Israel's threat to evict Arab families in Jerusalem unleashes the whirlwind

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Israeli police officers in Lod. Image credit: Israel Police/Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday afternoon, May 12, at the very end of question period, New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh gingerly put the Israel-Palestine question on the Canadian political agenda.

Singh echoed a resolution his party passed at its recent convention. He called on the Canadian government to stop selling weapons to Israel.

The NDP leader referred to the threatened expulsion of Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where they have lived for more than seven decades, and Israel's blocking of access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City.

He characterized those actions as "violations of human rights and international laws."

"Instead of taking action to stop or deal with the long-standing illegal occupation," Singh told the House, "the prime minister is effectively supporting the status quo … By arming one side of the conflict, it is undermining the peace process …"

The prime minister answered by repeating the usual, carefully balanced Canadian position.

"We call on all parties to end the violence, de-escalate tensions, protect civilians and uphold international law," Justin Trudeau said.

The prime minister noted that the Palestinian organization Hamas has launched a series of rocket attacks against Israel -- which he described as "unacceptable" -- and underscored Canada's longstanding support for "Israel's right to assure its own security."

But Trudeau then added: "Violence at Al-Aqsa is also unacceptable. Places of worship are for people to gather peacefully and should never be sites of violence." And without specifically mentioning Sheikh Jarrah, Trudeau pushed back at Israel in a way his predecessor Stephen Harper would never have done:

"We are also gravely concerned by continued expansion of settlements and evictions."

Trudeau's bottom line, like that of the U.S. and other Western governments, was that "Canada supports the two-state solution and we urge all parties to renew their commitment to peace and security."

Israel started this fight

The inciting incident for this whirlwind of bloodshed was, in the words of Bradley Burston, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "the settlement thugs seeking to expel and replace Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood."  

The Israeli extremist group pushing to evict Arab families from the East Jerusalem neighourhood is called Lahav Shomron. It went to court asking for the expulsion under an arcane Israeli law which awards ownership of land in occupied Palestine to Jews who can prove they occupied it prior to 1948. That was the year the United Nations created Israel by partitioning the territory which now comprises Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.

Last November, a similar group, Ateret Cohanim, succeeded in getting a court-ordered eviction of over 80 Palestinians from Jerusalem's Silwan neighbourhood. There are now possible expulsion orders for at least 35 other Jerusalem Arab families.

Mainstream Israelis claim these are only banal "real estate disputes," not efforts to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from Jerusalem.

Forty per cent of the residents of present-day Jerusalem are Arabs, most living in East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 during the Six-Day War. Arabs do not have the legal right to claim any territory they occupied prior to 1948.

Israeli political leaders are near-unanimous in declaring they will never give up an inch of Jerusalem territory. On the other side, many Palestinians hope East Jerusalem will become their capital, as part of a comprehensive peace treaty.

Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing political allies have quietly, and sometimes openly, supported efforts to move Arabs out of Jerusalem.

Former Israeli cabinet minister Naftali Bennett -- who now wants Netanyahu replaced because of his own thwarted political ambitions -- has long advocated Israel should out-and-out annex significant parts of the West Bank and permanently maintain what remains as an Israel protectorate.

He is not alone.

Other politicians on Israel's right share different versions of the same view.

As for Netanyahu, he has been at best lukewarm about the peace process, on which Western leaders still place so much store. During the recent series of elections in Israel few political leaders -- be they of the right, left or centre -- even mentioned the Palestinians or the peace process.

Now, what started as peaceful resistance to the latest attempted expulsion of Arabs from their homes in East Jerusalem has forced the Palestinian question onto centre stage, both for Israel and for its friends and allies, including Canada.

Lynchings, burnings, and chants of 'death to Arabs'

Right now, extremists have taken control of events in Israel.

On Wednesday, May 12, the Jerusalem Post reported that far-right radicals in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam "marched down main streets, smashing Arab-owned businesses and attacking passersby."

The marchers chanted "death to Arabs" and "may your village burn." Then they grabbed a man on a motorcycle they believed was an Arab and beat him on live television.

The Israeli radicals did not stop at attacking Arabs. In the Post's words, they "lynched" a Jewish man they believed was an Arab. He is now in hospital with serious, but not life-threatening injuries.

In some places, they set vehicles on fire and attacked police cars with Molotov cocktails.

These rioters have focused their attention on cities which have mixed Arab and Jewish populations, among them Tiberias and Lod.

The latter city became a centre of violence when some Arabs, provoked by the Sheikh Jarrah affair, burned a synagogue there.

There have been Arab demonstrations in the streets, some of which have turned violent. Meanwhile, from its base in Gaza, Hamas continues to attack Israeli targets with rockets. Israel's Iron Dome defence has stopped most of those missiles, but some did get through. They killed a handful of people, including at least one child.

The Israeli military response, in the form of air attacks on Gaza, has been fierce and relentless, and it has wrought a far greater toll than the Hamas rockets: at least 56 Palestinians dead, including 14 children.

Israeli officials say they have only attacked military targets. Even Israel's friends have difficulty accepting that claim.

When New Democrats passed their resolution on "justice and peace in Israel and Palestine" some media commentators characterized it as proposing a "boycott" of Israel -- which, they said, could open the party to accusations of antisemitism.

NDPers did not, of course, propose anything resembling a boycott. Indeed, that fact might disappoint many who support the Palestinian cause in Canada.

The NDP motion was, in fact, quite mild. It called for the ban on military sales to Israel that Jagmeet Singh reiterated on Wednesday. And it also proposed Canada not trade with Israeli businesses that operate from "illegal settlements" on the West Bank.

Those in the West who seek blind, unqualified and uncritical support for Israel have hidden behind the smokescreen of a quite legitimate concern about antisemitism. Virtually any criticism of Israel, they have argued, constitutes an attack on all Jews, and is, perforce, antisemitic.

Today, the government of Israel's behaviour is doing more to dissipate that smokescreen than anything groups who favour solidarity with Palestine might do or say.

When the cycle of violence is so clearly the result of one side's actions -- of official Israel's insouciant disregard for the basic rights of ordinary people, who just want to quietly carry on their lives in peace -- it is hard to maintain the complacent "both sides are wrong" view.

That notional even-handedness has been the default position of Canadian governments for many decades. The sole exception was the Harper government which tilted hard toward Israel.

Today, in light of all that is happening in Israel and Palestine, if Jagmeet Singh were to continue pressing the government on this issue he might find, perhaps to his surprise, that a majority of Canadians agree with him.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image credit: Israel Police/Wikimedia Commons

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