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In East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinians brace for battle over evictions

Court to rule as early as Thursday on four families that may be removed from their homes by a law they say is unfairly tilted against them, with tensions in the capital on the rise

Palestinians and left-wing activists protest against the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah, April 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Palestinians and left-wing activists protest against the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah, April 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a few weeks, Abdelfattah Eskafi may be forced out of his home of 65 years in the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

“It’ll be the destruction of our lives, of our memories here, of our children’s lives,” said Eskafi, 71, who has lived in the neighborhood since he was six, about a decade before it was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

Eskafi is one of dozens of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah who may be removed from their homes in the coming weeks if the Supreme Court turns down their appeal against a pending eviction. They are likely to be replaced by right-wing Jewish nationalists who say the Palestinian homes were built on land owned by Jewish associations before the establishment of the State of Israel.

The neighborhood, nestled between Mount Scopus and the East-West seam line north of the Old City, has long been a focal point of Jewish-Arab tensions. A small Jewish community lived in the area before 1948, when East Jerusalem fell under Jordanian control.

Home to a shrine revered as the final resting place of Shimon Hatzadik, a 3rd century BCE high priest also known as Simeon the Just, the neighborhood is often visited by Jewish pilgrims.

“For me, history begins thousands of years ago, when Shimon Hatzadik was buried there. Shimon Hatzadik was a Jewish neighborhood, is a Jewish neighborhood and will stay Jewish,” said Jerusalem City Council member Yonatan Yosef, a resident of the area.

Israeli forces stands guard outside a home of a Jewish family during a protest in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 3, 2021. (Jamal Awad/FLASH90)

Yosef’s grandfather, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — who would later become Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi and found a powerful political dynasty — served as a cantor for the small Jewish community there in the 1930s, Yosef said.

Eskafi and his family have already been formally evicted by a lower court. Israel’s Supreme Court is expected to rule in the coming days on whether it will allow an appeal by the Eskafis and three other families — more than 70 people — to go forward.

According to Ir Amim, a left-wing human rights group focusing on Jerusalem, around 200 families in East Jerusalem are now under threat of eviction, with cases slowly marching through administrative bodies and Israeli courts. Around 70 of those families live in Sheikh Jarrah.

“The possibility shakes you on every level. Where are we supposed to go? We’ve always lived in this place, Sheikh Jarrah,” said Salwa Eskafi, Abdelfattah’s wife.

Abdelfattah Eskafi, a resident of East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Activists, mostly left-wing Israeli Jews, have held weekly protests against the evictions for years. But over the past few weeks, Israeli police have increasingly cracked on the protests with water cannons and stun grenades. A left-wing Jewish Knesset member, Ofer Cassif, was beaten by offices during a demonstration, an incident condemned across the political sparking.

With right-wing Jewish Israelis now poised to replace dozens of Palestinian residents in the coming months, there is a tangible sense that the painful, invisible border that divides Jerusalem now runs straight through Sheikh Jarrah.

According to the Association for Human Rights in Israel, around 358,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, the portion of the city captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967, where they have residency rights but generally not Israeli citizenship. Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The same area is home to 225,000 Jewish Israelis, most of whom reside in newer Jewish neighborhoods such as Gilo and Ramat Shlomo.

The Jewish neighborhood of Ma’ale Hazeitim, at the heart of the Arab neighborhood of Ras al-Amoud, on the Mount of Olives, May 2011 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

But nationalist Jews have long sought to expand the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods — whether through covert purchases of Palestinian homes, court-ordered evictions, or the construction of de facto Jewish-only housing projects — creating settlement-like enclaves within the neighborhoods.

“Whenever and wherever Jews manage to settle in Jerusalem, I view that as a blessed thing,” deputy Jerusalem mayor Aryeh King, a prominent supporter of Judaizing the city’s Palestinian areas, told The Times of Israel.

The evictions are based in part on a 1970 Israeli law that allows Jews to reclaim East Jerusalem land owned by Jews before 1948.

“This is a law that essentially says: what was Jewish property in 1948 is still Jewish property,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at Ir Amim.

Jewish nationalists such as King argue that they are simply using the full legal means to reclaim what rightfully belongs to Jews.

“There is a law in this country. No one is above the law. Everyone has inviolable rights, and no one is allowed to violate the rights of others,” King said. “Just as Arabs are evicted, sometimes Jews too are evicted.”

Jerusalem city council member Aryeh King, in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem, on May 17, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But no similar law exists for Palestinians who lost their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war and fled to what was then Jordanian-controlled territory. Moreover, most Jews moving into Sheikh Jarrah are motivated by ideology, not through a familial connection to the homes, according to Tatarsky.

“I don’t understand how those who chant the slogans of ‘we’re returning to our lost property’ can live with a quiet conscience, when there’s a law for Jews and a law for Palestinians,” said Eyal Raz, a Jewish Israeli researcher who has followed the Sheikh Jarrah eviction cases for more than a decade.

Palestinians and their advocates say the law is biased against them, and hold out little hope for success in court. They charge that the policies seek to expand the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem and slowly expel its Palestinian residents.

“Israel built all of these legal mechanisms. Apparently, this is what it wants to do: Judaize. This is not a fight over a few houses. The goal is to take over the Old City and Palestinian neighborhoods,” Tatarsky said.

The complex cases can drag on for decades; only three families in Sheikh Jarrah have been evicted since 2008. But since 2017, the number of cases has risen dramatically, and the scale of evictions now pending has not been seen for years.

A decision on the four families’ futures could come as early as Thursday, with dozens of more homes in the pipeline in Sheikh Jarrah alone.

“Never before has an entire neighborhood or an entire community been targeted. That’s what we’re seeing now,” said Daniel Seidemann, a left-wing researcher and lawyer who has defended Palestinians in eviction cases.

‘Refugees twice over’

Seventy years ago, the disputed lands in Sheikh Jarrah lay vacant. The homes, and the people who populated them, would only arrive after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, which the Palestinians call the Nakba, or “disaster.”

After the war, Palestinian Arab neighborhoods in the city’s south and east fell under Jordanian control, while areas in the north and west were ruled by Israel.

Some Jews who had previously lived in Sheikh Jarrah were expelled, leaving their homes behind. That small community, known as Nahalat Shimon, was composed of around 40 Jewish families from Georgia, Seidemann said.

Others lost control of empty tracts of land in the area that belonged to Jewish religious endowments.

“Two religious endowments — the Sephardic Council and the Ashkenazi Council — bought the land there some 140 years ago. There’s no dispute,” said councilmember Yosef, referring to the land on which the Eskafi family home was built.

Hundreds of Palestinians and left-wing Jewish activists demonstrate against the eviction of Palestinian residents from Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem on Friday, April 16, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

In the 1950s, the Jordanians, the United Nations, and 28 refugee families reached an agreement to resettle the empty plot in Sheikh Jarrah. According to the deal, the Jordanian government provided the land and the United Nations pitched in with cash to build the homes.

Eskafi’s family fled street battles near their previous home in West Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood in 1948. He was born two years later in a local monastery where the family had briefly settled after the war.

“We heard that the UN would build us a house. We applied, and they held a lottery. We won and landed ourselves a house up there,” Eskafi said, pointing to a hill that overlooks the neighborhood.

A confrontation between Jewish settlers and Arab residents in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem in 2011 (photo by Sliman Khader/Flash90)
A confrontation between Jewish settlers and Arab residents in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem in 2011 (Sliman Khader/Flash90)

According to the terms of the agreement, Palestinians say, the tenants would pay a symbolic fee for the first few years before becoming owners of the property.

In exchange, they abdicated their rights to receive any benefits from the UN Relief and Works Agency, the international body charged with handling Palestinian refugee affairs.

But the Jordanian government never formally transferred ownership of the land to the Palestinians, making them more vulnerable to legal challenges, King said.

“If the Jordanians had made the tenants owners, there would have been no way for Jews to reclaim their property. But they didn’t,” said King.

Palestinians protest against Jewish activity in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, on March 19, 2021. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90

In 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza during a six-day war with its Arab neighbors.

Six years later, Israeli courts returned the plot to the two Jewish associations who owned the compound before the war. The associations sold it in 2003 to Nahalat Shimon International, a company created to move Jewish Israelis into the area.

In 1982, the Palestinian residents signed an agreement to remain on the property as protected tenants, as long as they paid rent to its Jewish owners. But Palestinians now say they were deceived and refuse to recognize the agreement.

When offered a similar compromise last Sunday, Palestinian residents again declined, saying they do not recognize the right of the Jewish Israelis over their homes.

“We can’t accept such a thing, although of course we know it’s a risk,” Eskafi said.

King scoffed at the claim: “They had a great deal, not having to pay rent. They got by for years paying almost nothing. But the celebration’s come to an end.”

Now, the families — whose members now number in the hundreds — may be ordered to begin packing their bags by Thursday.

“These families might well become refugees twice over,” said Raz.

The long arm of the law

The anticipated decision to evict the families comes as Jerusalem lives through tense, violent days. The city has been set on edge in recent weeks as Palestinian protesters and Jewish extremists have both clashed with police.

After some Palestinians filmed videos in which they attacked ultra-Orthodox passersby, the Jewish supremacist Lehava group responded by marching through Jerusalem’s downtown calling for “Death to Arabs” and searching for Palestinians to attack.

The two major Palestinian political movements — Fatah and the Hamas terror group — have both taken stances on the Sheikh Jarrah issue. Mohammad Deif, a leader of Hamas’s armed wing, warned on Tuesday that Israel would pay “a heavy price” if it expelled the Palestinian families.

“If the aggression against our people in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood does not stop immediately, we will not stand idly by,” Deif warned.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday he would ask the International Criminal Court to include the neighborhood’s case in its investigation of alleged Israeli war crimes.

Israel forces stand guard outside a building where a Jewish family lives during a Palestinian protest in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 4, 2021 (Jamal Awad/FLASH90)

On Wednesday night, dozens of young Palestinians from across Jerusalem gathered in a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood, milling about in front of uniformed riot police. The protest, while aggressive in tone, remained peaceful before police moved in to disperse it.

“This is inhumane. As I see it, this is another Nakba — you’re taking people from their homes and bringing others in their place,” said Noura Hamid, a student from Nazareth.

Yelling curses and waving their arms, protesters backed away from the scene as police moved in; some were grabbed by officers in riot gear and shoved back forcefully. A police cannon swept the street with high-pressure blasts of putrid-smelling water and stun grenades, sending Palestinians scampering up a hill.

“These kids are fearless, because they feel that they have no future. They go and work in West Jerusalem, they get attacked by far-right Jewish settlers… If you take your special forces and enter my home and terrorize my six kids, you think they’ll forget it?” Eskafi said.

A few Palestinians threw plastic bottles at the officers. Others hurled large stones at two Jewish residents standing outside their house. One batted away the rocks with a white plastic chair.

The Jewish residents had left their home to heckle the demonstrators. When medics rushed an unconscious Palestinian teenager by them on a stretcher, they cheered.

Israeli forces stands guard outside a home of a Jewish family during a protest against Israel’s plan to demolish some houses of Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 5, 2021. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90

The melee wrapped up soon after, but with the evictions looming, and many more down the road, some fear tensions could quickly escalate into a larger conflagration.

“If these families are expelled,” warned Mahmoud, a demonstrator from Shuafat, “Jerusalem will explode.”

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