Decades of impunity for Israel have progressives at a crossroad.
Over the past few days, the world has watched in horror, over Instagram livestreams, the forced expulsion of Palestinian families from the Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah. Israeli settlers took over the Al-Ghawi family’s home and promised to do the same to the rest of the neighborhood. These armed and ideologically fanatic settlers were under the protection of the Israeli police and had legitimized their theft through lawsuits in Israeli courts, which ruled in the favor of the settlers this past December. For now, Israeli courts have delayed the much-anticipated hearing on the evictions of the Sheikh Jarrah families, giving the families a chance to recoup after weeks of violent settler colonialism. However, the fight to save Sheikh Jarrah will continue until the families of the neighborhood regain their homes and can live without fear of daily settler terror.
Sheikh Jarrah has been coveted by settler organizations since the 1970s in an attempt to increase the amount of private Jewish residency in strategically located areas of occupied East Jerusalem (Adalah). Nahalat Shimon International, an organization based in the United States, is one of two settler organizations implicated in the ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah; it intends to demolish the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and replace it with a 200 unit Israeli settlement, according to legal advocacy organization Ir Amim. The other settler organization, Ateret Cohanim, has a branch registered as an American charity in the United States. A 2015 Haaretz report found that there are over 50 organizations registered as 501(c)(3) tax exempt charities in the United States that have funneled over $200 million dollars to the Israeli settlement enterprise.
In the past few years, Nahalat Shimon has filed several lawsuits against the families of Sheikh Jarrah who have lived there since 1956, all of which have been upheld by Israeli courts. The current deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Arieh King, is the founder of the Israel Land Fund, which has the expressed goal of settling East Jerusalem with a Jewish population. The Israel Land Fund lists Sheikh Jarrah as an “investing opportunity” on its website under the name “Nachalat Shimon Residential Plots,” which it explicitly claims is “being squatted on by Arabs who have built on them illegally or are renting.”
The Israel Land Fund website states that one of its chief goals is to realize “the desire of Diaspora Jews to take a more active role in redeeming the land of Israel, especially in Jerusalem.” That much can be seen from a viral encounter between Sheikh Jarrah native Muna El Kurd and the settler known as Yacob, who speaks to her in a perfect American accent and tells her that if he doesn’t steal her home, someone else will.
How is it acceptable that settler organizations are able to operate freely in the United States while Palestinian charities have been accused of providing material support for terrorism? How are settlers, many of whom are American citizens, allowed to travel to Jerusalem and other parts of occupied Palestine to partake in violations against international law which include settling occupied land?
The settlement enterprise has been allowed to continue unchecked thanks to the Oslo paradigm. The Oslo Accords are an agreement signed in 1993, in which Israel recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO agreed to recognize Israel. In terms of utility, Oslo was meant to be a first step to later negotiations and a peace treaty, though it was clearly unsuccessful. The United States was successful in manipulating Palestinians to continue pursuing a peace process that Israel itself was not complying with in the slightest; American aid to Palestinians became dependent on fulfilling the parameters of Oslo, which for the Palestinian Authority meant ensuring Israel’s safety and security if they ever wanted to qualify for a state. The United States lambasted Palestinians if they weren’t sufficiently meeting their Oslo requirements, yet throughout the five-year interim period of Oslo, Israel hardly stopped building settlements, one of its stipulated Oslo requirements; in fact, settlement construction increased in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during this time period according to Israeli human rights organization B’tselem.
As it stands now, there are an estimated 620,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The infrastructure required to maintain the apartheid system that keeps these settlers comfortable, from settlement-only-highways to military checkpoints all over the West Bank, has eaten away so aggressively at the land—that the United States insists will one day constitute a Palestinian state—that there is less than 22 percent of the occupied territories that is fully in Palestinian sovereignty. The archipelago of remaining Palestinian land is surrounded by settlements at every corner and its inhabitants are still subject to Israeli military rule.
American administrations may have highlighted that settlements were at the very least problematic, varying in their levels of harshness when scolding Israel, but no American administration has ever been serious about ending the settler enterprise. Trump went the farthest in normalizing the settlements by legitimizing products made on settlements and sending former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the West Bank to meet with settlers.
There is also, of course, the bipartisan support for unconditional aid packages to Israel; the Obama administration passed the largest military aid package to Israel, promising $38 billion USD over a ten-year period. This funding is used to arm the Israeli military and security forces—which not only commit their own fair share of war crimes and human rights violations, but actively protect and defend illegal settlers making life hell for Palestinians in Hebron, Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories. Our tax dollars are explicitly at work when it comes to the settlement enterprise; we’re paying for the security standing guard at the Al-Ghawi house while settlers jeer at the Sheikh Jarrah families from inside.
If progressive American policy makers like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others are serious about saving Sheikh Jarrah, they must be serious about saving all of Palestine. It’s not enough to speak out and condemn the Israeli government at this point. That kind of pointed and direct language was needed three decades ago. And while their statements are welcome, especially as they indicate a shift in broader American public opinion on Israel/Palestine, what is needed is action.
Some concrete actions that American lawmakers should take are the following:
- All aid to Israel should be halted and conditional on an end to Israeli violations of human rights and international law, including an end to settlement building. There are already efforts in Congress to condition aid to Israel, introduced by Congresswoman Betty McCollum. The “Defending Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation” Act would prohibit Israel from using taxpayer dollars to detain or abuse Palestinian children in Israeli military detention; to support the seizure and destruction of Palestinian property and homes in violation of international humanitarian law; or, to extend any assistance or support for Israel’s unilateral annexation of Palestinian territory in violation of international humanitarian law.
American policymakers should support such bills and follow through; hold American purse strings tight and refuse to reinstate funding until the aforementioned violations, including settlements, are halted completely.
- Charities and organizations in the United States that are implicated in the settlement enterprise in Palestine in any way should have their tax-exempt status removed and should be taken to court for participating in violations of international law.
While this may seem extreme, it is not only possible, but it is necessary. A lawsuit of this kind was filed against Sheldon Adelson, two Israeli banks, several private companies and 13 American nonprofits in the revived appeals case Al-Tamimi et al v Adelson et al, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 17-5207. The case was revived by an appeals court in 2019 but has yet to be ruled on. There must be a mass effort to hold organizations and individuals involved in the settlement enterprise accountable via the American court system.
- American citizens found to have moved to Israel to live in illegal Israeli settlements, whether in the West Bank or in East Jerusalem, should face legal consequences for partaking in violations of international law.
Saving Sheikh Jarrah is more than just saving one Jerusalem neighborhood. Saving Sheikh Jarrah is saving tens of hundreds of Palestinian neighborhoods from a similar fate; but this can only happen when Israel has reason to fear repercussions for its actions. The ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah stands as an affront to progressive values all over the world. Population transfer is a war crime and it’s about time that it is treated as such.
Sheikh Jarrah is the current and most potent litmus test for progressives. What are progressive elected officials willing to do to counter settler colonialism? Anything less than using the full arsenal available to them is complicity. If they have the power to greenlight Israel’s behavior, then they have the power to stop it too.