Transforming Sheikh Jarrah into Jerusalem's Shimon HaTzaddik

International media are focusing on the Shimon HaTzaddik (Sheikh Jarrah) neighborhood as the diplomatic battle for Jerusalem once again begins.

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Chana Ya'ar, | updated: 13:20

Jewish family walking in Shimon HaTzaddik (Sh
Jewish family walking in Shimon HaTzaddik (Sh
Israel news photo: Flash 90

As the diplomatic battle over the holy city of Jerusalem once again begins to heat up, international media are beginning to focus on the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, known to Jews as the Shimon HaTzaddik area.

For decades marked by large and small Arab homes, the Shimon HaTzaddik neighborhood has been the lodestar for Jews whose families were forced to abandon their own property in the face of bloody pogroms prior to the 1948 War of Independence.

Over the past several years, Jews began moving back to the area, however, slowly reclaiming the neighborhood and rehabilitating dilapidated buildings that they owned that had long been sadly neglected.

Approximately 2,000 Jewish residents are now living in Sheikh Jarrah and other similar so-called “Arab neighborhoods” in Jerusalem’s Old City, where Jews were forced by bloodthirsty attackers to abandon their homes to Arabs. And more are planning are move in.

The situation is complicated by the fact that after Jordan wrested control of half of Jerusalem away from Israel in 1948 it handed over the area to a United Nations agency for resettlement of Israeli Arab refugees who fled the war.

From this group grew the crowded neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, built upon the ruins of the two historic Jewish neighborhoods of Shimon HaTzaddik and Nahalat Shimon. It also gave rise to the current controversy over the need to accommodate the rights of those Jews whose forebears owned property in the neighborhood, and yet find a solution for the Arab families who have since come to live there.

“It’s not that there is this one little [Jewish] settlement in Sheikh Jarrah; it’s part of this bigger strategy,” Orly Noy of Ir Amim, a leftist 'human rights' group seeking to make Jerusalem a “city of two peoples” told the Christian Science Monitor. “Fifty residential units in Sheikh Jarrah are part of a ring of settlements that aim to foil any possibility of a Palestinian capital” in the eastern part of Jerusalem.

Although Israel annexed the eastern part of Jerusalem when it was restored to the capital in the 1967 Six Day War, the international community has refused to recognize its legality.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu vowed in his re-election campaign to preserve Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided and eternal capital.” It’s a sore point with the Palestinian Authority, which expects the United States to force Israel to hand over the eastern part of the city for use as the capital of its new Arab country, to be called “Palestine.”

But Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a pivotal member of Netanyahu’s coalition and possibly a competitor for leadership of the government, told a local Israeli newspaper Wednesday that he believes Israel might in fact be willing to divide the capital in direct negotiations with the PA.

The statement, which American media pounced upon in a follow-up briefing at the U.S. State Department, came as a direct contradiction of everything Netanyahu’s government has stood for, and every statement the prime minister has made since entering office.

Barak has enjoyed a close relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, and the Obama administration has long nurtured the hope that the leftist Labor party chairman might be strong enough to team with Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party and sideline Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, appears to be digging in his heels and adamantly refusing to allow negotiations to even get off the ground, let alone continue, without a guarantee from Netanyahu to freeze Jewish construction in Judea, Samaria, and in all the areas of Jerusalem the PA insists on claiming for its own.

“We call on the Israelis to carry out their obligations, including a freeze on settlement activities – which is not setting a precondition but a call to implement an agreed obligation – and to end all the closure and blockade, preventing freedom of movement, including the [Gaza] siege,” he said in a speech before dinner at the White House Wednesday evening. “We want a peace that will correct the historical injustice caused by the nakba (catastrophe, in Arabic – reference to the founding of the State of Israel) of 1948, and one that brings security to our people and to the Israeli people.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who also attended the dinner, along with Jordanian King Abdullah II, supported Abbas in calling for a continuation of the freeze that was implemented in Judea and Samaria by Netanyahu 10 months ago, and which is due to expire on September 26. 

“Settlement activities in the Palestinian territory are contrary to international law,” Mubarak said, speaking in Arabic. “They will not create rights for Israel, nor are they going to achieve peace or security for Israel. It is therefore a priority to completely freeze all these activities until the entire negotiation process comes to a successful end.”