s. Other leading Muslims began building in Sheikh Jarrah in the 1870s. By 1918 the total number of Muslim houses in the neighborhood had grown to thirty.
It was a cosmopolitan neighborhood that included the American Colony compound, St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, an ancient Muslim mosque commemorating a soldier of Saladin and the ‘Graves of the Kings’, a site with graves of various Jewish figures, which had been acquired by a Jewish family and given to the French government in the 19th century. In December of 1947 fighting broke out between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. Initially the leading Muslim families asked Arab fighters from outside the city to leave their neighborhood, and the Jews there, in peace. By March of 1948 however Arabs from a unit called “al Shabab” (The Youth) invaded the neighborhood and set the Jewish synagogues and houses on fire, causing the residents to flee. In April the Hadasah Convoy massacre, where 79 Jews were murdered, took place in the neighborhood. Sheikh Jarrah was not the only Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem destroyed in the war. Silwan, where Yemenite Jews had settled in 1882 was also taken over along with the Old city’s Jewish quarter which was razed.
After 1948 East Jerusalem passed into Jordanian control. The city’s Christian population declined from around 30,000 before 1948 to some 11,000 in 1967. In every history of Jerusalem these seem to be the lost years of the city where nothing seems to happen; in fact much happened in East Jerusalem. Beit Hanina, an Arab neighborhood north of the city, began to develop into a thriving center for wealthy Jerusalemite Arab families. In addition the emigration of wealthy Jerusalemite Arabs led to an influx of Hebronite Muslims who arrived in great numbers to do work. Although initially poor they soon came, due to high birth rates and religious devotion, to dominate many neighborhoods in the city.
The UN was involved in settling Palestinian refugees in East Jerusalem as well. The disputed houses in Sheikh Jarrah were actually handed over to the Hannoun and Gawi families in 1956 under the auspices of UNWRA. The Jewish community which actually owned the properties was not consulted. Neither was the Jewish community consulted when graves on the Mount of Olives were destroyed beginning in 1956. According to a 2009 report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs some 38,000 grave stones were destroyed by the Jordanian authorities, partly to pave a road through the cemetery. A large hotel was constructed on the summit of the hill.
Many of the disputes about East Jerusalem have their origins in what happened between 1948 and 1967, a period often ignored by historians, governments and activists. The UN was never given authority to resettle Palestinians in Jewish property, yet this was the task it undertook. Before condemning Israel, Robert Serry should first apologize for his own organization’s theft of Jewish property without compensation. The Jewish properties in question might well have been left in ruins, like part of Nahalat Shimon and the grave of Simon the Just was. In fact none of the rampant destruction of Jewish sites in Jerusalem was condemned by the UN during the period of Jordanian rule. Had the international community cared then as much as it does now perhaps the disputes would not have come to about. If people understood more about the period of Jordanian rule and the dynamic Arab changes of Jerusalem one might better understand the actual history of the city, rather than focusing merely on Israeli actions and Palestinian victimization.