One of the front lines of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict runs through the house of the Hamdallah family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud.

Coils of barbed wire separate the front entrance from a courtyard, a bathroom and a room that are being renovated for Israeli settlers after a court ruling earlier this month awarded them part of the house following a years-long legal battle.

The Hamdallahs live next to Ma’aleh Hazeitim, an imposing housing complex for Jews that was built inside Ras al-Amud with funding from Irving Moskowitz, a Miami businessman who backs Jewish settlement in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods to help cement Israel’s hold on the entire city.

Settlement activists have set their sights on the Hamdallah home, a lone house sandwiched between Ma'aleh Hazeitim and a Catholic-run pilgrim hostel. They went to court to oust the Hamdallahs, arguing that their house is built on land Moskowitz bought from Hasidic Jewish groups that owned the property before 1948.

Shlomo Lecker, an Israeli attorney who has represented the Hamdallahs, has succeeded in sparing the family an eviction, but he was not able to salvage the courtyard and room, which the court ruled belong to Moskowitz and had to be vacated.

One afternoon this week, a woman and her daughter from the Hamdallah family returned home from shopping to the sound of a sledgehammer pounding a wall shared by the family and the settlers. A Palestinian laborer and several Jewish workmen were gutting the bathroom on their side in preparation for renovation. Wearing large knitted skullcaps, the Jews declined to talk when asked about their work.

“May they die in an earthquake,” said the 50-year-old woman, who refused to give her name. “They want us to leave, but we’re staying in our house.” From the trash-strewn street outside, a majestic view opened up of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque, above the walls of the Old City.

Lecker says the Hamdallah case, in which Jews have moved into property on the basis of ownership claims dating to the pre-state era, highlights the disparity between Israelis and Palestinians when it comes to reclaiming such properties in Jerusalem.

While Jewish settler groups have succeeded in obtaining court backing for pre-1948 ownership claims on houses in East Jerusalem, in some cases ousting Arab residents, Palestinians have no such access to their former properties in the western part of the city.

Whole neighborhoods of what were formerly Arab houses, such as Talbieh, Bak'a and Katamon – now populated by Israelis – are protected under Israeli law from claims by the previous Palestinian property owners. Their holdings, an estimated 10,000 homes, were taken over by the Custodian for Absentee Property and later sold to Israelis.

Pressing Jewish claims to East Jerusalem homes like the Hamdallah house “is very dangerous, because it opens the 1948 file, which ultimately can work very much to our disadvantage,” Lecker said, referring to vastly larger areas of Arab property in West Jerusalem that were lost to Israel when the state was established. 

“Today we’re the strong party,” Lecker added, suggesting that the current balance of power in Jerusalem could one day conceivably shift under altered political or demographic conditions. In such circumstances, claims to restore pre-1948 properties to their original owners could become a double-edged sword.