It’s Complicated

As we watch the terrible scenes of rocket and missile strikes in Israel and Gaza, as well as violent clashes in the streets there, we ask ourselves, “How did this happen?” We are used to seeing periodic violence in the Middle East, but after a bizarre year of COVID, it is odd to see the “normal” Israeli-Palestinian conflict go back to the cycle of instigation and escalation.

This time one of the sparks is a dispute over land rights in a neighborhood of Jerusalem called Sheikh Jarrah. The situation is, of course, complex, but the rhetoric on both sides rarely reflects any nuance. Either Israel is asserting its national rights or Israel is committing war crimes. There is no in between.

The controversy is over the potential eviction of Palestinian residents of the neighborhood who have been living there since after the War of Independence in 1948. These families were forced to flee the western portion of the Jerusalem after it was captured by Israel. The Jordanian government in the 1950s, with the assistance of the United Nations, offered them homes in the eastern part of the city, which had been owned by Jews forced flee, in exchange for them giving up their refugee status.

Unfortunately, the Jordanian government did not process the property transfers for some unknown reason, and after Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 the Jewish owners sought to reclaim their property. Israeli law allows Israelis to reclaim their property lost in 1948, but bars Palestinians from doing the same. These Palestinians signed an agreement allowing them to stay on the property and pay rent, but they argue they were coerced into doing so. Now their cases are coming before the Israeli Supreme Court, with a decision to be handed down in a month.

In such a complicated situation who is right? These properties in Sheikh Jarrah were owned by Jews going back to Ottoman times and the neighborhood itself has a long history of Jewish settlement. On the other hand, the Palestinian families were displaced from their homes in other parts of the city, homes they are not allowed to reclaim, and they were given ownership rights by the government at the time. These types of cases call out for the wisdom of Solomon, not the wisdom of the street or the wisdom of TikTok, where the battle is currently being played out.

The dispute in Sheikh Jarrah is deeply emblematic of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite my strong support for Israel, I don’t see this as a battle of right vs. wrong. Instead, it is a battle of two rights. Each side has legitimate claims, each side has made mistakes, each side has resorted to violence.

I pray that this current cycle follows the familiar path of a quick cease fire and that Hamas stops escalating the violence with its fire of rockets into Israel. But once the violence ends, that is the opportunity to grapple with the messy underlying issues at the heart of the conflict. Palestinian and Israeli children can’t afford for their leaders to keep kicking the can and avoiding a peaceful and just resolution.

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