Right-wing media manipulate the facts to downplay Sheikh Jarrah evictions of Palestinian families

Right-wing media figures are misleading audiences about the facts to downplay the attempted displacement of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah by the Israeli government, one of the flashpoints that preceded the recent violent conflict in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. Some are dismissing the evictions as a mere landlord-tenant dispute, while others are claiming that the homes rightly belong to Israeli families while omitting the larger context.

The eviction of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem is part of a decades-long “effort to remove thousands of Palestinians from strategic areas in East Jerusalem.” While the current right-wing Israeli government dismisses the evictions as merely a “real estate dispute,” the Council on Foreign Relations explained that the situation is more complex:

Israeli authorities emphasize that the situation in Sheikh Jarrah is a private real-estate dispute. That is accurate, but it only explains part of the story. Pro-Israel organizations have sought to change the demographics of East Jerusalem—which is predominantly Arab—for many years, taking their cues from successive Israeli governments that emphasized Israel’s right to build within its own capital. Israeli law permits Jews to reclaim property that they or their families owned in Jerusalem prior to the division of the city after Israel’s establishment in 1948, provided that they can prove ownership of the land. For their part, Palestinians cannot claim rights to property they once owned in Jerusalem or other parts of Israel.

CBS explained how the 1948 war created Palestinian refugees who came to live in Sheikh Jarrah:

In the 1940s, Britain's control over what had been Palestine ended and ownership and control of the land was partitioned by the international community through the United Nations. But there was no agreement on the borders of two separate Jewish and Arab states. In 1948, the dispute resulted in a war, through which Israel declared independence and asserted control over more territory than had been initially proposed by the United Nations. Many Palestinians were displaced during the conflict and became refugees.

In an interview with Slate, Palestinian human rights lawyer Munir Nusseibeh explained how Palestinians are systematically disadvantaged during the evictions process and how it has partially led to the conflict seen today: 

The Palestinian residents hired an Israeli lawyer to defend them. They learned only later that, at the time, the lawyer had conceded that this land was owned by the Jewish settler group—the plaintiffs—and the tenants were given a status of “protected tenant.” They became considered tenants who were expected to pay rent. They insist to me now that they were never approached by anyone since the ’70s to pay rent, never told how much the rent was or to whom they should pay it. Years later, the Israeli settler organization came back with new cases to evict these families using the law that regulates leasing real estate for not paying rent.

Since then, a settler organization has been choosing families to sue, claiming that these families should be evicted. In 2009, there were already four families that were evicted from their houses as a result of these cases, and they have been replaced with Israeli Jewish settlers. Now there is a wave of more cases against more residents to evict them from their homes. The Israeli courts won’t hear some of the evidence, but they have authorized the plaintiff and defendant to find a settlement. The Israeli settler organization asked the families to recognize that this land is owned by them, and in return, they would allow the land to be leased to someone chosen in their family, and expire with that person’s death. The families rejected this offer. So that is where it is today.

The United National Human Rights Council has argued that the “evictions, if ordered and implemented, would violate Israel's obligations under international law.” Others have also argued that these type of evictions imperil the possibility of a peace deal or two-state solution, with some saying that they are part of a continuing de jure and de facto annexation of Palestinian territory that regularly escalates the decades-long violence and conflict in the region. Pro-Israel and pro-peace organization J Street has noted that “Unilateral annexation is deliberately intended to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and would institutionalize a system in which stateless Palestinian residents of the West Bank are ruled permanently and undemocratically by Israel.”

But in recent weeks, some in right-wing media have sought to downplay the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, muddling the facts to argue that forcible displacement is justified as part of a private real estate dispute over “squatters” failing to pay their rent.

  • On Fox News, contributor Kayleigh McEneny claimed that “when you really dive into” the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, “the eviction involved seven tenants who are not paying their rent.”
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Citation From the May 13, 2021, edition of Fox News' Outnumbered

  • An opinion piece from the Washington Examiner chastized The New York Times for reporting on questions of whether Israel or Hamas were committing war crimes, claiming that the Times is “disregarding” that rockets fired by Hamas were “a response to a disputed court case about four Palestinian families who refused to pay their rent and, as a result, are facing eviction.”
  • A Federalist article lambasted progressive Democrats for their criticisms of Israel, citing their condemnation of “forced evictions in the predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.” The author claimed that “as is typical for the ‘Squad’” -- a nickname for four Democratic members of Congress -- “reality is rather different” before arguing that “Jewish property owners” are merely going “to court to reclaim property" from “those who squatted on it after the Jewish owners were expelled.”
  • Fox guest Elliott Abrams -- a neoconservative with a decades-long history of involvement in U.S. foreign policy -- dismissed the evicted families as “squatters” who didn’t pay rent, claiming that “in the U.S., it would be just a landlord-tenant dispute in municipal court.” Abrams added that the dispute is being “blown out of proportion by Hamas and others looking for excuses to impose violence on Israelis and Palestinians.”
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Citation From the May 13, 2021, edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom

  • Abrams also published a piece in the National Review titled “Cutting through the Misinformation Surrounding Part of This Conflict.” Abrams wrote of the evictions: “The principle is not controversial: Title to the property in question was not legally obtained, and just compensation was not paid. Governments and courts in the United States and Europe year after year decide these cases, giving title to the original owner. This principle is simple, and widely acknowledged, but seems to be willfully ignored when it comes to the eviction cases that are now before Israel’s Supreme Court.”
  • The National Review published an article on “the truth about the Sheikh Jarrah eviction.” The author, Erielle Davidson, argued that “there is nothing pernicious happening beyond a standard landlord eviction of non-paying tenants. But you wouldn’t know that based on the current media coverage and outcry on the progressive left.” Davidson called criticisms of the evictions “shameless misinformation.”
  • On Twitter, Davidson expanded on her piece in a series of tweets, asking: “Do you plan to stay in your apartment after your lease expires and refuse to pay rent? Do you plan to assault your landlord if he takes you to court?” Davidson added that the “squatters never owned their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.”
  • RedState published an article claiming that the violence “stemmed from the fact that Israel has evicted some Palestinian squatters who haven’t paid rent in decades to rightful landowners in the area of Sheikh Jarrah.”
  • The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled “Almost Nothing You’ve Heard About Evictions in Jerusalem Is True.” The authors argued that “neutral application of property law becomes an international incident because a landlord is a Jew” and claimed that the conflict “is an ordinary property dispute between private parties.”
  • A Newsweek opinion piece argued that “the situation in Sheikh Jarrah is not about forcing families from their home,” but instead is about “owners suing tenants whose leases have expired, or in a few cases, suing squatters with no tenancy rights at all; the owners are simply asking for their rent to be paid.”
  • Conservative writer Josh Hammer tweeted the Newsweek article, highlighting a quote from it: "Far from the 'illegal' evictions of Senator Warren and Sanders' tweets, this is a housing dispute in which one side has refused to pay rent. And the court will now decide whether this means they can be evicted.”