Sheikh Jarrah, Occupied East Jerusalem – A surreal, and almost bucolic, atmosphere encompassed the occupied East Jerusalem suburb of Sheikh Jarrah on a recent morning as an Israeli settler and a Palestinian sat on armchairs under an old fig tree surrounded by picturesque stone houses, discussing the ongoing violence in the presence of an Israeli TV crew.
For several weeks the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood was a pivotal point in an ongoing battle in which dozens of Palestinian families are fighting to remain in the homes they lived in for generations as they face possible forced expulsion by Israeli authorities to make way for Israeli settlers, a move illegal under international law.
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On an almost nightly basis, the families, and hundreds of their supporters, came out to protest, facing off with Israeli security forces, leading to the assault and arrest of dozens of Palestinians as well as the destruction of both Palestinian and settler property.
The debate between the Palestinian and the Israeli settler outside the home of the al-Kurd family – one of the families threatened with expulsion – was civil as they answered questions from the TV crew between sips of coffee.
However, the gaping chasm between the lives of Palestinians on the ground and the ideology of the settler movement was glaringly obvious.
“There was peace here for a long time until ‘trouble-makers’ from the Israeli-Arab cities came here,” Israeli settler Eric – who lives in the illegal settlement of Givat Ze’ev and studies at the nearby Simon Tzadak yeshiva in Sheikh Jarrah, but who was afraid to give his full name – told Al Jazeera.
“I have Palestinians from the West Bank working for me and we got on fine before Palestinians started attacking Jews here.”
When asked about the repeated raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli security forces, Eric said he did not believe that Palestinian fears over the possible division of the Al-Aqsa Mosque were grounded in reality.
“The two sides will be kept apart because the government knows that if they share places of worship there will always be confrontations,” he said.
Third Jewish Temple
There are several Israeli settler movements involved in pushing for Jewish worshippers to be allowed to pray at Al-Aqsa, reinforcing Palestinian fears that Islam’s third-holiest site could follow the route of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in the southern West Bank.
Following the 1994 massacre of dozens of Palestinians after an Israeli settler opened fire as they worshipped, the Ibrahimi Mosque was divided into days allowing Jewish prayer and days allowing Muslim prayer, as streets in the Old City were restricted for Palestinian families and businesses and reserved for settlers.
One of the most hardline settler movements is the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, an Orthodox Jewish group. Its goal is to rebuild the Third Jewish Temple on the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque and reinstitute the practice of ritual sacrifice, according to their website.
The movement was founded in 1967 by former Israeli military officer and Middle Eastern studies lecturer Gershon Salomon.
In the 1980s, there were two attempts by Jewish hardliners to blow up the Islamic sites in the Al-Aqsa compound.
In 1990, 17 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 others wounded by Israeli’s paramilitary border police after riots erupted following the announcement by the Temple Mount Faithful that they intended to lay a cornerstone for the Third Jewish Temple on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa compound.
Following the clashes, Israeli police banned members of the movement from entering the compound.
But the Israeli government, which has always supported the settler movement, has moved further right over the years.
‘On the fringe’
The Temple Institute in Jerusalem’s Old City is partly funded by the Israeli government.
It produces ritual objects for the Temple, in anticipation of its reconstruction, while performances of simulated ritual sacrifices by priests in white robes are held annually before the Jewish Passover in close proximity to Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“Twenty to 30 years ago, Israel’s settler extremists were on the fringe of society but today we live in a reality where right-wing extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir is a member of the Knesset,” Lod-based Palestinian journalist Rami Younis told Al Jazeera.
Ben-Gvir, a supporter of the Kahanist movement, which advocates for the expulsions of Palestinians, was blamed for provoking some of the unrest in Sheikh Jarrah by establishing a temporary office near the illegal Shimon Tzadak settlement, before being asked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to leave to avoid further violence.
Violence erupted last month during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when far-right Israelis marched in the Old City, harassing Palestinians and chanting “death to Arabs”.
Younis said he also believes the Israeli media is enabling the settlers by giving their viewpoints extensive coverage.
“Israeli TV has given Ben-Gvir 509 minutes of airtime over the last two weeks while I was given nine minutes,” said Younis.
He also accused the Israeli police of legitimising the behaviour of violent settlers during the recent attacks, saying the lines between the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem and Israel within the Green Line were becoming increasingly blurred.
“The Israeli police escorted busloads of armed settlers from the West Bank into Lod, allowing them to break curfew saying they had come to the ‘defence of Israelis there’,” Younis said.
The Israeli government has repeatedly said it would protect the right of all religions to pray in occupied East Jerusalem at their holy sites.
However, Halima Abu Haneya, who specialises in social sciences, said the Israeli government had encouraged settlers to pray in the Al-Aqsa compound and repeatedly protected them when disturbances broke out by arresting Palestinians but not Israeli settlers when they carried out acts of violence.
“Furthermore, when Israeli settlers shot at and seriously wounded two Palestinians during clashes in Shu’afat, in East Jerusalem recently, the police never arrived nor were any settlers arrested,” Abu Haneya told Al Jazeera.
Palestinian fears over the division of Al-Aqsa are part of what they say is an Israeli process of “Judaising” the city in favour of a Jewish majority, with the Israeli government repeating that Jerusalem will be united and under its control permanently.
“Throughout its occupation, Israel has significantly restricted Palestinian development in East Jerusalem,” said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“Over one-third of East Jerusalem has been expropriated for the construction of Israeli settlements, despite international humanitarian law prohibiting the transfer of civilians to the occupied territory.
“Only 13 percent of the annexed area is currently zoned by the Israeli authorities for Palestinian construction, within which Palestinians have the possibility of obtaining building permits, which are expensive and difficult to obtain.”
Sitting outside the al-Kurd’s home, and looking directly at the Shimon Tzadak settlement across the road, Muhammad Sabbah told Al Jazeera his family was one of eight that were facing possible expulsion from Sheikh Jarrah.
“There have been several expulsions over the years. It’s an ongoing process. But if the Israeli court rules in favour of the expulsions we will not move – under any circumstances.”