Jerusalem Issue Briefs
Published July 2009
Vol. 9, No. 4 27 July 2009
The U.S.-Israeli Dispute over Building in Jerusalem:
The Sheikh Jarrah-Shimon HaTzadik Neighborhood
The Sheikh Jarrah-Mt. Scopus area - the focus of a dispute between the Obama
administration and Israel over building housing units in the Shepherd Hotel
compound - has been a mixed Jewish-Arab area for many years. The Jewish
population is currently centered in three places: around the tomb of Shimon
HaTzadik (a fourth century BCE high priest), the Israeli government compound
in Sheikh Jarrah, and Hadassah Hospital-Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus.
During Israel's War of Independence in 1948, 78 doctors, nurses and other
Jews were murdered on their way to Hadassah Hospital when their convoy was
attacked by Arabs as it passed through Sheikh Jarrah. Mt. Scopus was cut off
from western Jerusalem and remained a demilitarized Israeli enclave under UN
aegis until it was returned to Israel in 1967. The area discussed here has
for decades been a vital corridor to Mt. Scopus.
To ensure the continued unity of Jerusalem and to prevent Mt. Scopus from
being cut off again, a chain of Israeli neighborhoods were built to link
western Jerusalem with Mt. Scopus, and Hebrew University and Hadassah
Hospital were repaired and enlarged. Today both institutions serve hundreds
of thousands of Jewish and Arab residents of the city.
Many observers incorrectly assume that Jerusalem is comprised of two
ethnically homogenous halves: Jewish western Jerusalem and Arab eastern
Jerusalem. Yet in some areas such as Sheikh Jarrah-Shimon HaTzadik,
Jerusalem is a mosaic of peoples who are mixed and cannot be separated or
divided according to the old 1949 armistice line.
In the eastern part of Jerusalem, i.e., north, south and east of the city's
1967 borders, there are today some 200,000 Jews and 270,000 Arabs living in
intertwined neighborhoods. In short, as certain parts of eastern Jerusalem
have become ethnically diverse, it has become impossible to characterize it
as a wholly Palestinian area that can easily be split off from the rest of
Private Jewish groups are operating in Sheikh Jarrah seeking to regain
possession of property once held by Jews, and to purchase new property.
Their objective is to facilitate private Jewish residence in the area in
addition to the presence of Israeli governmental institutions. The main
points of such activity include the Shepherd Hotel compound, the Mufti's
Vineyard, the building of the el-Ma'amuniya school, the Shimon HaTzadik
compound, and the Nahlat Shimon neighborhood. In the meantime, foreign
investors from Arab states, particularly in the Persian Gulf, are actively
seeking to purchase Jerusalem properties on behalf of Palestinian interests.
Israel's Right to Build in Its Capital
An Israeli plan to build 20 housing units in the Shepherd Hotel compound in
the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem has added a new dimension to an
already complex dispute between the Obama administration and Israel over
continued construction in eastern Jerusalem.1 Washington is insisting that
Israel freeze all building in Sheikh Jarrah, as it occasionally has done in
the past regarding other areas in the eastern part of the city. Israel,
however, refuses to waive the Jewish people's historical and legal right to
live in all parts of Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel.2 In
eastern Jerusalem, i.e., north, south and east of the city's 1967 borders,
there are today some 200,000 Jews and 270,000 Arabs living in a mosaic of
Disagreements between the U.S. and Israel over building in eastern Jerusalem
are not new. In the 1970s, the U.S. expressed dissatisfaction with the
construction of the Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood, and in the 1990s it opposed
the construction of a large neighborhood on Har Homa and a smaller one in
Ma'ale Hazeitim near Ras el-Amud.
This time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel's
right to continue building in its capital is not a matter for negotiation,
and is separate from the debate with the U.S. about the extent of building
in the West Bank.4 On June 22, 2009, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly
had stated, in answer to a question, that the Obama administration's demand
that all settlement activity - including natural growth - come to a halt
also applied to Jerusalem neighborhoods over the 1949 armistice line.5
The Tomb and Neighborhood of Shimon HaTzadik6
The mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah-Shimon HaTzadik has for
decades been a vital corridor to Mt. Scopus, home for 80 years of Hebrew
University and Hadassah Hospital. For hundreds of years the Jewish presence
in the area centered around the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik (Simon the
Righteous), one of the last members of the Great Assembly (HaKnesset
HaGedolah), the governing body of the Jewish people during the Second Jewish
Commonwealth, after the Babylonian Exile. His full name was Shimon ben
Yohanan, the High Priest, who lived during the fourth century BCE, during
the time of the Second Temple.7
According to the Babylonian Talmud, he met with Alexander the Great when the
Macedonian Army moved through the Land of Israel during its war with the
Persian Empire.8 In that account, Shimon HaTzadik successfully persuades
Alexander to not destroy the Second Temple and leave it standing. According
to tradition, Shimon HaTzadik and his pupils are buried in a cave near the
road that goes from Sheikh Jarrah to Mt. Scopus. He appears as the author of
one of the famous verses in Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) which has
been incorporated into the Jewish morning prayers: "Shimon the Righteous was
among the last surviving members of the Great Assembly. He would say: ‘The
world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of
For years Jews have made pilgrimages to his grave to light candles and pray,
as documented in many reports by pilgrims and travelers. While the property
was owned by Arabs for many years, in 1876 the cave and the nearby field
were purchased by Jews, involving a plot of 18 dunams (about 4.5 acres) that
included 80 ancient olive trees.10 The property was purchased for 15,000
francs and was transferred to the owner through the Majlis al-Idara, the
seat of the Turkish Pasha and the chief justice. According to the contract,
the buyers (the committee of the Sephardic community and the Ashkenazi
Assembly of Israel) divided the area between them equally, including the
cave on the edge of the plot.
Dozens of Jewish families built homes on the property. On the eve of the
Arab Revolt in 1936 there were hundreds of Jews living there. When the
disturbances began they fled, but returned a few months later and lived
there until 1948. When the Jordanians captured the area, the Jews were
evacuated and for nineteen years were barred from visiting either their
former homes or the cave of Shimon HaTzadik.
In 1918 the cornerstone of Hebrew University was laid on Mt. Scopus, north
of Sheikh Jarrah, and on April 1, 1925, the opening ceremony was held.12 In
1938 Hadassah Hospital was opened adjacent to the university on Mt. Scopus,
with a nursing school and research facilities as well as wards. During the
War of Independence, both institutions, which were a source of pride for the
Jewish state in the making, were cut off because the access route passed
through Sheikh Jarrah. Following the UN partition vote on November 29, 1947,
Jewish transportation to Mt. Scopus became a target for attacks by
Palestinian Arabs who shot passengers and mined the road.
On April 13, 1948, a convoy of ambulances, armored buses, trucks loaded with
food and medical equipment, and 105 doctors, nurses, medical students,
Hebrew University personnel, and guards headed for Mt. Scopus. The convoy
was ambushed in the middle of Sheikh Jarrah, the lead vehicle hit a mine,
and gangs of armed Arabs attacked. Seventy-eight Jews were murdered, among
them 20 women and Dr. Haim Yaski, the hospital director. In the following
months the hospital and university ceased to function. After the Six-Day
War, when the area was returned to Israel, a memorial was built in their
honor in Sheikh Jarrah on the road leading to Mt. Scopus.
Until 1948, west of the road linking Sheikh Jarrah, the American Colony and
Mt. Scopus, was Nahlat Shimon, its name a reminder of its proximity to the
cave of Shimon HaTzadik. The neighborhood was founded in 1891 and was home
to hundreds of Jewish families. Just before the British Mandate ended in
1948, security in Nahlat Shimon deteriorated drastically and its residents
were evacuated to the Israeli side of Jerusalem. The Jordanians took control
of the neighborhood and settled Palestinian refugees there.
Sheikh Jarrah-Shimon HaTzadik and Mt. Scopus, 1948-1967
Until 1948 Sheikh Jarrah was an aristocratic neighborhood for Jerusalem
Arabs and members of the two most important Palestinian families: Nashashibi
and Husseini. Among its most famous residents before 1948 was the Grand
Mufti, Sheikh Haj Amin al-Husseini, and his family, who lived in the eastern
part of Sheikh Jarrah, called the Mufti's Vineyard. He began building
himself a large house but was deported by the British and left for Lebanon
in October 1937. During the Second World War he supported the Nazis and
later lived in Beirut and Cairo.14 His family rented out the house, which
was further enlarged and became the Shepherd Hotel.
After 1948 the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Shimon HaTzadik came under
Jordanian control and the Jewish-owned land was handed over to the Jordanian
Custodian of Enemy Property. In the mid-1950s the Jordanian government
settled Arabs there. They took over the homes of the Jews and paid rent to
the Jordanian Custodian.
During the nineteen years between the War of Independence and the Six-Day
War, Israeli access to Mt. Scopus - which remained an Israeli enclave
surrounded by territory under Jordanian control - was arranged governed by a
special arrangement which went into effect on July 7, 1948, and by other
arrangements made later.15 Once every two weeks a convoy was allowed through
from the Israeli side of the Mandelbaum gate with a UN escort, to rotate the
Israeli policemen who served on Mt. Scopus. The area was a demilitarized
zone containing Hebrew University, Hadassah Hospital, and the village of
Isawiya. However, the arrangement was plagued by friction and arguments,
diplomatic incidents and bloody events, and it had to be continually
bolstered by various mediators and negotiations.16
After the Six-Day War (June 1967)
Immediately after Israel defeated the Jordanian army in Jerusalem, the
Israeli government began to restore those parts of the city which had been
wrested from it nineteen years previously. The city's municipal borders were
extended and its area grew to 110,000 dunams (about 27,000 acres), and a
Knesset decision brought the entire area under Israeli law. The main
considerations of the decision-makers were to take control of the largest
possible area with the smallest possible Arab population, to make it
impossible to divide the city in the future, and to provide for the security
of the city.17 Building Jewish neighborhoods in areas annexed to the city
was done in stages, beginning with a bloc of northern neighborhoods to close
the gap between Mt. Scopus and the western part of the city as far as the
neighborhood of Shmuel HaNavi.18
On January 11, 1968, an area of 3,345 dunams, or about 830 acres, was
expropriated. It included the no man's land which before the war had
separated Israel from Jordan, a strip of land on both sides of the road to
Ramallah as far as the houses of Sheikh Jarrah, Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew
University on Mt. Scopus, the slopes of Mt. Scopus, and the northern slope
of the Mt. of Olives. The territory included 326 plots with 1,500 owners,
most of them Arab and a few of them Jews.19 During the following years,
Israeli neighborhoods were built in the space between Mt. Scopus and the
former border, including Ramat Eshkol, Sanhedria, French Hill, and Maalot
Dafna. The Hebrew University campus on Mt. Scopus came alive and was
considerably enlarged. Hadassah Hospital was rebuilt and enlarged as well.
Today, the two institutions serve hundreds of thousands of Jews and Arabs
living in Jerusalem, especially in the northern parts of the city.
To ensure that Mt. Scopus would never again be separated from the rest of
Jerusalem, many Israeli government institutions were built in Sheikh Jarrah,
where thousands of Israelis work every day, including the national
headquarters of the Israel Police. In addition, the Arab population of
Jerusalem is served by a major office of the Israel Ministry of Interior as
well as by a large medical clinic at this location.
The Jewish people also returned to the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik, which the
Israel Ministry of Religious Affairs officially designated as a site holy to
Judaism.20 Prayers are said there every day, and on special occasions (such
as Lag B'Omer) great celebrations are held in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar
Yochai. Religious leaders attend, as do tens of thousands of Jews, who come
with their rabbis.
Three large hotels have been built along the road leading to Sheikh Jarrah,
and to the north there is a Hyatt Hotel, all part of the Israeli presence in
the area. Many of the hotel and Hadassah Hospital employees are Palestinian
Arabs who live in and around Sheikh Jarrah, and many Palestinian Arab
students study at Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus.
Private Jewish Activity in the Sheikh Jarrah-Shimon HaTzadik Area Since the
Although a Jewish institutional presence has been established in the area in
the form of Israeli governmental offices and services, Jewish groups have
sought to establish a residential presence as well. This is being done
through property and land acquisitions, and by judicial means. To date, this
activity has achieved a residential presence of no more than ten families
who are living in a small part of the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood from
which Jews had been evicted in 1948.
There are dozens of pending court cases and legal proceedings seeking to
remove Arab tenants on the grounds that they have not been paying rent to
the rightful owners - the Committee of the Sephardic Community and the
Ashkenazi Assembly of Israel, who purchased the land in the second part of
the nineteenth century. In some of these cases, eviction notices have been
issued, although the Israel Police has delayed the actual evictions due to
Private Jewish activity in this area focuses on several points: the
el-Ma'amuniya school, which after prolonged discussions eventually became
the offices of the Israel Ministry of Interior; the Nahlat Shimon
neighborhood, whose Jewish residents were driven out in 1948 and where Jews
are now seeking to purchase property from Arab residents; the Mufti's
Vineyard (expropriated in 1969), which the Israel Lands Administration has
handed over to Jewish custody with authorization for agricultural activity;
and the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood north of the American Colony Hotel.
After 1967, control over Jewish-owned property in the Shimon HaTzadik
neighborhood that had been seized by Arabs was transferred from the
Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property to the Israeli Custodian of Absentee
Property. In 1972 the Israeli Custodian released the land back to its owners
(the Committee of the Sephardic Community and the Ashkenazi Assembly of
Israel). In 1988 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the 28 Arab families
living on the premises enjoy the status of "Protected Residents," but that
the ownership of the land belongs to the two Jewish organizations.
Ten years later, in 1998, Jews entered deserted houses in the neighborhood.
At the same time, a slow process of evicting Arab families who apparently
refused to pay rent to the two Jewish organizations was begun. The Jewish
groups involved in the area presented a power of attorney from former
Knesset Member Yehezkel Zackay (Labor) and from the heads of the Sephardic
Committee permitting them to remain on the site and to rebuild it. Zackay
explained that the Arabs there had treated the premises as if it were their
own private property, building without authorization, entering houses which
were not theirs, and had even tried to destroy the abandoned synagogue
located in the middle of the neighborhood. Ehud Olmert, then mayor of
Jerusalem, assisted the Jewish activity from behind the scenes. Members of
the Shas Sephardic religious political party also sanctioned the Jewish
activity. A son of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef began giving lessons at
the small, newly built yeshiva that had begun to operate in the abandoned
In the months that followed, several Arab families were evicted from the
neighborhood and were replaced by seven Jewish families. Eviction notices
have been issued for dozens of other Arab families in the area, but they
have not been implemented due to international pressure.
An overall plan for the rehabilitation of the Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood
that had been taken over by the Arabs in 1948 has been filed with the
Jerusalem Municipality Planning Committee.
The Shepherd Hotel Compound22
The Shepherd Hotel lies just to the east of the British Consulate in eastern
Jerusalem, and British diplomats were instrumental in inflaming the
controversy between the U.S. and Israel over the future of the property. The
building, originally built by the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was
confiscated by the British Mandatory Government after it deported him in the
1930s and was made into a British military outpost. The Jordanians took
possession of the structure after 1948 and expanded it.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel took over the compound, no one from
the Husseini family still lived there, and it had been rented by two
Christian brothers. At the beginning of the 1970s, Israel revoked the right
of the Husseini family's representative to charge the brothers rent and
transfer the money to the family abroad. The brothers received the status of
protected tenants and paid rent to the Israeli Executor of Absentee
Property. In the mid-1980s, the brothers' widows sold the hotel to a Swiss
company backed by Jewish groups.
Two years later, the compound was bought by American businessman Irving
Moskowitz, who has worked for years to redeem property in Jerusalem for
Jewish settlement. He leased the hotel to the state, and in the 1990s
Israeli Border Police units were stationed there. In recent years the
building has stood empty and, using the power of attorney of the owners, on
July 2, 2009, the Jerusalem Municipality approved a plan to build 20 housing
units at the site and at the same time to preserve part of the compound. A
more ambitious plan to build 122 units has been prepared but has not yet
The Growth of Mixed Neighborhoods in Jerusalem
The dispute between the U.S. and Israel over 20 housing units in Sheikh
Jarrah has turned the spotlight on the Sheikh Jarrah-Shimon HaTzadik-Mt.
Scopus area, which has long been home to a mix of populations and where Jews
and Arabs live side by side. However, parallel Arab migration to Jewish
neighborhoods in Jerusalem has received no similar attention.
In Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem such as Armon HaNatziv, Neve Yaakov,
Tzameret HaBira, and Pisgat Zeev, the fringes of the neighborhoods have many
Palestinian Arab residents, either through purchase or rental of apartments.
In some of the buildings along Rehov HaHavatzelet in the center of the city,
a similar change is taking place. Jews and Arabs also live together in the
neighborhood of Abu Tor, and there are several streets in the Muslim Quarter
of the Old City, such as Rehov HaGai, where a similar situation is gradually
developing. In short, as certain parts of eastern Jerusalem have become
ethnically diverse, it has become impossible to characterize it as a wholly
Palestinian area that can easily be split off from the rest of Jerusalem.
Foreign Investment in Jerusalem: Both Jewish and Arab
Jews from abroad are not the only ones buying property in Jerusalem. Munib
al-Masri, a Palestinian millionaire from Nablus who holds American
citizenship, is planning to purchase property 900 meters from the Teddy
Kollek Stadium, not far from Jerusalem's Malha shopping mall. His investment
company is planning to build 150 housing units next to Beit Safafa,
according to company chairman Samir Halayla. Until 1967, Beit Safafa was an
Arab village south of Jerusalem divided between Israel and Jordan. After the
war it became an area where Jews and Arabs lived together, generally as good
The Gulf States, the PLO, and Palestinian millionaires such as al-Masri and
the late Abd al-Majid Shuman have all invested funds to purchase property
and support construction for Palestinian Arabs. The Jerusalem Treasury Fund
affiliated with the Jerusalem Committee headed by King Hassan of Morocco is
also active. The Jerusalem Foundation for Development and Investment was
founded in Jordan, and there are several similar funds and foundations in
Saudi Arabia.23 Foreign donations from Qatar were also involved in the
construction of 58 housing units recently completed in Beit Hanina under the
auspices of the Arab teachers' association.
On July 19, 2009, Yuval Diskin, head of the Israel Security Agency, reported
to the Israeli government on the extensive efforts of the Palestinian
Authority and its security apparatuses to prevent Palestinian land from
being sold to Jews, especially in eastern Jerusalem.
Regardless of these ongoing struggles, the State of Israel does not limit or
forbid the purchase or sale of property or land within Jerusalem, which is
under Israeli law, whether the individuals involved are Jews or Arabs.
* * *
1. Eastern Jerusalem refers to the areas annexed to the east, north and
south of the city that were under Israeli control prior to the Six-Day War
in 1967. For further information, see Nadav Shragai, Jerusalem: The Dangers
of Division (Jerusalem Canter for Public Affairs, 2008), p. 12 (Hebrew).
2. For the arguments on which Israel bases its position, see Dore Gold, "The
Diplomatic Battle for Jerusalem," Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2001,
pp. 5-10 (Hebrew).
3. Shragai, pp. 49-53.
4. Information based on conversations with sources within the Israeli
5. Ian Kelley, U.S. Department of State, "Daily Press Briefing," June 22,
6. Nadav Shragai, "Simon HaTzadik's New Neighbor," Ha'aretz, April 26, 1999
(Hebrew); conversations with people who were evicted that year. See articles
in Ha'aretz about population issues and history during the relevant years.
7. Mishnah Avot, 1:2. See exigesis.
8. Babylonian Talmud, Tract Yomah, 69a.
9. Mishnah Avot, 1:2.
10. Shmuel Shamir, in an article about the property of the Sephardic
community (Bamaarekhet, August 1968, Hebrew), and A. Yaari, in Shluhi Eretz
Israel, enlarged on the history of the purchase.
11. For further information, see Mordechai Gilat, Mt. Scopus (Smadar
Publishers, 1969) (Hebrew).
12. For further information, see "The University," publication of Hebrew
University, the 50th anniversary volume, V. 21, 1975 (Hebrew).
13. For further information, see Yona Cohen, Gershon the Wise from Nahlat
Shimon, (Reuven Maas, 1968) (Hebrew).
14. For further information about al-Husseini and his support for the Nazis,
see Haviv Cnaan, "Who Is Haj Amin al-Husseini?," which appeared in Ha'aretz
in March 1970 and was reissued by the information services of the Prime
15. For further information, see Gilat, and a summary in Amnon Ramon, ed.,
The Lexicon of Contemporary Jerusalem (Jerusalem Institute for Israel
Studies, 2003), p. 235.
16. Meron Benvenisti, Jerusalem, the Torn City, (Weinfeld and Nicholson,
1972), pp. 35-41.
17. David Kroyanker, Jerusalem, the Struggle for the Structure and Face of
the City (Zmora Bitan and Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 1988), p.
19. Benvenisti, p. 290.
20. Shmuel Berkowitz, How Awesome Is This Place (Carta, 2006), p. 73
21. The information on this matter comes from conversations with Jewish
activists who resettle Jews in the Shimon HaTzadik area, from visiting the
neighborhood, and from following ongoing court cases on this matter.
22. Danny Rubenstein, "As Long as Nothing Bothers the Hyatt," Ha'aretz,
November 18, 1991; Danny Rubenstein, "The Palestinian Economy: a Hotel at
the Crossroads," Calcalist, July 20, 2009; personal knowledge of the area.
23. For further information, see Nadav Shragai, "Jerusalem Is the Solution,
Not the Problem," in His Honor the Prime Minister Jerusalem, Moshe Amirav,
ed. (Carmel, 2005), p. 57 (Hebrew) (based on Israeli defense documents).
* * *
Nadav Shragai is the author of Jerusalem: The Dangers of Division - An
Alternative to Separation from the Arab Neighborhoods (Jerusalem Center for
Public Affairs, 2008); At the Crossroads, the Story of the Tomb of Rachel
(Jerusalem Studies, 2005); and The Mount of Contention, the Struggle for the
Temple Mount, Jews and Muslims, Religion and Politics since 1967 (Keter,
1995). He has been writing for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz since
JCPA, Beit Milken, 13 Tel Hai St., Jerusalem 92107, Israel, Tel:
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