As Israeli ground forces prepare to join the air war on Gaza, and as Hamas shoots rockets into Israel, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is once again headline news. But the obtrusive violence conceals the silent and unrelenting dispossession that is at the root of this conflict. And it is all enabled by a discriminatory legal system.
For weeks, the world silently witnessed the situation escalate in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where protesters have tried to stop the latest attempt by Israeli settlers to take over Palestinian homes. These protests — which have been repressed by Israeli forces — come as the Palestinian families wait to learn their fate from Israel’s Supreme Court.
The Sheikh Jarrah families facing expulsion are Palestinian refugees who were driven from their homes in Haifa and Jaffa during the 1948 Nakba. In the aftermath of the war, and with the creation of the State of Israel, the new rulers prevented refugees from returning to their cities and towns, seized their homes, and moved Jewish Israeli families in. In the 1950s, the Jordanian government, alongside the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), settled 28 refugee families in the vacant land of Sheikh Jarrah.
After the 1967 war, when Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, Jewish settlers began making claims on the refugees’ houses in Sheikh Jarrah. In making their claims, the settlers relied on a 1970 Israeli law that allows Jewish people to reclaim properties their families owned in East Jerusalem before 1948.
In 2009, settlers began taking over some of the families’ homes in Sheikh Jarrah, displacing 53 refugees, including 20 children, under Israeli court order. Last fall, Israeli courts ruled to evict several more Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Their final court date was initially set for May 2, but it has since been postponed for another month.
Knowing the futility of the Israeli legal system, Palestinians have urged the international community to step in to try to stop these forced takeovers, and while some individual politicians have spoken up against this impending dispossession, the families — and indeed all Palestinians — are being told by the international community to wait for the Israeli courts to make their final determination. The underlying assumption is that the Israeli courts will somehow adjudicate fairly, based on fair, objective laws, devoid of political considerations.
Yet this is precisely the problem: Israeli courts are not operating in a vacuum but rather are an integral part of Israel’s land-grabbing enterprise. But even as the courts — particularly its Supreme Court — are implicated in this project, they are treated overseas with reverence as impartial adjudicators of law, even though the laws they enforce are at odds with international norms. Israeli Supreme Court judges are frequently invited to speak at law schools around the world to describe the “difficulties” they face when adjudicating cases.
They will rubber stamp more evictions, all the while using the tool of law to provide a veneer of integrity.
But as the families of Sheikh Jarrah, like the families of Silwan and other Palestinian neighborhoods where Israeli settlers are targeting Palestinians for expulsion, know, the Israeli courts will not rule in their favor. They will rubber stamp more evictions, all the while using the tool of law to provide a veneer of integrity. In so doing, in advancing Israel’s creeping colonization of Palestinian territory, they are also foreclosing any opportunity of a peaceful resolution.
It isn’t just in the realm of settler takeovers that Palestinians have witnessed the unjust application of Israeli law. The courts have sanctioned scores of discriminatory laws to preserve Israel’s status as a “Jewish state.” They have sanctioned the construction of Israeli bypass roads and settlements in the occupied West Bank and have only begrudgingly stopped the small number of outposts built on private Palestinian land. They have approved the use of home demolitions as a form of punishment, authorized assassinations (euphemized as “targeted killings”), approved mass deportations, and licensed the cutting off of fuel and electricity to the besieged Gaza Strip.
The court enables and provides legal cover to an unequal system, which, according to both B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, meets the definition of apartheid. Today, in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, there are more than 700,000 Israeli settlers controlling more than 60 percent of the land, much of it off limits to Palestinians. Whether giving the Israeli government permission to build settlements under the guise of “military necessity” or declaring Palestinian land “green spaces” or “military installations” and then later turning them into settlements, the court has facilitated rather than stopped Israel’s designs.
In addition to providing a veneer of legality, the Israeli legal system has also been instrumentalized against the growing protest movement by miring the hearings in delays. For example, for the families of Sheikh Jarrah, many of these cases have taken more than a decade to work their way through the courts, leaving the families with daily uncertainty as to whether they will be able to keep their homes or be forced out. And, of course, the families also have to bear the onerous burden of the time and money lost in litigation.
Over the years, I have witnessed Palestinians facing expulsions engage in endless debates as to whether they should continue to pursue legal action to preserve their homes or face the inevitability of dispossession that will be rubber stamped by Israeli courts. I’ve seen families grapple with the dilemma of whether to pack their belongings and move, in an attempt to spare their children the pain of seeing their homes demolished, or remain in the futile hope that the demolitions or expulsions will be halted. It is a life of persistent uncertainty and frustrated hopes, a veritable death by a thousand cuts.
Why then would Palestinians continue to pursue legal redress given its futility? Because we have no other choice. Palestinians are well aware that neither justice nor freedom will come through litigation before Israeli courts. But given the international community’s unwillingness to stop any Israeli action — whether home takeovers, settlement construction, land confiscation, home demolitions, or otherwise — Palestinians have had to rely on a system that is designed to disregard their concerns in favor of Israel’s ambitions.
For the lawyers engaged in this system, the only option is to buy time in the fleeting hope that the international community will pressure Israel to stop. It is an endless, demoralizing loop: The international community is unwilling to stop Israel and instead demands that we use the legal system, while using the legal system is simply a means of buying time in the hope that the international community will step in.
Time, however, is a double-edged sword for Palestinians. While Israeli courts have been indifferent to their concerns, they have found a more sympathetic audience in global public opinion. With Sheikh Jarrah residents’ fate hanging between these two courts, the Israeli government has tried to quash the protests and defuse international outrage by again delaying the outcome, keeping Sheikh Jarrah residents trapped in protracted legal wrangling. The beleaguered residents know, however, that once the protests die down and the headlines move on, Israel will swiftly evict them, as it has in other parts of Jerusalem. And there will be no international response, for it will have been done “legally.”