For nearly 15 years, Palestinian residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah have been fighting attempts by right-wing Jewish settler organizations to take over their homes. For most of this time, their struggle has been out of the limelight.
But in recent months, with the Israeli Supreme Court due to announce a final ruling on the long-running battle, the plight of a handful of local families has captured international attention, becoming a rallying cry for advocates of the Palestinian cause worldwide.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on Monday notified the Supreme Court that he would not intervene in the case, strengthening speculation that it would uphold decisions made by the lower courts to evict the families. The Supreme Court has not yet announced a date for the opening hearing in the case, but it is expected to take place within weeks, if not days.
The protests over Sheikh Jarrah were also seen as one of the triggers for the recent flare-up between Israel and Hamas, which ended in a cease-fire after 11 days’ fighting last month.
Before Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, a small Jewish neighborhood existed in Sheikh Jarrah on a plot of land purchased by two Jewish trusts near the tomb of Shimon the Righteous, a Jewish high priest from the Second Temple period. When the Jordanians took control of the eastern part of Jerusalem, the Jewish residents fled, leaving their property behind. A group of Palestinian families, who had fled their homes during the same war, were resettled in the neighborhood by the Jordanian government in 1956.
Under an agreement reached between the Jordanian government and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, 28 Palestinian families would be housed in the neighborhood. In exchange for relinquishing their refugee status, they would be allowed to live in the homes as protected tenants for a period of three years, after which they would receive ownership of the properties, subject to a list of conditions.
Despite this agreement, the Palestinian families never received the titles for ownership. They continue to insist, however, that these plots belong to them.
Ownership of the plots was handed back to the Jewish trusts after Israel captured East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War in 1967. Fifteen years later, an agreement was reached that allowed the Palestinian residents to remain in the homes and provided them with protected tenant status.
The Palestinians, for their part, have claimed they were tricked into signing that agreement. They also insist that documents attesting to the original Jewish ownership of the plots were forged.
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The land was eventually sold to a company by the name of Nahalat Shimon, which is dedicated to moving more and more Jewish families into East Jerusalem. It has sought to evict the Palestinian families for refusing to pay rent, in accordance with the agreement reached in 1982 and for building on the plots without permission.
But by far the greatest injustice, the Palestinians say, is that Jews who fled their homes in 1948 are allowed to claim back real estate they owned, whereas Palestinians are not.
Altogether, some 300 Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah – all members of these 28 families – could face eviction if the Supreme Court ultimately rules against them. Who are these people, and how has this struggle affected them? Haaretz sat down recently with representatives of several of the families to hear their personal stories.
Mohammad Sabbagh doesn’t remember the home where he spent the first year of his life. After all, he was only a year old when his family fled Jaffa in 1948. But he always keeps a picture of it handy to show visitors. “You see, it’s now a synagogue,” he says, pointing to the large black-and-white photo on display in the tiny mildew-ridden room where he receives guests.
Sabbagh, 72, shares a compound with his four brothers on the hill in Sheikh Jarrah’s eastern section. He and his wife share an apartment in it with two of their seven grown children, as well as their spouses and children. Altogether, 32 members of Sabbagh’s extended family, including 10 children, live in this maze-like complex, built in bits and pieces over the years to accommodate the growing clan.
Before the Jordanian government brought his parents to Sheikh Jarrah, Sabbagh recounts, he and his family wandered around the region for nearly a decade. They initially spent a few years in the Egyptian town of El Qantara, and from there made their way to the Gaza Strip. Their next stop (by foot) was Hebron, and after short stint there, they moved on – by camel this time – to Jerusalem.
Their first, makeshift, home in Jerusalem was in the nearby neighborhood of Wadi Joz. “We converted a car garage into a living space,” Sabbagh says.
Over the years, he has held an assortment of odd jobs, which included working as a hospital receptionist, a driver and a plumber. Since 2008, he has been in and out of Israeli courts trying to resist attempts by settler groups to evict him and his brothers out of their homes. “I can’t begin to explain to you the kind of stress we’ve been living under,” he says. Asked where he will go if the Supreme Court upholds the eviction order, Sabbagh says: “We’ll set up camp in the streets, right in front of our homes.”
In early May, Saleh Diab had his leg broken during protests over the planned evictions. For a change, he says, he wasn’t even leading the protest that day. “We were sitting out here on the patio when I heard lots of noise,” he recounts. “I went out to see what was going on, and the soldiers began beating me. They also threw smoke bombs.” He points to his elderly, pajama-clad father seated in the corner of the patio. “My dad was here, too. He wasn’t able to breathe. He was choking.”
Diab, 51, was born in Sheikh Jarrah. His father, who moved to Jerusalem in 1956 as part of the Jordanian resettlement program, was from Jaffa. The original family home near the Mediterranean Sea, he says, no longer exists.
A father of five, Diab once ran his own bakery. About seven years ago, after it went bust, he found employment in the baked goods department of a large Jerusalem supermarket. He was fired from his job last month and believes his political activism was to blame.
“Some settlers went to my bosses and reported that I was a regular participant in the Sheikh Jarrah protests,” he charges. “They didn’t want any troublemakers working for them.”
His children are all school age: the oldest is 17 and the youngest 11. He says he experiences a pang of anxiety every morning when they set off for school, and every afternoon when they make their way home. “The idea that they might get a firebomb thrown at them keeps me up at night,” he says.
His mother died in March, and he refuses to believe it was from old age. “I’m convinced it was the constant emotional stress of our situation that killed her,” he says.
Still, Diab is optimistic that he and his fellow residents will eventually prevail. “I have no faith in the Israeli court system; I believe in what I’m doing, and what has become blatantly clear to me in the past few weeks is that the entire world is on our side,” he says.
In fact, he won’t even consider the possibility of leaving his home: “The only place I go from here is to the graveyard.”
On the entrance door to his home, Abdel Fattah Skafi has posted a sign in English: “We will never leave our land.” The message seems to be directed at the Jewish family that recently moved into the adjoining building. Their bathroom and his parlor share a wall. Skafi and his wife live with three of their six children and their grandchildren. Altogether, 14 of them share the small four-room space.
During the 1948 war, his family, which originally comes from the Baka neighborhood of West Jerusalem, dispersed to different parts of East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian control. His parents eventually moved to Sheikh Jarrah in 1956. Now retired, Skafi, 71, worked his entire life as a shoemaker. “It’s our family profession,” he says proudly.
In recent weeks, his grandchildren have been refusing to attend school. “They’re afraid that if they leave, they won’t have a home to come back to,” he explains. “They feel that they have to stay here to guard the place. It pains me because they were all outstanding students, and now they seem to be regressing because of everything going on.”
Despite the recent flare-up of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Skafi says he is feeling unusually upbeat these days. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “made some terrible miscalculations in recent weeks, especially when it comes to the Palestinians, and I believe he will pay for it,” he says. “More and more Israelis have also come to understand that he is a disaster for them, and that’s a good thing.”
Skafi says he is encouraged by the many Israeli Jews who have come out to support the families of Sheikh Jarrah. “It is thanks to people like them that the whole world is talking about us today,” he notes.
The world’s attention was refocused on Sheikh Jarrah on Sunday when police detained 24-year-old Muna El-Kurd, a prominent local activist whose family is among those threatened with eviction. El-Kurd, who has 1.2 million followers on Instagram, is regularly quoted in Arabic and international media reports about the protests. Neither she nor her family members were interviewed by Haaretz.
Police said she was suspected of “participation in disturbing the peace and in riots that have taken place recently in Sheikh Jarrah.” Footage posted on social media Sunday showed her being handcuffed and escorted out of her home by police.
Her father, Nabil El-Kurd, urged the public to come out and protest her arrest. In a video clip published on social media, he said “Israel is fighting my daughter because she tells the story of Sheikh Jarrah. She does not behave violently toward anyone. The goal is to keep her quiet and to quiet the voices of protest in the neighborhood.”
Her twin brother Mohammed, who is also active in the protest movement, turned himself into police on Sunday after receiving a summons. The El-Kurds were both later released.
The other Sheikh Jarrah families fighting eviction:
Jauni family – Two people, lost their case in the district court
Dajani family – Eleven people, lost their case in the district court
Dahudi family – Two people, lost their case in the district court
Hamad family – Eighteen people, including eight minors, lost their case in the district court.
Zayin family – Case ongoing
Husseini family – Case ongoing
Mani family – Case ongoing
Salyma family – Case ongoing
Fatyani family – Case ongoing