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After a decade, evictions set to return in Sheikh Jarrah

Residents of Sheikh Jarrah are bracing for a new wave of evictions, ten years after Israeli settlers attempted to take over Palestinian homes in the embattled East Jerusalem neighborhood.

Israeli Border Police officers look on during a protest against the eviction of Palestinians from their homes by Israeli settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, December 25, 2009. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli Border Police officers look on during a protest against the eviction of Palestinians from their homes by Israeli settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, December 25, 2009. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The Sabag and Hamad families are refugees from Jaffa and Haifa, respectively. Expelled from their homes during the 1948 war, they have been living in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, an area that was at least partially owned by Jews before the war, since 1956. They were resettled there by the Jordanian authorities and UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees.

Although their original homes in Haifa and Jaffa are still standing, members of the Sabag and Hamad families cannot reclaim ownership over them. Soon after becoming a state, Israel enacted the Absentee Property Law, which transferred Palestinian refugees’ property into the hands of the state. It does not apply to Jewish families that fled their homes in 1948. They can reclaim their properties, like those in Sheikh Jarrah.

For over a decade, Jewish settler groups have been exploiting that lopsided legal situation to try and kick Palestinian families out of their homes in East Jerusalem.

“This is a political issue, it’s not an issue of justice,” says Saleh Diab, one of the neighborhood’s most prominent activists. “Everything we managed to stop 10 years ago will now resume.”

In 2009, after three families were evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinian and Israeli activists started a protest movement that eventually mobilized thousands to demonstrate in the neighborhood every week against both evictions. The struggle led to pressure in the media and the international community and the evictions came to a halt. Since then, Israeli authorities have evicted only one family in Sheikh Jarrah.

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Now, with the backing of Trump, Diab fears Israel’s right-wing government and settler groups will have the green light to resume their attempts to take over more homes. Two weeks ago the Supreme Court rejected the Sabah and Hamad families’ appeals against their evictions. Residents of Sheikh Jarrah fear that could lead to a new wave of evictions affecting as many as 11 families and 500 people.

“We were shocked,” says 74-year-old Muhammad Sabag. “We waited for a decision for a long time, but we were not ready for such a blow.” Sabag’s building currently houses 40 people under threat of eviction.

Palestinians and Israelis block a road during a protest against the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 14, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinians and Israelis block a road during a protest against the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 14, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Sabag, whose family has lived in the building for nearly 65 years, says he doesn’t understand how authorities can just throw them out of their homes. “There is no law that allows them to just kick someone out of his house after 65 years, even if he is not the landlord,” he says, as we sit in the family home of Saleh Diab. Alongside him are Aaref Hamad, Nabil al-Kurd and Abed al-Saqafi, three representatives of other families who are in the middle of a legal struggle to fight their own evictions. All of them took part in the protests against the last wave of evictions nearly 10 years ago.

‘Everyone is afraid’

To understand the conflict in Sheikh Jarrah, you need to go back over a century. At the end of the 19th century, the Sephardic Community Council and the Ashkenazi Community Council purchased the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik, a historical figure from the era of the Second Temple. The councils also bought land surrounding the tomb. There, they built a small Jewish neighborhood, which was abandoned by its Jewish residents when Jordan conquered the area in 1948.

A few years later, between 1953 and 1956, Palestinians who fled from areas under Israeli control were resettled there by Jordanian authorities and the UN. When Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, the area around the tomb was handed over to Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property, which, in 1972, returned ownership of the land and homes there to the two Jewish organizations that bought it almost 100 years prior.

Palestinian residents confront Jewish settlers who have seized Palestinian homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, September 2, 2011. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Palestinian residents confront Jewish settlers who have seized Palestinian homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, September 2, 2011. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

The Palestinian families who had been living there since the 1950s were allowed to stay.

In 2003, a U.S.-based company named Nahalat Shimon purchased the land from the two Jewish community councils. It is unclear who owns Nahalat Shimon. What is clear is that it is trying to put Israeli settlers in homes currently occupied by Palestinians. In 2008, the organization filed a lawsuit seeking the eviction of the Sabag and Hamad families. Four years later, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that the families would have to leave their homes. The families appealed the decision, but to no avail.

The eviction proceedings began only in 2008 and 2009 — 35 years after Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property handed over the land to the Jewish councils. “Ottoman archives show that the land claimed by the Jewish committees is not the same as the area on which the homes of the residents stand,” says attorney Sami Arsheed, who represents the residents. “However, because of the statute of limitations, it is impossible to use this as evidence in court. It is very cruel to the residents.”

Leaders of the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah meet to discuss the possibility of evictions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood. Left to right: Saleh Diab, Nabil al-Kurd, Abed al-Saqafi, Muhammad Sabag, Araf Hamad. (Oren Ziv)

Leaders of the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah meet to discuss the possibility of evictions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood. Left to right: Saleh Diab, Nabil al-Kurd, Abed al-Saqafi, Muhammad Sabag, Aaref Hamad. (Oren Ziv)

The homes in which the Palestinians live do not belong to the Jewish councils, since they were built in the days of Jordanian rule. Nahalat Shimon claims ownership over the land itself. Yet in the previous evictions, the buildings themselves were also handed over to the settlers. The Palestinian families were not compensated.

Since the ruling, the families have been living under immense pressure. “We do not know when the eviction will take place,” Sabag says, “but everyone is afraid.”

Diab says he is worried about the effect it will have on his children: “It has an impact. They were small the last time around, but now they understand everything.”

‘A second Nakba’

My conversation with the five men whose families are facing eviction jumps back and forth between 1948 and the present day. “If [the former Jewish owners] can demand their homes here, why can’t we demand our homes from before 1948 [in Israel]?” asks Diab. “Everyone here has documents to show that the homes belong to our family. Why can a Jew return his property in Jerusalem and we cannot return to ours?”

“My father had a restaurant on the water in Haifa,” says Nabil al-Kurd. “In 1948, they imprisoned him for nine months. Then we came to Jerusalem and lived in the Old City and Wadi Joz. In 1956 we arrived here with 27 other families,” al-Kurd recalls. “They are trying to perpetrate a second Nakba against us. We settled here with permission, we have good neighbors, there is no reason to kick us out of Jerusalem.”

Many of the families evicted in 2009 were dispersed. Due to the high cost of living and the difficulty of finding apartments for rent in Jerusalem, some of them live in Palestinian neighborhoods beyond the separation wall.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter attends a demonstration against evictions and settlements in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, October 22, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter attends a demonstration against evictions and settlements in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, October 22, 2010. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

“Ever since Trump said last year that Jerusalem belongs to the Jews, we have been feeling the change,” Diab adds. “The settlers are working quickly to evict us before the American administration changes.” Almost a decade ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the evictions “unfortunate and provocative.” Residents believe pressure by the Obama administration eventually led Israel to freeze the evictions.

“How will we go back to the days of protests?” Diab wonders. “The police today are like the police in [apartheid] South Africa. Israelis who stood alongside us were fired from their jobs because of their views.”

And yet, the residents of Sheikh Jarrah are hoping for a new protest movement. They hope the weekly demonstrations — which significantly dwindled over the years — will grow, and the international community will once again take notice. “Like in Khan al-Ahmar, they are trying to expel an entire community and turn us into refugees for a second time,” says Diab.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      Companion piece from last month in the Middle East Eye, with maps included:

      https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/how-israel-cleansing-palestinians-greater-jewish-jerusalem-800323791

      How Israel is ‘cleansing’ Palestinians from Greater Jerusalem…Meanwhile, a web of harsh Israeli policies, including late-night arrests, land shortages, home demolitions and a denial of basic services, are intensifying the pressure on Palestinians inside the wall to move out…These measures are designed to pre-empt any future peace efforts, and effectively nullify Palestinian ambitions for a state with East Jerusalem as its capital, said Aviv Tatarsky, a field researcher with Ir Amim, an Israeli group advocating fair treatment for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Look at the faces of those border police officers. They look to me like they know they are being asked to defend something that they know is not right. That they are being asked to enforce a form of apartheid.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        i cannot help recognizing the settler covering his face with the flag, he looks so like the whole rainbow of organizations and individuals who anonymously do the good and noble work of ‘fighting antisemitism’.

        Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordine

      Between 700,000 and one million Jews were expelled from Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Nobody protested. They lived for decades in those countries. Why does your site not mention it

      Reply to Comment
      • Tom

        @Itshak Gordine : Yes sure, arab jews are also collateral victims of the conflict folowing the creation of the state of Israel and should be compensated too.
        But the palestinian refugees are not responsibile of what happened to the jewish arabs later, so why using the arab jews issue to deny the palestinians refugee rights ?

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          Israel has welcomed and integrated hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab countries (I am one of them). The Arab countries must take care of the Arab refugees. We Jews in Arab countries have not received help from organizations like UNWRA

          Reply to Comment
          • Tom

            @Itshak : This article is talking about palestinian refugees living in the annexed Jerusalem, not refugee in an arab state.

            All refugees in west bank and gaza are living under Israeli occupation, without any souvereign arab state to take care of them. So, Israel, as the occupying power should integrate them, but they don’t.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Most of these Arabs live under the Ramallah authority

            Reply to Comment
          • Tom

            @ The Ramallah authority is still under Israeli occupation, and they collaborate with. They don’t have capital, money, borders, geographic continuity, acces to their land, control of their ressources (water), for now, it’s only bantoustan, nothing more. It’s not a souvereign state at all.

            Reply to Comment
          • Tom

            @Itshak : And for the palestinian refugee living in souvereign arab state (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria an Egypt mainly), yes, agree, they should be integrated in their hosting nation, BUT it doesn’t mean than they should be denied from their right to return in their lands.

            It’s two different refugee rights : integration in your hosting nation AND return in safe condition if they want.

            For the arab jewish refugees, I’m not sure they really want to return in their lands, but if they want, of course we should support them (instead of using them to fight against palestinian refugee rights !!!! )

            Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Itshak:
        Yes, 972 mag does mention that 800,000 Mizrachi Jews were ethnically cleansed from the Arab World.
        Why?
        ‘cos it disproves their Jews BAAD, Arabs GOOD theme and calls into question their entire rotten narrative.

        Reply to Comment
      • Baladi Akka 1948

        Hasbara 101 …
        And we know the BS about one million Jews being expelled etc. and we also know this is a lie. No Jews were expelled from Morocco or Tunisia, by the way they still have their citizenship and can go back if they want to. The Algerian Jews were French citizens since the Crémieux Decret and left with their new compatriots in 1962 though according to Benjamin Stora, about 20.000 stayed in Algeria after independence).
        Concerning the Egyptian Jews, many were not Egyptian citizens but had settled there during the British rule, I guess it’s the case of your family ….

        Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      @Itshak Gordine Halevy and Lewis from Afula:

      You are stuck in a poisonous miasma of untruths and half-truths. The antidote is knowledge and enlightenment. Please read this and disabuse yourselves of the simplistic and extremist propaganda narratives inside of which you are imprisoned:

      Another side to the Jewish story
      Rachel Shabi
      https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/jun/27/religion.israelandthepalestinians

      “Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) thinks that Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinian refugees should somehow be offset against each other – the rights of one side counterbalancing the rights of the other. It’s a neat argument: Jews were forced to abandon material assets and leave Arab countries; Palestinians similarly fled or were expelled from their homes. Ergo, the region witnessed an exchange of populations and if Palestinian refugees are to be compensated by Israel, so too must the Jewish “refugees” from the Middle East, by the Arab nations that expelled them. Nice try, but there are many reasons why this formula is all wrong…..”

      Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Ben and Biladi seem to live in a parallel universe where 1 Million Mizrachi Jews were NOT expelled from the Arab World and their assets were NOT confiscated. The pogroms, farhuds, mass rapes, beatings and hangings did not occur.

          As Spock used to say:
          “Its life, Jim……But not as we know it”

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Coming from a guy who likes to quote Russian disinformatsiya as fact I can’t begin to take this seriously. Please address with any honesty and intelligence one single thing Rachel Shabi writes.

            Reply to Comment