The Israeli legal system: No place for justice

The struggle to save the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah from ethnic cleansing by state-backed Israeli settler organisations continued this week in the Israeli Supreme Court.

During the court hearing, the judges proposed, what they framed as a “compromise”: the Palestinian residents would be granted a form of protected tenancy, but would have to pay a small rent to Nahalat Shimon – the international settler organisation behind the aggressive ethnic cleansing campaign. This would mean formally relinquishing any claims of ownership over the homes and land in the neighbourhood. Unsurprisingly, the residents have not accepted the compromise. They will now have to return to the court in less than a week for what is expected to be the conclusion of the legal battle.

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While the media primarily focussed on popular protests on the streets and the accompanying international social media campaign in their coverage of the struggle to Save Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinian residents of the neighbourhood have also been fighting against attempts to expel them from their homes in Israeli courts, for decades.

In the early 1970s, Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah began receiving threats of expulsion from Israeli settler organisations that erroneously claimed they were squatting on Jewish property. The settlers filed claims with the Israeli Land Registry which unsurprisingly ruled in their favour. The Israeli regime has since framed the issue of Sheikh Jarrah as a “real estate dispute”.

The fact that international law does not recognise Israeli courts’ jurisdiction in Sheikh Jarrah, because it is a Palestinian neighbourhood in occupied territory, did not come into the equation. Neither did the fact that the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah were granted ownership of the land by the Jordanian government in the 1950s. Since then, settler organisations have filed dozens of cases to expel Palestinians from the neighbourhood.

The Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah consistently responded to these court cases with legal appeals. The legal battle reached its climax in April this year, when the Jerusalem District Court rejected the appeals of eight Sheikh Jarrah families and ordered that they vacate their homes no later than May 2. The families rejected the order and took the case to the Supreme Court. The case has yet to conclude.

It is not new for Palestinians to engage with the Israeli legal system in this way. Many Palestinians, including those living in the village of Khan al-Ahmar in Area C of the West Bank as well as the Palestinian communities in the Naqab, use this tactic in their fight to stay on their land.

They do so not because they believe that they can find justice within the system, but rather because it offers the possibility of postponing expulsion and buying time to mobilise popular resistance and garner international support.

Indeed, Palestinians know that the Israeli court system is inherently racist and colonial. In the years following its foundation, the Zionist regime developed bodies of laws to facilitate the theft of Palestinian land and the removal of Palestinian bodies from the land. After 1967, the Zionist regime expanded its legal jurisdiction to East Jerusalem in violation of international law. It then created an entirely different legal system based on martial law to deal with the newly occupied territories. This is the same system that convicts more than 99 percent of the Palestinians tried in its military courts, including children.

As Mohammed al-Kurd, an activist from Sheikh Jarrah, notes: “The judges are colonizers … the whole regime was built on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the rubble of our stolen land.” Understanding this context is crucial because it demonstrates how no outcome from an Israeli court can ever be considered fair or legitimate.

And so it must be understood that when Palestinians go to Israeli courts, it is not in recognition of their legitimacy or with expectations of justice. Rather, for them, it is just a tactic in a toolbox of many tactics. It is used in the hope that popular struggle and international pressure will prevail and lead to the Israeli regime being held accountable for its continuous crimes against the Palestinian people

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