Middle East Eye / May 7, 2021
Several US politicians have condemned the campaign to evict Palestinians in Jerusalem, defying the Washington norm of unconditional support for Israel.
Several progressive members of the US Congress have denounced Israel’s push to evict Palestinians from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, though the administration of President Joe Biden has as yet failed to condemn the Israeli government’s attempt to displace Palestinian families from the holy city.
Democratic House members Marie Newman, Cori Bush, Chuy Garcia, Mark Pocan, Rashida Tlaib, Andre Carson, Betty McCollum, Debbie Dingell, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have all shared social media posts expressing solidarity with Palestinians.
Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, started a petition on Thursday calling on Biden and his top aides to “uphold international law and demand an end to Israel’s illegal evictions of Palestinians, demolitions of Palestinian homes, and theft of Palestinian land”.
The statement was shared by Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent members of Congress. By Friday morning, it had gathered more than 12,000 signatures.
“The violence and forced displacement of Palestinians in #SheikhJarrah is deeply disturbing and morally wrong,” Dingell, who represents a large Arab-American community in Michigan, wrote in a tweet on Thursday.
“We must ensure any US involvement in the region continues efforts toward lasting peace – including the protection of human rights.”
Bush, a progressive Black Lives Matter activist who unseated a centrist Democrat last year, called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to condemn the violence against Palestinians.
“I know what it’s like to be brutalized for simply advocating for my own humanity. I stand in strong solidarity with our Palestinian siblings mobilizing to #SaveSheikhJarrah,” she wrote in a social media post.
“[Secretary Blinken], I’m calling on you to condemn these attacks immediately.”
Newman, who also successfully primaried a conservative Democratic lawmaker last year, also urged the State Department to speak out about the situation.
Pocan and Newman are circulating a congressional letter to Blinken calling on the State Department to “exert diplomatic pressure” to prevent the displacement and demolition of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem.
The letter accuses Israel of violating international law as the occupying power in East Jerusalem.
“East Jerusalem is part of the West Bank, and, under international law, Israel is in military occupation of this territory, notwithstanding its illegal incorporation of East Jerusalem within the Jerusalem municipality and its subsequent illegal de jure annexation of East Jerusalem,” the letter says.
State Department expresses concern
The administration has not released a public statement on the issue, maintaining Blinken’s pre-election pledge to a pro-Israel group that Biden would refrain from openly criticising Israel.
But a State Department spokesperson expressed “concern” about Israel’s actions in an emailed statement to MEE.
“We are deeply concerned about the potential eviction of Palestinian families in the Silwan neighbourhood and in Sheikh Jarrah, many of whom have lived in those homes for generations,” the spokesperson said.
“As we have consistently said, it is critical to avoid unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions or take us further away from peace, this includes evictions, settlement activity and home demolitions.”
Palestinian solidarity activists have welcomed statements condemning Israel, pointing to a shift away from the traditional unconditional support for Israel in the Democratic Party.
“There have been several principled and powerful statements from members of Congress in opposition to Israel’s violence and impending evictions in Sheikh Jarrah that should serve as a wake-up call for their colleagues about the need to speak up for human rights boldly and consistently,” Omar Baddar, a Palestinian-American analyst, told MEE.
“It is a shame, however, that most members remain silent in the face of Israel’s violent ethnic cleansing project in occupied East Jerusalem.”
Beth Miller, government affairs manager at JVP Action, a political advocacy group linked to Jewish Voice for Peace, said the world was watching war crimes unfold in real-time in Sheikh Jarrah.
“Every single member of Congress should be publicly demanding that the Israeli government immediately end its plans to forcibly displace families and stop its attempts to expel Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem,” Miller told MEE.
“The bold and morally courageous group of Representatives who are standing up for Palestinian human rights are proof that true progressives always speak out for the rights and freedom of all people – no exceptions.”
‘Real-estate dispute’, Israel says
Sheikh Jarrah, a small Jerusalem neighbourhood, has been the flashpoint of settler violence and Israeli state efforts to evict several Palestinian families.
Since Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and subsequently annexed it in 1980, settlers have been trying to displace Palestinians from their homes in the area based on claims of Jewish ownership dating back to the Ottoman era.
After decades of legal battles, Israeli courts have frequently ruled in favour of settlers to expel several Palestinian families from the neighbourhood, spiking tensions. Israeli settlers, backed by Israeli police, have escalated their protests – often chanting racist slogans – against Palestinians in Jerusalem in recent weeks.
Four Palestinian families are facing imminent eviction and more are expected to be expelled later in the summer.
The Israeli government has blamed the Palestinian Authority for the crisis and dismissed it as a private “real-estate dispute”, drawing ridicule from critics.
“Regrettably, the PA and Palestinian terror groups are presenting a real-estate dispute between private parties, as a nationalistic cause, in order to incite violence in Jerusalem,” the Israeli foreign ministry said in a series of tweets on Friday.
“The PA and Palestinian terror groups will bear full responsibility for the violence emanating from their actions. The Israel police will ensure public order is maintained.”
J Street, a liberal Jewish group that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace, rejected the Israeli government’s framing of the situation.
“‘Real estate dispute’ is a fundamentally inaccurate way of saying ‘forceful expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes’,” the group said.
‘Time is running out’
Palestinians say the push to displace families from Jerusalem is just one facet of Israel’s settler colonialism and policies of oppression that leading rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, say amount to apartheid.
Ariel Gold, national co-director of Code Pink, an anti-war feminist group, said calling the eviction campaign a “real-estate dispute” was part of the broader Israeli propaganda push to whitewash abuses against Palestinians.
Gold urged the Biden administration to live up to its own pledge of centring human rights and the rules-based international order in its foreign policy.
“This is an issue where the administration really needs to get behind its own language,” she said.
Gold pointed to a “massive shift in Congress” in support of Palestinian human rights. She cited McCollum’s recent bill that seeks to prevent US military aid to Israel from funding abuses against Palestinians and pro-Israel groups’ forceful reaction to it, which she described as “freaking out”.
“Unfortunately, time is running out; or we can almost say time has already run out for so many people,” Gold told MEE.
“On the ground, things are moving much faster than members of Congress are moving. And that’s definitely concerning. We have to raise our voices as much as we can to try to speed up the progress in Congress, because at this point, it’s going to occur too late to help Palestinians on the ground.”
Mohamad Habehh, national development coordinator at American Muslims for Palestine, said the statements from Congress members condemning the displacement of Palestinians in Jerusalem are “heartening”.
“The Biden administration needs to follow the lead of these members of Congress and use its voice and influence to prevent Israel from proceeding with this ethnic cleansing,” Habehh told MEE.
Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics