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Fresh Sheikh Jarrah eviction threatens to roil capital anew

Eleven Palestinians set to be removed by new owner, a Jerusalem city councilmember; police have asked to delay eviction until end of the month

Border Police troops stand guard during a demonstration in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, on December 17, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Border Police troops stand guard during a demonstration in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, on December 17, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Eight months after East Jerusalem eviction battles helped touch off a war between Israel and Hamas, another Palestinian family is set to be removed from their home in Sheikh Jarrah as of early next month.

Fatima Salem, 69, said that she has lived in the two-story home her entire life. Salem later raised her children and grandchildren in the compound, in which eleven family members now live.

“I was born here and we stayed here my whole life. Now, they’re coming to us and telling us that it’s theirs,” Salem said in an interview in late December.

Salem has been served an eviction notice by her home’s new owner, hard-right Jerusalem city councilmember Yonatan Yosef. Originally scheduled for the end of December, police have now asked for a flexible eviction order for between late January and early February.

Sheikh Jarrah, parts of which were historically known as Shimon HaTzadik or Nahalat Shimon, has become one of Jerusalem’s tensest neighborhoods. Palestinians live alongside a small cluster of right-wing Jewish nationalists who moved in following complex eviction cases.

Yosef’s grandfather, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — who would later become Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi — served as a cantor for the small Jewish community in Nahalat Shimon in the 1930s. The small community persisted until 1948, when, fearing for their lives, they fled advancing Arab forces during Israel’s War of Independence.

“This place rightfully belongs to Jews, and I’m acting according to the law,” said Yosef, who previously lived in a different house in the neighborhood and served as the Jewish community’s unofficial spokesperson.

Jerusalem City Councilmember Yonatan Yosef speaks with The Times of Israel on the sidelines of a protest in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem on December 30, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967. Soon after, a law was passed transferring properties abandoned by Israelis in 1948 to the government. The law further instructed the state to release them to their original Israeli owners whenever possible.

The Salem family came to Sheikh Jarrah after fleeing their hometown of Qaluniya, immediately west of Jerusalem, during the 1948 war. Israeli troops razed the village after its conquest — a policy employed in part for military reasons, but also to ensure its Palestinian inhabitants could not return, according to Israeli historian Benny Morris.

“Our whole childhood and life are in this home. My daughter asked me why we could be evicted. I couldn’t bring myself to explain to her,” said Ayoub Salem, Fatima’s son.

This past summer, the Sheikh Jarrah eviction battles were one of several incidents that set the stage for the May battle between Israel and Hamas. Hamas’ military chief Mohammad Deif had threatened violence should any Palestinians in the neighborhood be evicted.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry describes the struggle in English as a simple real-estate dispute. But both the Israelis and the Palestinians actually involved deem it part of a long-term battle to determine Jerusalem’s political future.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980. Palestinians hope to see the capital of their yet-unrealized state in Jerusalem, an aspiration opposed by the Israeli right.

“I’m proud to be a partner in ensuring that there will be no Palestinian capital here. There are enough Arab capitals, and they can make do with the rest of the Middle East,” said Yosef on the sidelines of a left-wing protest against the evictions.

The Salem family also sees the pending eviction as part of a national struggle.

“The settlers want to take over our neighborhood because we’re on the border between East and West Jerusalem — by hook or by crook. They want this whole area from here to Damascus Gate,” said Ayoub.

Ayoub Salem, a Palestinian threatened with eviction, at his Sheikh Jarrah home, on December 20, 2021. (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Each contested plot in East Jerusalem carries its own distinct history. A three-minute walk from the Salem house lie the homes of four families whose court case drew international attention back in May.

Those four homes were built on open land after Jordan occupied Jerusalem in 1948. While the land was owned by Jewish religious organizations before the war, no Jews ever lived in the homes. The Salem home, by contrast, was once inhabited by the Jews who settled in the Nahalat Shimon community in the 19th century.

East Jerusalem fell under Jordanian occupation after the war, and Palestinian refugee families settled in some of the Nahalat Shimon homes, which became part of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. But the Jordanian government never transferred the properties to their new residents, meaning that Israeli law allowed the original owners — the Jewish Haddad family — to reclaim them.

“They Arabized a Jewish neighborhood. We’re not trying to Judaize an Arab neighborhood. We’re trying to Judaize a neighborhood that they stole from the Jews. That’s the story,” said Chaim Silberstein, a South African immigrant to Israel who works to move Jews into East Jerusalem.

After the Haddad family reclaimed the house, there was a court battle that continued for several years. The Jerusalem district court apparently issued an eviction order in 1987. But the order was neither enforced nor canceled; the Salems continued paying rent to the Haddads through the court, according to their lawyer.

Legally, matters only get murkier from here: like other sensitive proceedings, the case files were destroyed when the statute of limitations expired years later. And none of the parties possesses the original court ruling granting the Haddads the right to evict the Salems. The only extant document is a copy made in gray pencil. The Haddad family could not be reached for comment.

When Yosef bought the house from the Haddads, he successfully won a new eviction order from Israel’s civil enforcement agency. Silberstein said he was involved in the transaction, but declined to offer further information as to how the purchase went down.

The two-story house in Sheikh Jarrah — once owned by the Jewish Haddad family, currently resided in by the Palestinian Salem family. The new owner, Jerusalem city councilmember Yonatan Yosef, seeks their eviction. (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

The pending eviction has again drawn international attention to Sheikh Jarrah. Renewed protests have taken place every Friday at the entrance to the neighborhood, leading to clashes between police and demonstrators.

European diplomats toured the neighborhood in late December. In a speech, the European Union’s envoy to the Palestinians, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, denounced the planned eviction.

“This is occupied territory. These people have the right to live here,” Kühn von Burgsdorf told reporters.

The planned Salem family eviction would take place as tensions rise across Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Israelis have seen a spate of Palestinian terror attacks, several of them in Jerusalem, that left two Israelis dead over the past several weeks.

The Israeli police have asked the government to defer the eviction until late January. And instead of a definitive eviction date, they have requested a two-week “flexible” eviction period between the end of January and early February that would allow them to remove the tenants at any time in that window.

“A flexible eviction… would allow them to carry it out whenever they please, even in the dead of night, with no preparation,” said Majed Ghanaim, the Salem family’s attorney.

Fatima Salem, a Palestinian threatened with eviction, at her Sheikh Jarrah home, on December 20, 2021. (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Silberstein dismissed concerns that the eviction would spark violence in Jerusalem — or even from Gaza — calling them tantamount to blaming the victim.

“That’s like accusing the woman that was raped of being responsible for her rape,” Silberstein said. “That’s making the victim into the aggressor.”

The Salem family sees it the other way around. And they say that for them, the eviction would mean the destruction of their lives.

“Will they throw us out into the street?” asked family matriarch Fatima Salem. “We have nowhere else to go.”

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