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At the time of writing, the increasingly bloody war between Israel and Hamas continues apace. At some point Egypt will mediate a truce, as it has done in the past. The real question is whether this war ever needed to happen.

It all began with the Israeli government’s decision to evict several Arab families living in an East Jerusalem district called Sheikh Jarrah. The decision followed a ruling from Jerusalem’s district court that the homes in question actually belonged to Israeli Jews. The claimants argued before the court that a number of properties in the district had been acquired by Jews well before 1948, when Israel came into being.

It is indeed the case that the neighbourhood once had been called Shimon HaTazadik, named for a leading ancient rabbi who figures prominently in the Talmudic tractate popularly known as “The Ethics of the Fathers.” Moreover, it is also true that when Jordanian forces overran the neighbourhood during Israel’s 1947-1949 War of Independence, all Jews were evicted or escaped to Israeli-controlled territory. In 1956, Jordan moved 28 Palestinian families into the area; these were families that had been displaced in the war. The families were subsequently given title to their residences, though the Jewish owners never renounced their original title to these homes.

The newly displaced Arab families have appealed the district court’s decision to Israel’s Supreme Court, which has often ruled in favour of Palestinian claims against the government. As a result of both the ongoing hostilities with Hamas and riots in Jerusalem, however, the court delayed its decision. It might be argued that the Jewish claimants have a strong case; after all, they were prior owners of the properties in question. On the other hand, the Arabs families have been living in these homes for some 75 years, and it arguably is cruel to evict them over sins committed by a Jordanian government that has long since made its peace with Israel.

It is clear that the war has benefitted no one, other than the cynics on both sides. Gaza-based Hamas, with help from the even more radical Islamic Jihad, has seized upon an excuse to demonstrate that it, not the rival Palestinian Authority, is the true defender of Palestinian rights. Yet those so-called defenders operate from civilian homes, using their residents as human hostages. And many of the Hamas leadership have moved their families — and, in many cases, themselves — out of Gaza and away from danger while the conflict continues.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likewise has seized upon the conflict for his own political purposes. He is seeking, once again, to demonstrate that he — not the leaders of opposition parties who have been asked to form a new government — is best positioned to defend the Jewish state. It is his last desperate attempt to remain in power, and to avoid criminal prosecution for corruption and bribery. Netanyahu’s cynicism was quite recently on display, when he bowed to ultra-Orthodox demands that there be no limit to the number of celebrants at a festival held at a rabbinical gravesite on Mount Meron 10 days ago. As a result, instead of the 9,000-person limit recommended by the health authorities, 100,000 people took part in the festivities; sadly, 45 people died and scores more were injured in a stampede that took place at the gravesite.

Washington has voiced its support for Israel, and has called for a speedy end to the conflict. It is supporting Egypt’s mediation efforts. But the Biden administration could, and should, do more. It should begin with the recognition that this conflict need not have taken place. The government of Israel could have announced that it was compensating the Jewish claimants for their losses. Moreover, though it is late in the day, the government still could allow those Palestinians who were evicted to return to their homes, and compensate the Jewish owners for the loss of their property. Doing so might just tamp down emotions sufficiently to enable Egypt to broker a truce more quickly.

Washington should, therefore, immediately press the Israeli government to announce that it will compensate the Jewish claimants, while permitting the Palestinians to return to their homes. At the same time, it should continue to work with Egypt toward a quick cessation of hostilities. In so doing, the Biden administration can spare both Israelis and Palestinians additional losses of life and limb. Surely that objective should far outweigh the material benefits of property ownership, not to mention the political machinations of both Netanyahu and Israel’s arch enemies, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Note:  This article was originally published in The Hill on 14 May 2021 and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy