Is It Fair To Describe Land Acquisition By Jews In East Jerusalem As "Ethnic Cleansing"?

Several days ago a friend brought to my attention a December 2 article from something called “The National,” with the headline “How Palestinians in Jerusalem are being targeted in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”  If you haven’t heard of it, The National bills itself as “the Middle East’s leading English-language news service,” and is produced in the UAE.

Now, “ethnic cleansing” is a rather charged term.  I first heard that term used in the 1990s in the context of efforts by the Serbian army to remove Muslims and Croats from certain areas of Bosnia.  Here is a description of what that “ethnic cleansing” consisted of from Wikipedia:

The ethnic cleansing campaign that took place throughout areas controlled by the Bosnian Serbs targeted Muslim Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. The ethnic cleansing campaign included unlawful confinement, murder, rape, sexual assault, torture, beating, robbery, and inhumane treatment of civilians; the targeting of political leaders, intellectuals, and professionals; the unlawful deportation and transfer of civilians; the unlawful shelling of civilians; the unlawful appropriation and plunder of real and personal property; the destruction of homes and businesses; and the destruction of places of worship.

The worst single event in the Bosnian ethnic cleansing occurred in and around the town of Srebrenica in 1995.  From the same Wikipedia article:

The events in Srebrenica in 1995 included the killing of more than 8,000  Bosniak("Bosnian Muslim") men and boys, as well as the mass expulsion of another 25,000–30,000 Bosniak civilians, in and around the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina,

I have also seen the term “ethnic cleansing” used in connection with the events in Rwanda, also in the mid-1990s, that included the 1994 killing of an estimated 500,000 to 1 million members of the Tutsi tribe by members of the Hutu tribe.  The term “genocide” is also frequently used to describe these events.Now, is it remotely accurate to describe current events in Israel using this highly charged term “ethnic cleansing”?  The article from the National particularly focuses on developments in a neighborhood of East Jerusalem known to Palestinians as Silwan, located in a steep valley immediately south of the walled Old City of Jerusalem.  In recent decades the area has been inhabited mainly by Palestinians. Jews often refer to the same area, or at least part of it, as the “City of David,” based on a belief that this was the location where King David first established the city and built his palace back around 1000 BC.  Apparently there is substantial archeological evidence to support this belief, but I have not personally evaluated that.  When I visited Israel in 2017, there was a large archeological dig going on in some of this area, which you could look into from the adjacent higher ground; and there are plans to turn the archeological site into a visitors’ center.  Clearly, if there had previously been homes on this spot, they had been removed.

So how have Jews or Jewish organizations obtained control of this area to conduct their archeological dig?Here is how the National describes that:

A massive new Jewish history-themed visitor centre will dominate Silwan’s entrance. . . .  The settlers have their own underhand methods [to acquire the land]. With the authorities’ connivance, they have forged documents to seize Palestinian homes closest to Al Aqsa. In other cases, the settlers have recruited Arab collaborators to dupe other Palestinians into selling their homes.  Once they gain a foothold, the settlers typically turn the appropriated home into an armed compound. Noise blares out into the early hours, Palestinian neighbours are subjected to regular police raids and excrement is left in their doorways. After the recent sale to settlers of a home strategically located in the Old City’s Muslim quarter, the Palestinian Authority set up a commission of inquiry to investigate. But the PA is near-powerless to stop this looting after Israel passed a law in 1995 denying it any role in Jerusalem.  The same measure is now being vigorously enforced against the few residents trying to stop the settler banditry.

I won’t speak to whether there has or has not been use of “forged documents” to acquire land improperly.  Maybe there are instances of that.  But principally what the National seems to be objecting to is consensual land transfers between willing buyers and willing sellers.  They accuse Jews of using “Arab collaborators,” and of “duping” the sellers.  Consensual sales are called “looting” and “banditry.”  Really?

Here is a somewhat more balanced report on the same process from 2014 in the British outlet the Telegraph:

In the middle of the night, Israeli settlers steal into dark, rubbish-strewn alleyways, and silently turn the keys in the rusty locks of local houses. The homes have been purchased using funds from abroad, with the help of Israeli organisations, foreign straw companies, and third-party brokers. . . .  On the night of September 30, 25 flats were commandeered in such a way, enabling up to 200 settlers to set up home in Silwan - the largest influx in two decades.

But is there something wrong with Jews buying land in parts of Jerusalem principally occupied by Palestinians?  My own perspective comes from how we do it here in New York.  In New York, absolutely anyone can buy land or rent a home or apartment in any neighborhood.  There is no requirement to be a citizen, or even a legal resident.  Indeed it is illegal in New York for a seller or landlord to “discriminate” against any prospective buyer or tenant, not only on grounds of race or ethnicity, but also on the basis of immigration status.  Here is a 2017 articlereporting on a civil rights investigation being conducted by the City against landlords who dared to inquire of prospective tenants if they were in the country legally.  In New York, the free transfer of land regularly brings about complete ethnic transformation of neighborhoods.  Thus Harlem changed from white to black during the 1920s, and now is in the process of massively reintegrating with both whites and Hispanics; the Lower East Side changed from predominantly Jewish to predominantly Hispanic somewhere between the 1950s and 1980s; Flushing, Queens is still in the process of becoming predominantly Asian; and I could give many more examples.  

But that is not how it works for people under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.  The PA apparently has laws making it illegal for any Palestinian to sell land to an Israeli Jew.  From Wikipedia:  [Palestinian land] laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to "any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf. . . .”  The penalty for violation?  Many years at hard labor, or alternatively, the death penalty (although it appears that Mr. Abbas has not approved any death sentences recently). For example, according to this article from November 22 in the Middle East Monitor, the PA had just sentenced two Palestinians to terms of 9 and 6 years at hard labor, respectively, for “selling land to Israeli Jews.”

I should mention that Israel for itself and its citizens does not follow the New York regime either.  The basic proposition is that all citizens, including Muslim and Christian citizens, can buy land in a consensual transaction from a willing seller. However, that leaves much for people to complain about.  First, Muslims from East Jerusalem and the West Bank are not citizens of Israel, and so cannot buy land from Jews to match the land that the Jews are buying in Palestinian areas.  Also, the Israeli state owns a high percentage of the land in Israel, typically leasing it rather than selling it, and there are serious allegations that the state of Israel favors Jews in this process.  Palestinians complain that the overall result of Israeli policy is that Jewish-controlled land, both in and out of Israel proper, inexorably expands on a one-way ratchet (they use the term “Judaization”).  If you are interested, here is an articlesummarizing the issues.

There is another issue peculiar to the current situation in Silwan/City of David, which is that there was a decision from the Israeli Supreme Court in November that awarded a few acres of land in that area to a Jewish trust that claimed ownership rights tracing to pre-1948 registered title.  As a result of the decision, some 100 Palestinian families, consisting of about 700 people, are being evicted from that plot. Here is a November 22 article on that subject from the Irish Times(a relatively neutral source).  In the US, a title unenforced for 70 years would typically have become invalid under a doctrine called “adverse possession.”  I have no idea what Israeli law on that subject may be.

In summary, while I can find plenty to criticize in the conduct of Israel, I find the use of the term “ethnic cleansing” completely out of line, particularly as to anything that involves the consensual buying and selling of land or houses.  There is no allegation of mass killings by Israelis to take land, nor of any organized violence as characterized the situations of Bosnia and Rwanda.  Yes, there may be some violence involved in enforcing the recent court-ordered evictions in Silwan, but then where I come from people generally do not violently resist court orders even when they disagree with them.  I would urge both the Israelis and the Palestinians to allow buying of land and buildings by anybody who wants to do so.  In New York, that’s how we get oodles of tax money out of wealthy foreign plutocrats. No, we don’t let them vote here, so it has almost no effect on the political situation.  But I wouldn’t expect either the Palestinian or Israeli land ownership rules to change much any time soon. 

UPDATE, December 20: I thought of two more observations to add:

(1) Private ownership of land, with freely-allowed buying and selling, is the basic mechanism that makes it possible for people of different races, ethnicities and tribes to live among each other in peace. This is just one more reason why “socialism” is antithetical to human nature, and why people claiming to be “socialists” are fools.

(2) As a corollary to (1), prohibiting land transfer other than within the ethnic group or tribe is a sure-fire formula for fomenting and prolonging ethnic conflict and violence. I find it reprehensible. Again, the Israeli regime is not perfect on this issue, but the Palestinian regime is completely unacceptable, and in any rational world would be the subject of universal criticism.

SECOND UPDATE, December 21: According to an article yesterday in the Washington Free Beacon, something called the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research is just out with a new survey of Palestinians.  As relates to the topic of this blog post:

 88 per cent said that Palestinians who sell property to Jews are traitors. 64 percent said the punishment for selling property to Jews should be the death penalty.

I guess that endless violence and hatred are just much more fun than living together in peace and prosperity.