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How Jerusalem re-emerged as the core of the Palestine Question

May 11,2021 - Last updated at May 12,2021

Almost three years ago president Donald Trump took the illegal and unilateral step of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s united capital. By doing so he and his top aides said the US had taken Jerusalem off the negotiations table. In the words of Trump: We don’t have to talk about it anymore! But the events of the past few days have underlined one clear and indisputable fact: Jerusalem remains at the core of the Palestinian Question and by extension the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What is happening in East Jerusalem and the Old City is a deliberate attempt by a far - right Israeli political and religious establishments to alter the existing status quo and enforce a new reality.  The sinister scheme is two-pronged: One seeks to undermine the long-standing understanding over the status of Al Aqsa Mosque as a place that is solely for Muslim worshippers, while the other seeks to initiate the forced eviction of East Jerusalem Palestinian residents. The two schemes are inter-connected and both present a clear and present danger to an already shaky situation in the Holy Land.

Since the beginning of Ramadan, the Israeli authorities had sought to provoke and harass the Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem, around 330,000 making up to 60 per cent of the total population. Arab residents carry the Israeli ID but are not considered citizens of Israel. The idea has always been to force the Arab population to leave the city through heavy taxation, denying them building permits, home demolitions and illegal expropriation of lands and homes. Approvals for building and expanding Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem have expanded by 60 per cent since Trump became US president in 2017. Even then the steadfastness of the city’s Arab population stood in the way of tilting the demographic balance in favour of Jews.

Thus enters the latest crisis of the Sheikh Jarrah Arab neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Jewish colonialist groups have resorted to Israeli courts in a bid to claim property ownership of lands in Sheikh Jarrah; home to over 300 families. For decades Arab residents fought in Israeli courts to prove their rightful claim to their homes. This week the Israeli high court was to rule on the fate of four Arab families and their properties in Sheikh Jarrah. The steadfastness of the residents and the international backlash against such a direct breach of international law and Geneva Conventions has delayed such a ruling, for now.

A ruling in favour of the settlers would set a dangerous precedent. It would force the eviction of Palestinians from their homes--a war crime--and open the way for other evictions in other East Jerusalem neighbourhoods. Under a racist Israeli law, Jews can claim property allegedly owned prior to 1948 in East Jerusalem while Arabs cannot enjoy the same right with regard to properties in West Jerusalem or even inside the so-called Green Line.

The reality is that East Jerusalem remains an occupied territory just as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the Sheikh Jarrah case the Jordanian authorities have submitted documents proving Palestinian ownership of their homes since 1956, when East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule.

The blatant attack by Israeli police and armed Jewish settlers on the civilian residents of Sheikh Jarrah has turned into a PR disaster for Israel. Social media played a pivotal role in exposing Israeli atrocities against unarmed Palestinian residents; leading to unprecedented support by key US senators and lawmakers. Photos and videos of Palestinians in the neighbourhood being attacked and arrested by Israeli police have forced the EU, the UN, the US the Quartet, and even Arab countries that recently established ties with Israel, to issue statements denouncing attempts to evict the residents by force.

As for Al Aqsa; not since 1969 had Jewish mobs tried to forcefully enter the mosque under the protection of Israeli forces. What happened this Monday and the days before, when Israeli soldiers opened fire and threw stun grenades and tear gas canisters at peaceful worshippers inside the mosque, has shocked the world.

Throughout Benyamin Netanyahu’s long rule as premier, Israel has tried to alter the status quo at Al Aqsa. Under the 1994 peace agreement, Jordan has special custodianship role over Al Aqsa Mosque through Al Wqaf. But extremist Jews want access to the mosque, which they call the Temple Mount, and radicals call openly for the mosque’s destruction. Jordan has repulsed such moves in the past but it needs international support to prevent Israel from enforcing a new reality that will certainly lead to bloodshed.

Embattled Netanyahu has tried to push for a major onslaught to Judaise East Jerusalem in a bid to appease the settlers. But world public opinion has turned against Israel. That is not enough; only one party can step in and stop this dangerous and irresponsible misadventure and that is the Biden administration. Failing to do that will bring another disaster on the eve of the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.   

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