Posted on: January 23, 2010 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 3

Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now blogs about how the ongoing protests at Sheikh Jarrah are a “microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

She’s right of course. And she’s right in observing that this relatively small piece of the conflict demonstrates how the occupation is eroding Israeli democracy.

I’d like to go a little deeper into that point, from a slightly different angle.

Israelis, Palestinians and other activists protesting evictions in Sheikh Jarrah

The protests in Sheikh Jarrah were sparked by a group of Jewish settlers buying some property which, it was claimed, once belonged to Jews before 1948. When two Palestinian families, encompassing 53 people were evicted from their home in Sheikh Jarrah, the US and much of the world protested along with the Palestinians. The area has seen increasing protest since.

One of the subtexts of all of this is the counter-claim by settlers and Israeli officials: to quote Yakir Segev of the Jerusalem municipal council, “These are not actions made by Israel or the Israeli government. This is a matter of the court. It is a civil dispute between Palestinian families and those of Israeli settlers, regarding who is the rightful owner of this property … Israeli law is the only law we are obliged to obey.”

Segev is correct to the extent that Israeli law is on the side of the settlers in this regard. As in many of the matters in East Jerusalem, Israeli law upholds the claims of settlers because Jerusalem is considered part of Israel under Israeli law, so, yes, it becomes merely a civil matter for the courts in those terms. The political impact doesn’t enter into it, leaving it to a matter of interpreting the documentation (it is worth noting that subsequent claims that the Jewish documents are forged and/or that Ottoman documents pre-date them make it even more complicated).

The protesters are taking a broader view, and are siding with the entire remainder of the world (yes, at least officially, including the United States) that East Jerusalem is occupied territory. It is also, even under that definition, occupied territory where property was once owned by Jewish families which was lost in the 1948 war.

The issue is particularly touchy for Israel because it is certainly not interested in opening up, in a manner equitable to both Jewish and Arab claims, questions of who owned property before the 1948 war. Periodically, Jewish claimants raise these issues, but it has managed to generally stay outside of the main sectors of public discourse. Arab claims go nowhere, on the rare occasion any Arab wants to waste his time brining one.

This is the essence of a different aspect of the threat to Israeli democracy. No democracy, no open society of any kind, can function without the integrity of its legal system. The law must be fairly and consistently applied with clarity.

This just can’t be done in the context of occupation, and it cannot be done when a population is divided among citizens and non-citizens. Both of these conditions prevail in East Jerusalem.

The protesters and Palestinians are basing their objections on sympathy for people being out of their homes and onto the street and on the fading hope of preserving a two-state solution. But Israeli law backs the other side, in part because Israeli law does not have to deal with the question of occupation (this is one of the problems with the settlements, which are functionally Israeli territory and where Israeli law is applied while military rule is the law in the surrounding Palestinian areas).

Fundamentally, the entire question of Sheikh Jarrah doesn’t come up if not for the occupation. The occupation is the only thing that enables settlers to go and live in Sheikh Jarrah in the first place. The Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah are not Israelis, they merely have resident status.

It should be obvious to anyone who cares about Israel that this occupation and democracy cannot co-exist. Sure, a country can be democratic while its troops are across the world occupying another country. Not ethical, perhaps, certainly not very nice, but democracy in the home country can survive it.

But when that occupation is a method of expanding the home country’s borders; when it brings an occupied people to live with its occupiers and creates a situation where different groups of people have different rights and different standings under the law; and where those different peoples are in conflict, how can anyone seriously argue that democracy can survive?

One, in fact, can’t. And the increasing aggression that Israel is using to deal with the Sheikh Jarrah protests as well as the increasingly questionable legal maneuverings the courts are using show just how threatened Israeli democracy is right now. It cannot survive occupation for much longer.

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