Feb 16, 2022 - World

U.S. presses Israel for de-escalation in Sheikh Jarrah

Israeli police stand guard near the tent set up by Itamar Ben Gvir. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty
Israeli police stand guard near the tent set up by Itamar Ben Gvir. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty

The Biden administration has asked the Israeli government to take steps to avoid further escalation and restore calm in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Israeli and U.S. officials tell me.

Why it matters: Tensions over the potential expulsion of six Palestinian families from the neighborhood in favor of Jewish settlers helped spark the fighting in Gaza last May.

  • The Biden administration is concerned there could be further violence in Sheikh Jarrah ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.

Driving the news: Last Friday, a fire broke out at the home of Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah. They are the only Jewish family in that part of the neighborhood and their cars had been set on fire several times in the past.

  • Israeli police concluded that the fire was set intentionally and arrested two Palestinian suspects, while Palestinian residents of the neighborhood claimed the fire was the result of an electrical malfunction.
  • Itamar Ben Gvir, a Jewish supremacist member of the Israeli Knesset, moved his "office" to a tent in Sheikh Jarrah, claiming he would not budge until there was "security" for Jews. The tent is outside the home of a Palestinian family that has lived in Sheikh Jarrah since 1951 but faces expulsion, possibly in March.
  • Palestinians called Ben Gvir's arrival a "provocative move," and scuffles ensued. Israeli police intervened to separate Palestinians and Jewish settlers who clashed.
  • Tensions remain high, and Hamas has threatened to intervene if the "assaults against our compatriots" continue.

Context: Displaced Palestinians were settled in Sheikh Jarrah after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and have lived there ever since, but two Jewish associations have waged a lengthy legal battle in Israeli courts, arguing Jewish individuals owned the land prior to Israeli independence.

  • The Israeli law that allows citizens to reclaim land owned by Jewish individuals prior to 1948 does not afford the same rights to Arab individuals.

The events in Sheikh Jarrah follow several violent incidents in the occupied West Bank over the last two weeks.

  • The most serious took place in Nablus, where the Israeli military killed three Palestinians.
  • The Shin Bet security agency said the Palestinians, members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militant group, were armed, and it accused them of carrying out recent shooting attacks against Israeli settlers.
  • The Palestinian Authority called the killings a "heinous crime."

Behind the scenes: U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has spoken in recent days to Israeli Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev and to officials in the Prime Minister’s Office to ask them to de-escalate the situation, the Israeli and U.S. officials say.

  • Bar Lev told Nides that the escalation in Sheikh Jarrah cold spill over to the Gaza Strip, but that he is making every effort to prevent further escalation.
  • Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is also very concerned that provocations from Israeli politicians on the far-right and far-left could spark another round of violence, his aides told me.

What they're saying: “We’re following developments very closely in Sheikh Jarrah, both on the ground and here from Washington, and we’re deeply concerned by the events," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday.

  • "We are strongly urging all parties against inciting violence, and we are urging calm on the part of all parties."
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