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No happy ending: Film documents the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah

Just Vision‘s latest film is a moving snapshot of the Palestinian plight with Israeli settlement policies in an East Jerusalem neighborhood –  and the Israeli Jews that raised awareness about the issue by protesting there. While there is no happy ending, the movie introduces audiences to some of the Palestinians and Israelis who found themselves taking part in a common struggle. 

On several occasions during the winter of 2009-2010, I joined a small group of Israeli protesters who walked on Friday afternoon from downtown West Jerusalem to a demonstration in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. They carried red flags, held signs advocating freedom for Palestine in general and Sheikh Jarrah specifically; and they chanted in Arabic and Hebrew, accompanying themselves with drum-rolls that often ended with them crying in unison “enough with the occupation!”

On the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street in West Jerusalem, passersby jeered or stood open-mouthed at the site of unabashed leftists in that very right-wing part of what is basically a very right-wing city. Once, a young soldier on his way home for a weekend furlough walked over to a female protester, reared his head back and hawked a gob of phlegm at her. He was wearing a yarmulke and the insignia of an elite combat unit. As we made our way along Hanevi’im Street, a trio of 20-something, well-heeled Palestinian East Jerusalemites stopped to point and giggle as they exchanged comments in Arabic. They were sorry for the families that had been evicted from their homes, they told me, but they did not see the point in protesting and were amused by the anarchist-grunge sartorial style of the Jewish demonstrators.

Protesters walking toward Sheikh Jarrah in West Jerusalem, January 2010 (Photo: Lisa Goldman)

Once in Sheikh Jarrah, the activists stood across the street from a cluster of houses that had been invaded by settlers. Palestinians had lived in them since the 1950s, but the Israeli courts had ruled that those houses had once belonged to Jews, or that the state could nationalize the homes so the Palestinian owners would henceforth be tenants – even though they were not citizens of Israel. In any case, either because they refused to pay rent for houses they had owned for half a century or because the courts decided that the right of Jews to live in their homes – not the Jews who had allegedly occupied those homes before 1948, but any Jews – trumped the rights of those Palestinian families to continue living there, they were evicted  after many years of legal struggles. Paramilitary police came in the middle of the night, broke into the homes and threw entire families onto the street. And while the Palestinian families stood on the street, the police threw their possessions out and radical religious settlers moved in, right in front of the crying Palestinian children and the bewildered old people sitting on plastic chairs on the street.

It seems like an unjustifiable scenario, but the vast majority of Jewish Israelis were indifferent or unaware of what was happening in Sheikh Jarrah, even though it was just 10 minutes’ unobstructed walk from the heart of downtown West Jerusalem. For weeks the only protesters were from the Israeli radical left. The Jerusalem area police were always out in force on those Fridays in Sheikh Jarrah, supplemented by the paramilitary border police and the riot control police. They stood and watched the protesters until suddenly, for reasons that were often unclear (perhaps they were just bored), they would lunge into the crowd and start beating up and arresting protesters, often dragging them on the pavement.

Once, the person who had given me a lift to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv was arrested while standing right beside me. By coincidence a European journalist friend strolled by a few minutes later (he’d just finished a late lunch with friends at the nearby Ambassador Hotel) and offered to drive me to the 24-hour minivan service that plied the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv route. But he took a wrong turn and we ended up in Mea Shearim, just as the Sabbath began. The streets were empty of traffic, the traffic lights blinked amber and the ultra-Orthodox men began shouting “Shabbes! Shabbes!” as our car approached. My friend floored the accelerator and we slid down instinctively to avoid being hit by stones.

The Israeli Jews who were arrested in Sheikh Jarrah that Friday included the director of a prominent NGO and a couple of well-known activists. They spent the Jewish sabbath in jail at the Russian Compound and were arraigned on Saturday night. The judge ordered them released and scolded the police for having arrested them without cause. So the story made the papers the next day.

The publicity from the high-profile arrests was good for the movement. It raised awareness amongst Israelis about the situation in Sheikh Jarrah. After a few weeks, the liberal left began to join and soon outnumbered the radical left at those protests. Soon a Who’s Who of  liberal politicians, activists, artists and journalists – David Grossman, Hendrik Hertzberg, Mohammad Barakeh, Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid, Avraham Burg – made Sheikh Jarrah famous with their visits. Liberal American Jews came on JStreet junkets to see the protests and meet the Palestinian families that had lost their homes.The activists began selling Sheikh Jarrah T-shirts to help defray legal costs and Palestinian kids wheeled wooden carts over to the place where the demonstrators gathered and hawked little bags of popcorn, plastic cups of Turkish coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

But the evicted families stayed evicted and the settlers continued to occupy their homes. In fact, the settlers’ presence increased as the leftist protests swelled in number. So what had been accomplished?

This question is explored in the documentary film “My Neighborhood.” Directed by Rebekah Wingbert-Jabi and Julia Bacha, who also directed “Budrus,” the film traces the history of the protest movement in Sheikh Jarrah by focusing on two characters – Mohammed El Kurd, a Palestinian boy from Sheikh Jarrah who is 11 when the film begins; and Zvi Benninga, a Jewish Israeli from West Jerusalem who is in his early 20s. Zvi and his sister Sara become activist leaders in the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement.

Watch the trailer for ‘My Neighborhood’:

Mohammed, articulate and compelling, describes the day settlers moved into part of his family’s house – a separate building which they’d stopped constructing while waiting for permits to be approved. There is footage that shows settlers and police roughly shoving aside Mohammed’s elderly grandmother as she tries physically to bar these strangers from moving into her own backyard – literally.

Zvi is the type of educated, idealistic middle class Israeli that is often referred to as the “beautiful Israel.” He describes his own growing political awareness and activism in the face of what he recognizes as a stark injustice in Sheikh Jarrah. The film shows the mistrust of Mohammed and his grandmother, who doubt that any Jew would go against his own people to take the side of Palestinians. And it hints at Zvi’s growing sadness and hopelessness at effecting change, even as his commitment to activism grows stronger and the crowds showing up at the Friday demonstrations swell from dozens to hundreds.

It is a touching story, well told, intimate and neither outraged nor sentimental. The white boy does not save the brown boy; justice does not win out in the end; and the police remain unmoved by the nonviolent protestors. I won’t be giving anything away by volunteering the information that none of the evicted Palestinian families of Sheikh Jarrah have had their homes returned; and not only are the settlers still there, but their numbers have grown.

Mohammed and Zvi both seem to understand, by the end of the film, that the struggle is going to be a long one. The Friday demonstrations have petered out; the liberal leftists and the hardcore activists have moved on. In real life the good guys don’t always win.  But the Palestinian boy and the young Israeli man have gained from the wider struggle a sort of strength that comes from being aware of the ‘other’s’ humanity. For Zvi, there is also comfort in moral clarity. Mohammed, now 14, says he wants to become a lawyer so he can win his family’s home back via the court system. Zvi is not fighting to get his house back. He and his family live in an old Palestinian house in West Jerusalem – an irony that does not seem to escape them. But his fight is for something less tangible and more elusive. And it cannot necessarily be won in a court of law.

Veteran activist tells story of Sheikh Jarrah protests
Photo essay: Three years of settlement, struggle in Sheikh Jarrah
What happened to the protests in Sheikh Jarrah?
+972 Spotlight: Sheikh Jarrah

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    1. Bobby

      Equating the colonized with the colonizer. You liberal zionists need to stop trying to normalize Zionism as there is nothing normal about it.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Palestinian

      I’m not sure if Zvi and the liberal left are aware of the fact that the majority of Jewish neighbourhoods in West Jerusalem today belong to Palestinians who fled or were expelled ,so the conflict isnt confined to Sheikh Jarrah or Nabi Saleh.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Niz

      This movie -from the preview at least- seems to “consume” the Palestinians again. The Palestinians are consumed physically and materially by zionism and are then consumed again to make liberal zionists feel better. Why? Because liberal zionists believe that there could be a reconciliation between a Zionism and Palestinians, and in this they are delusional. There can be no reconciliation. The settlers are inline with themselves, they understand that the Palestinians need to be destroyed for Zionsim to be viable and they do not shy from it, they are the spearhead. Zionism has put the relationship between ‘jew’ and ‘arab’ as a relationship between settler and native. It’s colonialism, pure and simple. This kind of movies trying to show that the problem lies with fringe settler groups tries to wash zionism constructing an illusion of a possible reconciliation. The true reconciliation between the natives and the coming ‘Jews’ cannot occur but through destroying the framework – being Zionism. As Palestinians we will be committing a grave mistake by relying on liberal groups in Israel- they only confuse reality. In reality there is a war going on a daily basis. Our destruction is being undertaken as we write. The Palestinians need to review the possible options, a return to violence among other tactics might be a necessity in the absence of a true possibility of reconciliation. The liberal zionists are wretched, they are being torn between their Jewish and Liberal identities. They understand that they cannot be both and this is because zionism and liberalism cannot be put in the same word, one word cancels the other!

      Reply to Comment
    4. Niz

      sorry ..in the same sentence.

      Reply to Comment
    5. zayzafuna

      User is banned from commenting on this channel after several warnings.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Palestinian – As you can read in the review, Zvi is well aware that much of West Jerusalem was inhabited by Palestinians who fled / were expelled before and during 1948. The point of the struggle he is involved in now is to halt the ongoing evictions / expulsions that many consider a continuation of 1948 – which occurred more than 40 years before Zvi was born.

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    7. XYZ

      Just for the record, just as Arabs were expelled from or fled from western Jerusalem in 1948, Jews were expelled from or fled Sheikh Jarrah and other areas in eastern Jerusalem at the same time. That is why it is preposterous to claim that “East Jerusalem is Arab”. Jews lived all over the city, both east and west (of which there were no such distinctions before 1948) before 1948 and Jews were the majority of the total population of the Jerusalem already in the 19th century.

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    8. XYZ – Jews were not the majority of Jerusalem’s population in the nineteenth century – not even close. Click here to view a breakdown of the city’s population by religion in the modern era.

      Furthermore, while Jews are allowed to settle today in East Jerusalem, taking up residence in Palestinians’ homes under police protection, Palestinians who were evicted from their homes in West Jerusalem are not allowed to reclaim their property in the Germany Colony, Katamonim and so on. There are quite a few Palestinians living today in East Jerusalem who were not allowed to return to the homes they had owned in West Jerusalem prior to 1948, after fleeing to escape the fighting with the expectation of returning after the war.

      In the case of Sheikh Jarrah, the Palestinian residents who were evicted from their homes over the past few years were refugees in 1948. They agreed to give up their refugee status in exchange for ownership over their homes, in a plan jointly created by the UNHCR and the Jordanian government. So they have lost their homes twice in their own lifetime.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Palestinian

      Lisa ,we appreciate your efforts but the 48 events have to be addressed as well.
      ABC : according to Wikipedia (which I dont trust ) non-Jews had been always the majority in Jerusalem during the 19th century except for once despite the Ashkenazi immigrants to Palestine.Believe me , if we want to go back to the 19th century ,Jews were a very tiny minority 😉

      Reply to Comment
    10. Palestinian – Certainly the events of 1948 must be addressed, but to do so here would be to go way beyond the scope of the article. This is a review of a film about present-day events.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Palestinian

      Lisa dont you agree they are all connected , for example Jewish families claim they lived there before Jordan expelled them .

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    12. Martha

      All but 1 of the actual homes in Sheikh Jarrah that have been taken over by Israeli settlers were never previously owned or lived in or belonged to Jews — these homes were built by UNRWA in the 1950s on land allocated by Jordan for Palestinians who were refugees registered with UNRWA. The prior ownership of SOME of the land at this location is at issue, and here the Ottoman + Jordanian records are woefully inadequate. Some details do matter.

      Some do not [such as this]: By coincidence a European journalist friend strolled by a few minutes later (he’d just finished a late lunch with friends at the nearby Ambassador Hotel) and offered to drive me to the 24-hour minivan service that plied the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv route.

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    13. Martha, thank you for adding the details that matter regarding Sheikh Jarrah.

      Regarding the detail that you posit does not matter: I would counter that your comment on that detail does not matter – ie, it is superfluous and gratuitous.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Palestinian

      Martha if they want to claim properties lost in war ,why cant we do the same ? I want my family’s properties in Lifta.

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    15. Leila

      I agree with most of your commentary, but why did you ban Zayzafuna? It just makes you look petty

      Reply to Comment
    16. I asked Z. several times over the past year not to presume to know the reason I left Israel and not to make personal comments about my life. S/he ignored my repeated requests – so, s/he is banned.

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    17. “Palestinians had lived in them since the 1950s, but the Israeli courts had ruled that those houses had once belonged to Jews, or that the state could nationalize the homes so the Palestinian owners would henceforth be tenants.”
      A State that employs racial categories over long lived homesteading (life at a single location) will ultimately have to reverse itself or use draconian methods of control. Those that are expelled are not expelled from life; they grow, as do others who witness them. Your Citizenship Law case extended if not created a racial right over individual lives, formalizing, in my view, the acknowledged dark time of Israeli law–and it has just begun.
      Clearly evidenced homestead should bar removal absent credit conditions. If the Israeli State can nationalize a home, it can oust residents from any home; race appears a shield, but there is no reason to believe conflict over homestead could not emerge among Jews on, say, test of religion.
      While I understand your position that Zionism and Liberalism cancel one another, there is no reason why a right of Jewish ingress into Israel cannot stand with protected homestead. While clearly earlier immigration supplanted Palestinians, that need not be the case, in principle, now; but clearly it is, now. The conflation of the right of entry with racially priviliged homestead will ultimately be diasterous for those who want to enshrine the former. It is obvious, to me at any rate, that Israel, to save Jewish ingress, must embrace full political and social equality–including secured homestead.
      I know that lives have been destroyed and are being destroyed in a sick zero sum view of the world (and God, for that matter). But I must believe that words ultimately matter. Yet, the only way Israeli law (and jurisprudence) will change is when social action forces issues before an earlier unwillling law. Most of those actions will be futile. But, somewhen, somehow, some of these actions will begin a shift. How to keep going under that promise? I don’t know.
      I am neither Jewish (to my knowledge, which is fine with me, mongrel American) nor a Zionist. I am concerned with what exists, and how it may shift over time.

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    18. Kolumn9

      Just to clarify what happened in Sheikh Jarrah because this film does not provide the facts. The court ruled that legal title remained with the previous Jewish owners of Sheikh Jarrah. The Arabs would be allowed to stay as long as they paid the required rent to the real owners. There is no one that claims this land belongs to the Arabs and no, residency derived from evidenced homestead is not an internationally protected legal right and it isn’t one that applies here according to Israeli law because the tenants stopped or refused to pay rent. The settlers and their supporters purchased the land from the legal owners and proceeded to evict those Arabs that stopped paying rent.

      The real reason for the criticism and protests is that Jews are moving into racially pure Arab neighborhoods. How dare these Jews choose to exercise their legal right to live in areas that the Arabs and their leftist supporters have deigned to be free of Jews forever? Yeah, who is the racist?

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    19. K9 – How many people use your moniker, by the way? Is there a group of you?

      The film and my post do tell the facts. You just didn’t read or watch.

      And if the Jews have the ‘right’ to evict Palestinians from their own homes in what you call ‘racially pure’ areas and move in, then obviously the Palestinians have the right to buy in ‘racially pure’ Jewish areas of West Jerusalem – according to your reasoning. Right?

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    20. XYZ

      I am not aware of any law that prevents Israeli Arabs, i.e. citizens of Israel, from living anywhere they want in Israel, with the exception of those small communities that have those committees that decide who can live in them (but didn’t the Court rule that they can’t exclude Arabs?). I am sure there are Arabs living in west Jerusalem. There are numerous mixed cities like Yafo, Lod, Ramla, Akko, Haifa, etc. How welcoming are Arab towns to Jews who want to live in them?

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    21. XYZ – Palestinian Arab residents of East Jerusalem are not citizens of Israel. According to Israeli law, Palestinian Arabs who are not citizens of Israel are not allowed to buy property in Israel.

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    22. XYZ

      During the initial debates held after the Left decided to support dividing (i.e. destroying) Jerusalem, no less than Ran Cohen of MERETZ said one of the “advantages” of dividing the city would be in not having to pay National Insurance Institute payments to the Arabs in the Arab part of the city any more. (odd that an “anti-racist” Leftist like Cohen would use such an argument!).
      In response, someone wrote an article saying that Israel would NOT have the right to remove the residence rights of the Arabs of eastern Jerusalem and they could then move into the western part of the city in order to avoid having the problems of living under Palestinian rule. How does that square with what you said, Lisa?
      I also recall that Israel has offered full citizenship to Jerusalem Arabs? Has that offer been recinded?

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    23. XYZ – Palestinian families were evicted from the homes they lived in for more than half a century and thrown out on the street, so that Jews could move in. The Jews who moved in were not homeless. They wanted to fulfill an ideological goal of settling Jews in a Palestinian neighbourhood – which is a racist goal. Everything you raise in your comments here is either a red herring or historically inaccurate.

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    24. rose

      I am glad that I am not the only one that noticed it from the comments of XYZ.
      We should also remember that the houses in Sheikh Jarrah were built during the Jordanian regime on an OLIVE GROVE. They were proposed as a solution for accommodating Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in various parts of Israel in 1948. The ownership of the lots is disputed (?), but no one claim that the palestinians took houses from jews in sheikh jarrah

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    25. max

      @Lisa, what’s your suggestion to end this specific conflict? Ignore the law? Change it retroactively to fit with this specific human pain?
      East Jerusalem Palestinians that accepted Israeli citizenship can – and do – buy land all over Israel

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    26. berl

      Max, why a palestinian of East Jerusalem should accept an israeli citizenship going against the opinion of the entire international community, which think that East JErusalem should be the future capital of a state of Palestine? Jerusalem was never ever only Jewish. Why should be only Jewish starting from these days?
      you dream that these people will give up their rights: use your time in a better way

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    27. Max – There is no law mandating that settlers move into the homes of Palestinian families.

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    28. max

      @Lisa, you’re avoiding my question… There’s no law mandating, but there’s a law about following court orders, and the order is in favor of those who want to do what may be politically and morally wrong. So what about this law? Do you suggest the police should trash it or that the Knesset change it retroactively?

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    29. XYZ

      East Jerusalem was never ever only Arab. Why should it be handed over to them?

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    30. Max – If a law is unjust, then it must be changed. That is the purpose of political activism.

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    31. berl

      West Jerusalem was never only Jewish (actually most of the Palestinains were evicted from West Jeruslamem). That’s the reason why the solution is to share it. otherwise, using your approach, a palestinian could ask you the following: “West Jerusalem was never ever only Jewish. Why should it be handed over to them?”
      you logic is: what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.

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    32. berl

      an Israeli court took a decision about issues of Israeli interests. Nothing strange for you right? Image the opposite: a Palestinian court that take a decision about Palestinian affairs: you would start to laugh.

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    33. XYZ

      I am well aware that there was a significant Arab population in western Jerusalem before 1948. The point is that there is no basis for saying that east Jerusalem supposedly belongs to the Palestinians because it was populated by only Arabs before 1948, just like saying that west Jerusalem should belong to Israel because it was only Jewish before 1948. Neither statement is correct. So now you say to “share” it. What you mean is to divide it….along the cease-fire line of 1948. The problem is that the cease-fire line was based on agreement by Jordan that Israelis would have access to the Jewish holy places. Jordan never honored this agreement. I have no faith whatsoever that a Palestinian regime would honor any similar clause in a theoretical peace agreement with Israel. Maybe they wouldn’t hermetically seal off east Jerusalem from the west at first, but Jews who enter the Palestinian areas would be harrassed and the seam line would become a shooting gallery, just as was the case when Israel pulled out of the Bethlehem-Beit Jallah area and the Gilo neighborhood came under sustained fire until Israel went in and put a stop to it.
      The Arabs had the chance to prove they could share Jerusalem with Israel from 1948-1967. They blew it and few Israelis are willing to give it another try.
      WIth the rise of hard-line political Islam, the expulsion of Jews from their holiest places (even “voluntarily”) would be interpreted as a major defeat for the Jews and it would greatly inflame Islamic radicals and make war more more likely. As I said, few Israelis are willing to take the chance.
      Jerusalem will not be redivided no matter what 972 may think.

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    34. XYZ – We are not talking about dividing Jerusalem. We are talking about kicking Palestinian families out of their homes so that Jews can move in.

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    35. Berl

      this is just an excuse in order to keep the status quo, continuing the “judaizing process” in East Jerusalem.
      For your knowledge, it is just propaganda to attribute that ban to Muslim or “Arab intolerance”.
      Actually that refusal of access, which lasted twenty years, didn’t have any Muslim motivation, as Jews had been given free access to Jerusalem in the previous twelve centuries of Muslim rule of the city, while the same access was forbidden under Christian domination (Byzantines and Crusades as well).
      The issue of the Wailing Wall fell among the consequences of 48′s War. During it Israeli/Jewish forces occupied 5 mixed cities, 9 fully Arab cities and 500 enterely Arab villages. Afterward Israel razed to the ground 400 of these 500 villages and distributed that land. On the other hand, the expulsions have deprived of their home 750,000 Pals, Christians and Muslims.
      And, most important, while between 1948 and 1967 Jews didn’t have access to the Wailing Wall, for those Palestinians refugees and their descendants there was and still remains the denial of access to their lands and their homes in Israel

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    36. Richard Witty

      Trees, permanently trees.

      There is no consent on the principles of law to be applied. All of the parties engage in shifting sands to their temporary advantage.

      What is needed is clear articulation, or functionally universal ratification of principles to be applied color-blind in a case by case basis. Law.

      I haven’t seen the film. I want to, am waiting to.

      Revolutionary change is not forthcoming, and in conditions where there are genuinely reasonable countervailing claims, any revolutionary approach would be only a pendulum swing, replacing one injustice for a prior.

      The ONLY reconciliation is by the process of adjudication per consented legal principles, consented for the principles themselves, NOT for the outcomes.

      Anyone up for that effort? Anyone willing to forego outcomes in favor of fair and consentable principles?

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    37. Kolumn9

      @Lisa, Since 2008 Israeli residents (blue id cards) have the same right to lease land from the ILA and buy apartments as Israeli citizens. So, you are, lets charitably say, out of date in your claims that East Jerusalem Arabs can not buy in West Jerusalem. So, there goes the entire basis of your claim and I believe that of pretty much everyone else who thinks that Jews should not be allowed to live in some Arab-only neighborhoods… Now, can we agree that having protests to prevent Jews from moving into certain neighborhoods is racist?

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    38. K9 – Your claim that Palestinian residents of E. Jerusalem have the right to purchase property in Israel proper is incorrect. But even if it were correct, evicting Palestinians from their homes so that Jews can move in is truly racist. The protests are not against the presence of Jews, but rather the eviction of Palestinians specifically to make way for Jews.
      I am sure you would not be in favour of East Jerusalem Palestinians suing and evicting Jews who live in the homes they owned in West Jerusalem prior to 1948 – not that any Israeli court would allow such a case to be heard, since Israeli law does not recognize the right of Palestinians to claim or be compensated for their property in Israel.

      Reply to Comment
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