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With Jerusalem on edge, Palestinians face eviction

Tania Krämer Jerusalem
May 8, 2021

Four Palestinian families are facing eviction by Jewish settler organizations in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. The impending expulsion has sparked protests and renewed clashes in Israel.

Jerusalem | Sheik Jarrah | Al Kurd
Image: Tania Kraemer/DW

The usually quiet residential neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem is in turmoil. For the past two weeks, young Palestinians have been holding nightly protests against the imminent eviction of several Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood, to make way for Jewish settlers.

Tensions have been building in the city. On Friday, 205 Palestinians and 18 police officers were wounded as clashes erupted after prayer at Jerusalem's holy Al-Aqsa mosque compound and elsewhere in east Jerusalem.

"Sheikh Jarrah has seen a systematic push by the Israeli government to take over our homes, and there is clear collusion between the settler organizations and the Israeli judicial system to throw us out of our homes," said Mohammed el Kurd, a young writer whose family is one of the four that has been threatened with eviction.

El Kurd gathered with his family and other protesters on Friday at sunset at a long table in front of the family home to break their Ramadan fast. Across the street from their vigil, Jewish settlers stood in defiance in front of a house they had already taken over in this Palestinian neighborhood a decade ago.

Over the course of the evening, demonstrators and settlers threw plastic chairs, cans and stones at each other, as the stench of skunk water sprayed by the police in previous days lingered in the air. As with other evenings, armed Israeli special police later moved in to harshly disperse the crowds and to arrest some of the Palestinian protesters.

A group of Palestinians sits along a long table breaking their fast outside during Ramadan
Palestinians and Jewish settlers confronted each throughout the evening iftar mealImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Friday evening's visit by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of a far-right party in the Knesset, didn't help. He came along with other right-wing nationalists to show support to the settlers and to call for protection from their Arab neighbors and protesters.

"I am not afraid," said Murad Atia, a 25-year-old Arabic teacher who lives next door. "This is our house. If we are afraid, they will just take our houses, so we can just go and leave."

Long-running legal, political battle

The violent skirmishes in recent weeks have added to long-standing legal battles between the residents of Sheikh Jarrah and Israeli settler organizations since evictions started in 2008. Over the last decade, both Palestinian and Jewish activists have demonstrated against expanding takeovers by settlers in the neighborhood. But this time, many more people have joined the protests.

According to human rights organizations, the four families are among eight in the area who are currently under a threat of immediate eviction claims filed by settler organizations. The other four families could be evicted by August, with more households in various stages of the legal process. In addition, several families in the neighborhood of Silwan, to the south of the Old City, are also facing expulsion.

A large group of people holding a banner walked down the street
Israeli and Palestinian activists have held weekly protests against the expansion of Jewish settlements for yearsImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

A narrow pathway leading to the house of Abdelfattah Iskafi passes along a small settlement enclave secured by armed guards. Iskafi's family is among the households facing eviction in the coming days. Sitting in the shade in the paved courtyard of his one-story house, the family father is wary of what is to come after having exhausted almost all of his legal options.

"The kids are in constant worry," he told DW. "Where will I go, me and the other three families? The houses here in the area are around 3,000 or 5,000 US dollars [to rent in Sheikh Jarrah — Editor's note], only international people can do that. We are modest people, we are not rich, we are refugees; we only own our houses."

Neighborhoods under pressure from 'ideological settler groups'

The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood stretches over a small hill in the north of east Jerusalem, a 10-minute walk from the Old City. Several diplomatic missions and offices of international organizations are located in the upper quarters of the residential area. The neighborhood also hosts the site of the tomb of Simeon the Just, a Jewish high priest revered by ultra-Orthodox Jews who typically come to the area to pray. According to the Israeli anti-occupation group Ir Amim, Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are now under "[the] greatest pressure from ideological settler groups."

The eviction battle lies at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Like many other Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, Skafi said his family had to abandon their home in mostly Jewish west Jerusalem and flee to the eastern part of the city during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In the aftermath of the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, the wider family was scattered between Gaza and neighboring Jordan. East Jerusalem and the West Bank were then administered by Jordan, which gradually resettled Palestinian refugees in new housing projects in Sheikh Jarrah under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). In exchange, resettled families renounced their status as refugees. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel occupied and later annexed east Jerusalem.

'The land belongs to Jews'

The most recent eviction demands were filed by Nahalat Shimon, a right-wing nationalist settler organization registered in the United States. The group allegedly bought the land from two Jewish associations which assert having purchased the land at the end of the 19th century. For Jerusalem's deputy mayor and settler activist Aryeh King, the Palestinian families are simply "squatters."

"The land belongs to Jews for almost a hundred years. Jews lived there, and Jews own the land since then," said King. Dismissing the simmering tensions, he hopes that the court will soon decide to evict the families. "It's a local conflict, it's not affecting all of Israel or Jerusalem, it's a few Arab families that decided to break the law," he added.

What toughens the legal battle is the fact that Israeli law prevents Palestinians from claiming assets or compensation for assets lost in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. However, it does allow Israelis to claim property that was lost during the war, even without the provision of having actual ties to the original owners.

"The legal basis of all these evictions are discriminatory laws," said Hagit Ofran from Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog. "It is not a purely legal matter. It is a political matter which is carried out through legal means."

Ofran has followed the eviction cases closely. "The court is the tool to displace hundreds of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and in Silwan in favor of settlers, in order to take out a community and to replace it with settlers," she said.

A controversial agreement put forward by the Israeli Supreme Court, which would have seen the Palestinian residents recognize Jewish ownership of the land in return for being granted the status of protected tenant, was rejected by the families last week. A ruling on the evictions is expected on Monday.

Meanwhile, the settler plans have been sharply criticized by the United Nations, the European Union and other countries.

On Saturday, EU external affairs spokesperson Peter Stano called the impending evictions an area of "serious concern."

"Such actions are illegal under international humanitarian law and only serve to fuel tensions on the ground," said Stano.