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The Possible Eviction Of Palestinians In East Jerusalem Was A Spark For Conflict

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now a look at the Jerusalem neighborhood that helped spark the fighting between Israel and Hamas. The current conflict might be coming to an end after 11 days with announcements of a cease-fire tonight, but it began with militants in Gaza saying they were defending Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque there, and also Palestinian families facing eviction to make way for Israelis. That's an issue that won't go away, even when the fighting ends for now. NPR's Daniel Estrin explains why one street has been so combustible.

(CROSSTALK)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Sheikh Jarrah is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem where Palestinians live. I visited four days before the Gaza-Israel conflict broke out. This is an example of how a neighborhood dispute can turn into an international crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: On the left side of the street, Palestinians ate in front of a row of homes that Jewish settlers want to claim. On the right side of the street, religious Jewish activists gathered outside a home they already took over years ago. As I was chatting with a demonstrator...

Oh, wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey. Hey. Hey.

ESTRIN: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There is clashes.

ESTRIN: OK, there are some clashes now. The - let's get out of the way. Throwing plastic chairs and water bottles - what I saw is one of the religious Jewish activists walk up into a Palestinian's face and spray what looked like pepper spray. Boys on either side of the street - Jews against Palestinians - were throwing stones. We're running up the street.

Israeli riot police marched in, separating the Palestinians from the Israelis. There were also prominent far-right activists there, a lawmaker ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a settler activist, Baruch Marzel.

BARUCH MARZEL: Jews own houses, and the Arabs don't want to give them - to live in these houses.

ESTRIN: What are the plans here in this neighborhood?

MARZEL: To have a majority of Jews. It's almost there.

ESTRIN: A Palestinian protester approaches me - Mujid Kalouti.

MUJID KALOUTI: So they don't want us here, yeah? Where shall we go? This I ask myself.

ESTRIN: Sheikh Jarrah is one of the Palestinian neighborhoods next to the core of Jerusalem and its most sacred shrines. In recent years, nationalist Jewish groups have established small colonies in these neighborhoods. Their aim is to make the neighborhoods majority Jewish. Sometimes they buy Palestinians' homes. Other times, they get courts to evict Palestinians because the land belonged to Jews a long time ago. Chaim Silberstein is an activist involved.

CHAIM SILBERSTEIN: And in 1875, a Jewish neighborhood was purchased here from the Turks, and about 80 to 100 families lived in this neighborhood until 1948.

ESTRIN: In 1948, when Israel was founded during war, Jews were displaced from this neighborhood by Jordan. Then Palestinians who were displaced from Israel were moved on to the land. Silberstein and other activists have been using old Jewish ownership claims to move Jews back in, and now they've sued in court to evict families from four homes. Other cases are pending. The Israeli government calls it a private real estate dispute. Progressive Israeli groups call it a campaign of mass displacement supported by Israeli courts. In the last year and a half, they say a record number of about 150 Palestinians face court-supported eviction in the city to make way for Jewish settler groups.

NABIL AL KURD: This is my home.

ESTRIN: Nabil Al Kurd walks me away from the riot police and through his yard. One half of his home was claimed by a settler group years ago. Now he's facing eviction from the other half. And here's the thing - Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim these grounds lost in the 1948 war; it does not allow Palestinians to reclaim property they lost in that war.

AL KURD: (Through interpreter) This is a racist, racist, racist law.

ESTRIN: The U.S. State Department said it was deeply concerned about the potential evictions. Israel froze the eviction proceedings to cool tensions, but Hamas and Gaza had issued a warning - if the aggression against our people in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood does not stop immediately, we will not stand idly by. Four days after my visit, Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem, and the war began.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN MARCHAL'S "INSIGHT I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.