Sheikh Jarrah: A Case of Systemic Injustice

Reported by Ziva Galili

On a sunny afternoon, Dina Goldstein (30) and I hail a cab in downtown Jerusalem on our way to the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Northeast Jerusalem.

Sheikh Jarrah is a sprawling neighborhood located just east of the 1948 Israeli-Jordanian border that used to run through Jerusalem. Today, a major highway along the old border line separates Sheikh Jarrah from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods to the west. Sheikh Jarrah is home to many diplomatic missions, including the US consulate, a couple of hotels, and a large Palestinian population.

Over the past year, Sheikh Jarrah has become the target of two major efforts by settlers' associations to acquire properties and establish Jewish enclaves, both funded by the American gambling magnate, Irving Moskowitz. One group purchased the Shepherd Hotel on the northern end of the neighborhood and plans to build 20 residential units on the site for Jewish families. Meanwhile, massive funding from Moskowitz has allowed another group to mount numerous court cases against the owners of 28 homes in a small valley adjoining the site some Jews believe is the tomb of Shim'on the Righteous [Shim'on ha-Tzadik].

Dina and I are going to meet Maher Hannoun, whose family was evicted last August from one of the 28 contested homes. Dina, the daughter of my close friends Anat and Gary, knows Maher's family intimately. For many months before their eviction, she used to come to their home several evenings a week, equipped with a sleeping bag, so as to spend the night with them in the hope of protecting them from eviction, or at least from possible violence.

We tell the cab driver to take us to Sheikh Jarrah. A minute later, Dina asks the driver, who is recognizably Palestinian, "Do you know the Hannoun family?" "Of course," he knows. In fact, he is from Sheikh Jarrah and his own family is now threatened with eviction. He tells us the particulars of their case and says it's good that people like us care. But as we near the neighborhood, the driver adds, "We are desperate, this is going to bring on a new intifada and, again, no one will win. We will all lose, Israelis and Palestinians."

As we walk toward the olive tree under which Maher spends his days, where he has sat now for five months facing his old home, we meet Yacoub Abu-Arafeh. Dina and Yacoub exchange hugs, she tells him of our purpose here, and he insists that we hold our meeting at his home. It's warmer outside than indoors, so he brings chairs and a little table to the tiny garden, and in a few minutes Maher appears with two other men. Dina knows them all. More hugs and hand shakes, Yacoub brings us strong Arab coffee, and we settle into our conversation (conducted mostly in English).

How are things, we ask. Maher tells us that his two companions and six other families have just received eviction orders and are preparing for the next stage: challenging the evictions in court. Muhammad Sabagh has a court date for January 18. Abed Skafi does not have a date as yet. These eight new families join three families already evicted from all or part of their homes: on the same August day in 2009, when Maher lost his home (and with him 17 members of his extended family), the Ghawi family was also evicted (37 Members). The Al-Kurd home was invaded by settlers in November. The invaders dumped the family's belonging in the rain, but since then the court has ordered them out and is holding the keys to the empty part of the home until all legal questions are resolved. The Ghawi and Hannoun families spent months on the street, living and sleeping right in front of their homes, until the Jerusalem cold forced them to rent apartments elsewhere. The men still spend their days in Sheikh Jarrah, and the children shuttle by bus between their schools in Sheikh Jarrah and the apartments that must now pass for a home.

"I wake up in the morning in the Shu'afat apartment and it does not feel like home," says Maher. "The neighbors are nice to us, but I don't know them, they are not the people with whom I grew up. And I don't see around me the familiar landscape that I knew all my life."

All four men were either born in their homes in Sheikh Jarrah or moved there as young children. Their families were refugees from areas that became Israel in 1948. Maher's family moved before 1948 from Haifa to what is today West Jerusalem; Yacoub's family was from the Abu-Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem; Abed's from Baq'a (today one of the most desirable neighborhoods of West Jerusalem), Muhammad's - from Jaffa. He shows us a picture of the 3-story home his family owned in the Ajami section of Jaffa.

In 1956, the 28 families in question were given the option of moving into small houses in Sheikh Jarrah in return for giving up their refugee status. It was a joint initiative of the Jordanian government (which provided land) and the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which built the houses. Although they never received title to the land or homes, the 28 families were told that the homes were theirs to keep. Indeed, in 1964, most of the families were given permits to extend their homes and to rent out--to them, clear signs of full ownership rights.

Then came the 1967 war and Israeli occupation. Jews began to frequent the tomb at the bottom of the valley. In 1972, an association active in Jerusalem before 1948 -- the Sepharadi Community Committee -- went to court claiming ownership of the land on which the 28 homes were built. The court ruled that the land had indeed been owned by the Sepharadi Community before the 1948 war and should be restored to them. Still, in later rulings Israeli courts recognized the residents' rights as "protected tenants," a status that should shield them from eviction as long as they pay rent to the owners.

The current evictions are in part the result of the renewed push by settlers' associations to establish Jewish strongholds in Palestinian Jerusalem, especially the neighborhoods encircling the Old City. They have exploited the residents' failure to pay in full the rent as set by the courts to mount legal challenges against them. Maher tells us that he and other heads of families have had to appear in court again and again; their lawyers have no time to prepare their cases, and the men are so consumed by the struggle to keep their homes that they cannot maintain their jobs.

But the plight of the 28 families from Sheikh Jarrah points to a deeper, systemic injustice. Whereas Jews are allowed to lay claim to properties they had owned before 1948 in all territories currently under Israeli rule, Palestinians are denied such right. All 28 families are refugees from areas that became Israel in 1948, yet none can claim back the properties they had left behind. Muhammad cannot claim the 3-story house his family used to own in Jaffa, and Maher, Yacoub and Abed cannot claim back properties held by their families in West Jerusalem. The absence of legal equality is striking, especially so for the men whose old properties lie within Jerusalem -- the city in which they now hold legal residency, symbolized by their "blue" Israeli identification cards.

On the question of justice, Maher, Yacoub, Muhammad and Abed all express their belief that, in the end, they will be restored to their homes, but their hope seems to be born of despair. "It is against human law to evict families from the homes where they have lived for 55 years," Maher says. "All the more so if these people are refugees!" Yacoub offers a darker view: "We may lose now, but who can tell what the future will bring? There are so many of us Palestinians, and the whole Arab world around us. And could we ever feel good toward the awful people who took our homes away and are tormenting us every day? The Palestinians will never forget what was done to them. Israel is short sighted!"

It's almost evening and we start to say goodbye. Maher, who has been sitting for months looking at the settlers coming and going from his home, adds in a resigned tone: "The lemon tree in my garden is dying. It has more heart than the settlers."