The bustling Sheikh Jarrah, one of the historic Jerusalem neighbourhoods built outside its Ottoman city walls, faces a new-old wave of Judaisation and forced displacement by Jewish and settler groups which forge history in order to steal geography. The decision to evict several Palestinian families from their homes on Othman Bin Affan Street in Sheikh Jarrah is a threat that began many years ago.
Since the beginning of May, four Palestinian families totalling 30 people have been facing this threat after an Israeli court rejected their petitions in mid-February against the decisions to expel them from the area and hand their homes to illegal settlers. The court later called on both parties to “settle” the dispute.
Three other families are expected to suffer the same fate in early August after a court rejected their appeal. These eviction orders and the subsequent taking over of properties stolen from the Palestinians by Jewish settlers are part of the plan outlined by the occupation authorities to change the demography and strengthen the Jewish majority in the occupied city.
The Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood is inhabited by Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their villages by Zionist militias during the 1948 Nakba. In 1956, Jordan reached an agreement with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which stipulated the resettlement of 28 Palestinian refugee families in Jerusalem and providing them with houses built by the Jordanian government. The deal was conditional upon the ownership transferring automatically to them if they agreed to give up their refugee status. Thus, in 1959 the residents became the legal owners of their homes. The original 28 families have since grown to about 72, with around 550 people altogether, the majority of whom are children.
The 1967 Six-Day War
Israel occupied the area during the June 1967 Six-Day War; the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are still in place. The residents of Sheikh Jarrah were surprised to be told in 1972 that Jewish settler organisations had “acquired” ownership of land in the Karam Al-Jaouni area of the neighbourhood, and demanded the eviction of four Palestinian families living there.
Under Israel’s 1950 Absentees’ Property Law, the occupation authorities can confiscate the property of “absentee” Palestinian refugees, who have always been prevented from returning to their land. Another law issued in 1970 — the Legal and Administrative Affairs Law — allows Jewish settlers to seize Palestinian properties in East Jerusalem if they can prove that their families lived in the city before the 1948 war, which was not difficult for them to do.
The first physical seizure of Palestinian homes was seen in 2001 in Karam Al-Jaouni, when extreme right-wing Jewish activists stormed into a house and refused to leave it. In 2008, an Israeli court ruled that part of the Sheikh Jarrah “was owned by the Eastern Jews who settled there during the Ottoman era”. This was at a time when a number of Israeli and American investors, defending “Jewish Jerusalem”, sought to buy Palestinian properties in the neighbourhood. In February 2010, the Jerusalem Municipality Council approved a project to build 16 housing units for Israeli illegal settlers in Sheikh Jarrah.
The Palestinian plight
Nabil Al-Kurd’s personal experience with the Israeli occupation is a prime example of the Palestinian plight at the hands of settlers. This 70-year-old Palestinian faces the threat of expulsion from Sheikh Jarrah. He built a house in 2001 next to the house he already owned; the Israeli authorities confiscated the keys and prevented him from moving into his new home.
In 2009, armed settlers arrived and occupied the house, so he set up a tent on the doorstep where he received visits from Palestinian, European and Jewish activists who came to express their solidarity. His family was, however, harassed by settlers, who sprayed them with yoghurt, and threw rotten fruit and vegetables, as well as household waste at them. Five years later, the settlers set fire to the tent, and the harassment of the family continued even after they ended their doorstep protest.
“The settlers would strip naked and stand at the windows overlooking our house,” explained Al-Kurd. “I had to hang a piece of cloth so that my wife and daughters did not have to see them.” He pointed out that the settlers do not have any proof of ownership of this land, but merely seek to expel the Palestinians from it in line with Israel’s Judaisation policy in occupied East Jerusalem.
Al-Kurd added that Sheikh Jarrah’s residents do not have any means to defend themselves except to resort to the judiciary. “However, the Israeli justice system has shown its bias repeatedly in favour of the settlers.”
His relative Fawzia Al-Kurd, known as Umm Kamil, was forcibly expelled from Karam Al-Jaouni in 2008, since when she visits the neighbourhood three times a week and walks in front of her house, which is currently inhabited by settlers. This is her way of showing her steadfast refusal to abandon her property.
“I lived in this house for forty years,” said Umm Kamil. “The last five years have been the most painful, as the Israelis took half of my house by force and then threw me and my sick husband out onto the street. Despite this, I did not give up and I lived in a tent next to my house for a whole year.”
In January this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Michael Lynk, said that the eviction orders issued by Israeli courts, if executed, would constitute a violation by the occupation authority “of the ban on forced displacement of the population protected by Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
In this context, the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS) said that the international community has a responsibility under the Convention to ensure that Israel complies with its obligations under international law, including in East Jerusalem. Israeli NGO Peace Now has affirmed that the courts issuing these eviction orders are “nothing more than the tool used by the settlers, with the close support of the state authorities, to commit the crime of displacing an entire community and replacing it with a settlement.” All of Israel’s settlements, and the settlers themselves, are illegal under international law.
“The Israeli government and settlers have no problem with expelling thousands of Palestinians under the Law of Return [applicable to Jews only],” said Peace Now, “but thousands of Israelis who live on land owned by the Palestinians before 1948 cannot be expelled. No eviction wave of this kind has taken place in Jerusalem since the Mughrabi neighbourhood residents were expelled to expand the Western Wall square in 1967.”
According to reports published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), demands by settler organisations for the forced eviction of Palestinians have increased recently. There are currently around 877 residents, including 391 children, at risk of displacement as a result of these forced eviction demands in East Jerusalem, in addition to hundreds of families living in the Old City and the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, who are also at risk of being made homeless.
The UN indicated that what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah “is illegal under international law”, but Israel has not faced any effective international pressure so far. It refuses to comply with UN resolutions.
The Jewish settler organisation Nahalat Shimon has obtained court rulings regarding the ownership of land, claiming that Jews bought it 130 years ago. The owners deny this and insist that the documentary “evidence” is forged.
After the occupation-run Jerusalem Municipality demolished the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah in 2008 in order to build a Jewish settlement, the ancient Jerusalemite neighbourhood faced a serious Israeli plan to confiscate more land, including one prepared to be a car park for an alleged Jewish shrine. At the time, the plans provided by the occupation municipality and the National Centre for the Development of Holy Places to the local planning and construction committee stated that the intention was to confiscate around 5,000 square metres of land, specifically in Sheikh Jarrah.
Israel used the Public Interest Law for the pretext of building a car park for Jews visiting the shrine of “Saint Simon”. The director of the National Centre for the Development of Holy Places, Nuri Hanania, who is a settler himself, told Maariv that the land intended for the car park is “Jewish” and belongs to him. The actual owner of the land, Kamal Obeidat, and the Popular Committee for the Protection of Sheikh Jarrah denied this categorically.
Obeidat, 40, explained that municipality employees stuck official eviction orders on his truck parked on the property urging him to vacate the area. It had, claimed the occupation authorities, became a “public place”.
A member of the Popular Committee for the Protection of Sheikh Jarrah, Amal Al-Qasim, explained to Al-Quds Al-Arabi that the “shrine of Saint Simon” is actually a Muslim shrine known by the name of the pious man who has been buried in it for 400 years, Saad Al-Din Hijazi. The committee, he pointed out, has an Ottoman-era map confirming this.
Al-Qasim noted that the alleged Jewish shrine is a cave carved into a rock in the heart of the Arab quarter, which is inhabited by about 6,000 Palestinians and contains only two Jewish houses. It was only in 1978 that fundamentalist Jews started to visit and practice religious rites at the site, which then became an official shrine that religious Jews visited daily.
Actions, not words
Amal Al-Qasim is the owner of one of the houses threatened with demolition. He said that the owners of these homes are displaced victims of the Nakba, who sought refuge in Sheikh Jarrah from Jaffa, Haifa, Acre and West Jerusalem. They lived in the neighbourhood after the 1956 agreement between UNRWA and the Jordanian government.
The Palestinian activist told Al-Quds Al-Arabi that these families gave up their refugee status with the UN agency in exchange for the ownership of the houses built in Sheikh Jarrah. They acquired the homes after paying nominal rent for three years.
Sheikh Jarrah is named after the doctor of Salah ad Din Al-Ayyoubi who defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century. Al-Jarrah is buried in a shrine inside a local mosque, and the eponymous neighbourhood has become the focus of local and international leftist protest movements campaigning against the takeover by illegal settlers.
In a November 2010 editorial, Haaretz condemned the government in Israel and held it responsible for evicting Palestinians from their houses in Sheikh Jarrah because it is “abetting the settlers and backing a policy of inequality” in the area. “As with other locales in East Jerusalem, Jewish settlement in Sheikh Jarrah has a cast of violent provocation,” it pointed out.
No sane person can be convinced of the absolute right of Jews to return to any house in East Jerusalem, while the law in Israel not only denies Palestinians’ the right to return to their homes in the west of the city (or anywhere else in what is now Israel), but also expels them from the residences in which they have lived for 60 years.