Text size

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Washington in an effort to restore damaged ties with the United States, new tensions in East Jerusalem are threatening to rekindle a diplomatic row over Jewish construction there.

Yesterday, lawyers served eviction orders to two Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, a focus of clashes between Arab residents and settlers. The families were ordered to leave within 45 days.

Netanyahu will meet U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday in what observers predict will be cordial circumstances - in marked contrast with the prime minister's last visit in March.

Yesterday's eviction orders did not come directly from the government, but may cause Netanyahu discomfort as he seeks to assure Obama of his commitment to recently restarted peace talks with the Palestinians.

On Friday, recipients of the eviction notices approached left-wing activists demonstrating in Sheikh Jarrah to ask for help in fighting the orders. "I was born in that house," said Karim Siyam, 37, who shares one of the disputed properties, a tiny two-bedroom home, with his mother, wife and two children. "Since we received the letter we've been terrified. We're scared that any day they'll come and throw us out."

The second house to receive a notice is home to the Kanabi family - parents, four children and their grandmother.

"The danger is that whether intentionally or in error, the government is aiding the transfer of assets to extremist settlers who want to create provocations in Jerusalem and frustrate any possibility of a two-state solution," Hagit Ofran of Peace Now told Haaretz.

The lawyer who served the order, Anat Paz, informed the families they would be charged a fine of NIS 350 for each day they remain in their homes beyond the deadline. Each family was also ordered to pay NIS 12,000 per year for each of the last seven years. The notices did not reveal names of the claimants to the properties.

Over the past few months, the eastern part Sheikh Jarrah has been the center of a high-profile battle between settlers and three Palestinian families over 28 disputed houses. But yesterday's notices were for houses in the western half of the neighborhood, marking a broadening of the battleground.

Some eight months ago, Bayit Echad (One Home ), an organization run by settlers, took over a single house in western Sheikh Jarrah, were it has since carried out improvement work. The latest notices were for adjoining properties either side of that house.