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Jerusalem violence puts Biden on back foot regarding human rights in foreign policy

While Israel moves to sabotage the US in the Middle East, Biden seems hesitant to call out Tel Aviv's abuses. Why?

Analysis | Middle East

Unrest in East Jerusalem has escalated prior to an anticipated Israeli Supreme Court ruling Monday on the eviction of families from Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in the city. Disturbances have spread beyond Sheikh Jarrah to other parts of East Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Worshippers leaving prayer services on Friday threw stones at Israeli police, who responded with stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets that wounded more than 150 people.

The families facing eviction have lived in Sheikh Jarrah for generations. They originally resided in coastal areas such as Jaffa and Haifa, from which they were displaced during the 1948 war that led to the establishment of Israel. In 1956, the families reached agreement with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the Ministry of Construction and Development of Jordan — the governing authority until Israel conquered the area in the 1967 war — to establish ownership of their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in return for payment of a small fee and renunciation of refugee status.

That arrangement was upset in the early 1970s, as Israeli groups seeking to place Jewish settlers in the neighborhood claimed pre-1948 ownership. That claim is subject to dispute, but whether or not the claim is valid, the Israeli procedure for resolving land ownership issues is markedly one-sided. The Law on Legal and Administrative Affairs, which Israel enacted in 1970, says Jews can reclaim property in East Jerusalem lost during the 1948 fighting, while Palestinian Arabs have no means of reclaiming the property that they lost in the same war and is now deemed part of Israel.

Israel has sought to play down the current conflict as, in the words of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, a “real-estate dispute between private parties.” It is much more than that. It is part of a larger effort, very much government-promoted, to de-Arabize East Jerusalem. Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Aryeh King, who also is a leader of the Jewish settlement movement, is quite open about this. “Of course” the evictions from Sheikh Jarrah are part of a wider strategy to implant “layers of Jews” throughout East Jerusalem, according to King. The purpose, he says, is “to secure the future of Jerusalem as a Jewish capital for the Jewish people.”

According to Zakariah Odeh, director of the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, 2020 saw a record rate of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem. During the same year, authorities demolished 170 Palestinian structures in the city, including 105 homes, resulting in the displacement of 385 people.

The Israeli strategy for East Jerusalem is part of a still larger program of displacing Palestinians and demolishing their homes throughout the West Bank. That program, which has been in train since the 1967 Israeli conquest, exhibited a crescendo in the months in the run-up to last year’s U.S. election. If Tucker Carlson really wants to talk about schemes to “replace” one demographic group with another, he ought to look at what Israel has been doing for years with its occupation of Palestinian-inhabited territories.

The demolition and displacement are part of an even larger Israeli affront to human rights, as documented in the recently released report on the subject by the respected watchdog organization Human Rights Watch. The report’s thorough documentation amply supports its conclusion that Israeli authorities “have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity” and that in certain areas, “these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” The aforementioned Israeli law that explicitly permits Jews, but not Arabs, to reclaim property lost in wartime is but one example of the institutionalized racism that is apartheid. 

American responses

Although there have been some welcome indications that mainstream American discourse is more openly addressing this Israeli conduct — and some U.S. politicians have in recent days criticized the Sheikh Jarrah eviction — most of the mainstream hesitates to squarely confront both the reality on the ground and the proper implications for U.S. foreign policy. This has been true even of some of the more knowledgeable and thoughtful observers who have commented on the Human Rights Watch report.

One common feature of such hesitation is to criticize any criticism of Israel that does not give equal time to criticizing the things that Palestinians have done wrong — which indeed they have, including committing destructive acts of violence. But this tries to inject symmetry into a highly asymmetrical situation. Israel has the guns, the power, and ultimately control of the land; Palestinians do not. Israel can take actions today, by itself, that would go a very long way to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Palestinians cannot.

Another usual feature is to invoke Israel’s need for security, and of course Israel has every right to defend itself and to provide for its citizens’ security. But what is immediately at stake is Palestinians’ security — and there are few greater blows to one’s security than to have one’s home demolished and to be driven from where one has lived.  Moreover, the great majority of offenses against the Palestinians do absolutely nothing to enhance Israeli security. Many of those offenses degrade Israeli security, either by inciting violent responses or by imposing additional burdens on the Israel Defense Forces.

Mainstream commentary ritually invokes the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but it routinely omits dissecting what is required for mutually beneficial cooperation — such as on technology — to continue. Such cooperation can flow from a normal, healthy bilateral relationship; it does not need an extraordinary relationship that tacitly condones through unconditional financial aid and diplomatic cover the sorts of behavior the Human Rights Watch report describes.

Implications for Biden administration policy

President Joe Biden faces a serious human rights problem in this part of the Middle East. He cannot overlook it, not least of all because of that extraordinary relationship and the damage-by-association it does to U.S. interests. He does not need to make human rights as central a theme in his presidency as did Jimmy Carter, who was attacked for later calling out the Israeli version of apartheid for what it is, but he cannot brush it aside, no matter the identity of the offending state. Explicit use of the A-word — and Biden’s spokesperson has declined to apply the word to the Israeli-Palestinian situation — is less important than addressing the substance behind the word and the implications for the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

The history of U.S. consideration of human rights has often seen the issue take a back seat to maintaining smooth relations with repressive governments that supported U.S. foreign policy in other respects. This was especially true during the Cold War, regarding some odious regimes whose transgressions were overlooked because they could be counted on as reliable allies in the global contest with the Communists. But the most conspicuous direction of current Israeli policy is more to undermine U.S. foreign policy than to support it, as in the sabotage of negotiations to restore compliance with the multilateral agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear activities. The sabotage does not enhance Israeli security — an agreement with verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear doings is clearly in Israel’s security interests — and instead is intended partly to hogtie U.S. foreign relations in the Middle East and to prevent the United States from doing business with any state in the region that the Israeli government, for its own reasons, doesn’t want anyone to do business with.

President Biden evidently has decided not to invest political capital in what is still habitually called the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” That may be a prudent decision, given the need to spend that capital on other domestic and foreign priorities and given how the Israeli settlement project may have already put a workable two-state solution out of reach. But he should take a cue from those who have adapted to the latter consideration and recommended an approach that prioritizes human rights as well as security, for Palestinians as well as Israelis.

Without change in the plight of the Palestinians, there will be no end to the sort of thing going on in East Jerusalem now, and to more violent and destabilizing versions of it.

An Israeli policeman detains a Palestinian protester amid ongoing tension ahead of an upcoming court hearing in an Israel-Palestinian land-ownership dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem May 5, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
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