Eviction notice: How one term came to define war and peace in the Middle East

Eviction notice: How one term came to define war and peace in the Middle East
© Getty Images

Words matter.

If you want to understand the jigsaw puzzle of the Middle East, you have to understand one of the key words that everyone in the world, including Americans, knows something about: evictions.

According to Merriam Webster, the word “evict” means to eject, expel, drive or force out, and chiefly relates to a tenant from a building or a legal process as a result of nonpayment of rent. 

ADVERTISEMENT

In the recent COVID-19 pandemic, a major facet of economic relief related to delaying or preventing housing evictions for low-income dwellers. So, what does that have to do with global conflict? Everything.

Shift your gaze to the Middle East, where a fragile cease-fire is holding between Israelis and Palestinians after a 11-day mini-war involving rockets and missiles, loss of life and property, and a continuation of the chaos that has rocked that part of the world for centuries. U.S. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Nearly 200 Americans want to leave Afghanistan, State Department tells Congress Syria's challenge to Tony Blinken's conscience MORE is in Israel trying to use diplomatic muscle to fortify the ceasefire and address humanitarian concerns.

But there is a clock ticking over the region that we need to pay attention to involving evictions, and that clock could run out very soon.

On May 9 the Israeli Supreme Court postponed by up to 30 days a decision on whether to expel six Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem after the attorney general requested more time, in part because of the tensions the case has stirred. 

The decades-old legal battle over the fate of a few dozen Palestinians, which Israeli officials dismiss as “a real estate dispute,” has become symbolic of a wider effort to remove thousands of Palestinians from strategic areas in East Jerusalem and has become a reflection of the broader land dispute that remains central to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This particular dispute is in an area called Sheikh Jarrah, which, like everything in the Middle East, has a long history.

The neighborhood's name refers to the personal physician of the Islamic general Saladin, who is believed to have settled there when Muslim armies captured the city from Christian crusaders in 1187.

Settler groups argue that prior to 1948, Jews owned the land and that it was later placed in Israel trusts. 

In 1956, 28 Palestinian families settled in the neighborhood. Those families were part of a wider population of 750,000 forcibly expelled by militias during the 1948 war – known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or "catastrophe" – from the Arab towns and cities that became Israel. East Jerusalem was administered by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which governed the West Bank. Jordan had built the houses for the 28 Palestinian families with the approval of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. 

After Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, it eventually returned ownership of the Sheikh Jarrah homes to the Jewish trusts. The trusts later sold it to right-wing settlers, who have tried to evict the residents ever since. Some families have already been forced out, while the others are in various stages of the court process.

Ironically, we are not talking about huge numbers of residents being evicted over time. 43 Palestinians were evicted in 2002, the Hanoun and Ghawi families in 2008, and the Shamasneh family in 2017. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Israel rejected an appeal by Palestinian families who had lived in 57 housing units who had petitioned the court to have their ownership of the properties recognized.

ADVERTISEMENT

But the importance of the legal dispute is that it supports each sides’ view of the other. For Palestinians, the evictions represent an array of discriminatory policies that rights groups say are aimed at pushing Palestinians out of Jerusalem to preserve a Jewish majority. Israel rejects those accusations and says the situation in Sheikh Jarrah is a private real-estate dispute that the Palestinians have seized upon to incite violence.

Palestinians point to discriminatory Israeli laws allowing Jews to reclaim such lands but barring them from recovering property they lost in the same war, even if they still reside in areas controlled by Israel. In addition, they cite restrictions on building permits in East Jerusalem that have forced Palestinian residents to either leave the city or to build illegal housing vulnerable to demolition orders. 

And so it goes — the cycle of unending violence. The only solution is mediation.

Mediation by a third party or a third country allows for the reconciliation of competing narratives and the re-litigation of disputes. Whether the mediator is the U.S. government or a non-governmental entity matters less than the commitment of all sides to engage a mediator to resolve deeply-rooted hostility and historic antagonism. The naming of Thomas R. Nides as America’s new ambassador to Israel is a good step. Nides has corporate and government experience and never takes “no” for an answer.

History is replete with examples in which mediation brought about agreements, at least temporarily: The Camp David negotiation in 1978 between Egypt and Israel was mediated by the United States. The Madrid Conference held in October of 1991, although not a success, was a significant step. The Oslo Accord in 1993 advanced the ball. The Quartet of Nations (which comprises the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia) did good work in convening the parties. Recently, Israel was able to reach agreement with many of its neighboring states in the region. Diplomacy can work if you give it a chance.

In the end, it is far too costly and dangerous to keep tearing down societies only to re-build them. Bombings, burnings, vitriol and violence lead to brokenness. The Israeli-Palestinian problem requires patience, politics, diplomacy and a common cultural commitment to peace. Evictions are a tool of war; engagement is a tool of peace. 

Tara D. Sonenshine served as U.S. executive vice president of the United States Institute of Peace. Follow her on Twitter @TSonenshine.