With Attention on Gaza, Evictions Are Accelerating in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah Neighborhood

Israel has a long history of carrying out drastic actions in the West Bank while the world’s focus is elsewhere

With Attention on Gaza, Evictions Are Accelerating in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah Neighborhood
A person walks on the ruins of a Palestinian house demolished by Israeli forces in Sheikh Jarrah, east Jerusalem, in 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

Samira Dajani remembers exactly what crossed her mind when, as a 5-year-old girl, she moved with her family to a new house in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

“We were living in an apartment at the time and there was no garden. I remember seeing this big open area,’” Dajani, now 73, tells New Lines, sitting in her immaculate garden in Sheikh Jarrah on a recent afternoon.

“Now we can finally play, move, shout, laugh,” she recalls thinking. The year was 1956, and she was a member of one of the 28 Palestinian families given a new home by the United Nations after being displaced from historic Palestine. Jewish Israelis claim that the houses were built on the site of a 19th-century Jewish community.

Dajani, the youngest of four, still lives in the one-story Jerusalem limestone house that her parents, who were displaced from their West Jerusalem home in 1948, received in a pilot project run by the U.N.’s agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and the Jordanian government that controlled East Jerusalem until the 1967 occupation.

And while Palestinians living there are used to being in limbo and have long faced eviction, the war in Gaza, now in its ninth month, has allowed Israeli settler violence to spread unchecked across the occupied Palestinian territories, and evictions in Sheikh Jarrah have accelerated. “Every minute we imagine that we might lose our house,” Dajani tells me. “I think about it all the time — especially since Oct. 7,” she says, referring to the day of the Hamas attack that prompted Israel’s disproportionately deadly assault on Gaza.

Dajani is a petite, perky woman who teaches private Arabic classes now that she has retired from a municipal school. Looking at the amount of care that has gone into her large, well-tended garden, where there are multiple rose bushes, cypresses and fruit trees, it is hard to imagine that she and her husband, Aadel, could be thrown out of their home at any moment.

The decades-long dispute over Sheikh Jarrah has been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its location near Jerusalem’s Old City — a site of veneration and strife for centuries, home to some of the holiest places in Judaism, Christianity and Islam — has made it a regular flashpoint. Radical Israeli settlers pushed for the first evictions in 2009, and tensions in the neighborhood helped to spark Israel’s 11-day war in Gaza in 2021.

Today, the streets of Sheikh Jarrah are filled with Palestinians, foreign diplomats and aid workers who often rent overpriced apartments in the area. The basement bar of the American Colony Hotel, a 19th-century mansion that once belonged to an Ottoman pasha, is typically full of English-speaking expats.

After 1948, Jerusalem was split into two, with the newly created State of Israel controlling the west and Jordan gaining control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Following the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel gained control of all of the city and its subsequent annexation was, and is, in violation of international law.

The division changed the social fabric of the once-mixed city, with impoverished new arrivals from North Africa moving into the lavish mansions of Musrara, once home to Palestinian Christians. The road on the western side of the Old City walls was marked with barbed wire and peppered with landmines, with Jordanian snipers regularly shooting from the Old City at the Jewish inhabitants across the street.

In recent decades, Jewish nationalist organizations, with funding from both Jewish and Christian groups in the United States, have mounted efforts to force Palestinians to sell their property or resorted to Israeli courts to claim Jewish ownership based on title deeds dating to Ottoman times.

“This is taking place in the framework of an Israeli government project to surround the Old City with settler-related projects. … A settlement in Sheikh Jarrah is part of a puzzle that’s radically changing the face of Jerusalem. It’s a small area but with a large impact,” Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney and a leading expert on contemporary Jerusalem, tells New Lines. “This could not take place without the active assistance of the Ministry of Justice and other ministries of the government of Israel — so this is settlers acting as a proxy for the Israeli government.”

New eviction orders for three Sheikh Jarrah families were issued in April — for the first time in three years — as rights groups documented an unusual spike in both demolitions and evictions in the eastern part of Jerusalem, home to over 300,000 Palestinians.

Two prominent Israeli civil rights organizations, Ir Amim and Bimkom, warned in a wide-ranging report in April that the Israeli government was “clearly exploiting the war (in Gaza) to create more facts on the ground to pre-determine the final status of Jerusalem and thwart all prospects for a negotiated political agreement, while forcibly displacing Palestinians from their homes and the city.” Between Oct. 7 of last year and the end of March this year, at least 98 Palestinian homes were demolished, twice as many as during the same period of time a year earlier, according to the report.

I had been to Dajani’s garden dozens of times, as her Arabic student, before I realized hers was one of the families that had received eviction papers.

Throughout the winter we spent together in her garden, Dajani would speak at length about her grief for Gaza’s Palestinians, but never about her personal story. Each time I came for my class, I would be shown a different plant in bloom: daffodils in February, irises in April and rose bushes and bird-of-paradise flowers a month later.

By mid-May, when they were expecting a Supreme Court hearing of their case, she was proudly showing me a 3-yard-tall white rose bush planted by her mother. The following weekend, she mentioned to me in passing that the eviction orders for her home had been canceled. On May 9, the court overturned eviction orders for the three Sheikh Jarrah families but ruled that it had no authority to decide who owns the property, giving the families some respite but leaving the issue hanging. “It’s better than nothing but even that decision is not final and doesn’t give us peace of mind,” Dajani says.

Her neighbor, Reem Aarif Hammad, who was born in the 1980s and lives a few doors down with her parents and three siblings, was also handed eviction orders that were later canceled. But the threat of expulsion, “a constant fear for me as a child,” will not dissipate, she says. “It was always in the back of my mind that one day I could come from school and there will be no home for us, that it will be taken away by the settlers,” says Hammad, who has since received a college degree in the United States and moved back to Jerusalem to raise a family.

Now that weekly rallies to protect the neighborhood have halted, Sheikh Jarrah is more vulnerable to settler attacks and legal action. In the aftermath of the Hamas attack, and in the midst of a wave of arrests for social media posts expressing sympathy for the Palestinian cause, Israeli peace activists have kept a low profile while Palestinians have feared that protests might do them more harm than good.

Eyal Raz, who is 50, first joined the protests more than a decade ago after reading about them online while living abroad. Over his decade of activism in East Jerusalem, Raz got to know several Sheikh Jarrah families and felt appalled at the injustice perpetuated by the Israeli state that “as a kid who grew up in this city I never saw,” he tells New Lines. “There are many faces to the [Israeli] occupation but I felt the story of Sheikh Jarrah is one of the ugliest.”

Friday afternoon rallies went on for almost 15 years, attracting anywhere from dozens to hundreds of people each week, marching through the streets of Sheikh Jarrah or holding a vigil outside a specific house being threatened with eviction. But they have been suspended since Oct. 7.

“As much as it was important for us all those years to continue weekly, rain or shine, we understand the reality we live in and we responded to it,” says Raz. “We saw the level of pressure from the police. … We didn’t want to create more trouble for the people of the neighborhood in these terrible times.” He now holds weekly meetings, mostly online, with former Sheikh Jarrah protesters.

Dajani remembers the weekly protests with fondness. Some of her students marched in the streets with drums, others went to court hearings. “We feel their support so much,” she says. With the world’s eyes firmly fixed on the brutal war in Gaza, such attention is waning. Israelis are still dealing with the trauma of Oct. 7, while Palestinians are glued to Al Jazeera broadcasts, watching the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza unfold.

Dajani is the only one of her siblings to be born a refugee. Part of a well-heeled Jerusalem clan, Dajani’s parents were raising three children in a spacious new home in Bakaa, a neighborhood just a few miles west, and ran two shops on a high street nearby, when about half of Palestine’s predominantly Arab population were driven away from their homes in the Israeli War of Independence, known to Palestinians as the “Nakba” or “catastrophe.”

The family fled to Lebanon and later Syria, before coming back to Jerusalem, where Dajani was born in 1951. The family of six counted themselves lucky when they entered a lottery held by the Jordanian government and UNRWA to build a few dozen homes for the displaced Palestinians. They were given a brand-new two-bedroom house and a plot of land on a new street just northeast of the Old City walls: The area, home to a shrine revered by Jews as the tomb of a high priest from the time of the Second Temple, was mostly overgrown with walnut groves and olive trees and was a popular picnic spot.

When Dajani was five, they moved in, along with 27 other families who were overjoyed to lay down roots after facing displacement from their communities in Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa just a few years earlier.

The families, with identical houses and plots, all mixed together and “competed” over the best garden, Dajani says.

The new residents gave up their UNRWA refugee cards once they moved in and were promised title deeds in three years’ time. But the Jordanian government never issued the documents before the Six-Day War in 1967.

Five years later, the families first faced proceedings in Israeli courts when two Jewish organizations filed a lawsuit based on a land purchase by two Jewish communities dating from the 1870s. The Jewish groups wanted to make use of Israel’s Absentees’ Property Law, which allowed the Israeli state to seize property “abandoned” after the 1948 war. Palestinians, displaced in 1948, however, were not allowed to lay similar claims to the property they once owned in the western part of the city.

The first lawsuit, in 1972, was rejected but the court claims have been lingering, Dickensian-style, ever since. Sami Ersheid, the attorney representing some of the Sheikh Jarrah families, was a toddler when the first claim was filed. To him the Sheikh Jarrah case uniquely encapsulates “almost all core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Palestinians who became refugees in 1948, the controversial, discriminatory legislation, the issue of illegal Israel settlements in East Jerusalem and the issue of the Palestinian refugees who also lost their property and their property rights in 1948,” he tells New Lines.

Evictions in Sheikh Jarrah did not start until the 2000s, when the Jewish organizations transferred their rights to Nahalat Shimon, an opaque company registered in the U.S. state of Delaware, allowing it to not disclose its beneficiaries.

Fighting the ownership claims in Israeli courts has been an uphill battle for Ersheid, as the defense team was not even able to summon to court the immediate witnesses of the 1956 housing project — UNRWA and the Jordanian government that allocated the land and built the houses for the Palestinian refugees.

“We are in a weird situation: Under international law, East Jerusalem is an occupied territory and Israeli courts do not have jurisdiction there,” he says. “Jordan cannot accept this. When we tried to get the U.N. involved, the U.N. also said it cannot send its officials to be witnesses in this case because they cannot recognize the authority of the court.”

The Sheikh Jarrah families have racked their brains for years over how to prove that the houses built in former walnut groves do belong to them.

In 2009, Ersheid took on the case for several families, including the Dajanis and the Hammads, after an Israeli court ordered the eviction of three families and allowed the Delaware company to grab half of another property.

In a stunning exchange, providing a rare glimpse into the nature of the expulsions, a young woman from the al-Kurd family, two doors away from the Dajanis, was filmed in 2021 berating a bearded American settler in English: “Jacob, you know this is not your house! You are stealing my house!” The man replied in a thick American accent: “If I don’t steal it, someone else is going to steal it.”

Although all 28 families moved to Sheikh Jarrah under the same circumstances, the Delaware company keeps suing families separately, and defense lawyers for the Palestinians have failed to get the court to agree to combine them into one legal claim.

With the devastating war in Gaza ongoing, East Jerusalemites fear that the Israeli courts and settler groups could be emboldened by the silence around their case. In February, Israeli authorities demonstratively demolished the house of a prominent Palestinian activist from East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood just a week after a senior U.S. official visited the elderly man’s home and had tea there.

At the end of April, an Israeli court issued the first demolition orders for Sheikh Jarrah in three years, ruling that the Diab family must vacate their home within three months. Appeals are underway.

The position of the Sheikh Jarrah families is now at its most precarious, says the peace activist Raz: “We, the Israelis and the Palestinians, are now at the lowest point we have ever been in our shared history in terms of both inflicting the pain and feeling the pain. I hope no one will use this change to create trouble in Sheikh Jarrah while nobody is looking.”

With the regional media coverage focused on the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, where 2 million people are on the brink of starvation, Sheikh Jarrah residents fear eviction orders could be issued just at the moment when the world’s attention is elsewhere.

“I do think (the Israelis) will take advantage of it because all the eyes in the world are on Gaza but you never know,” Hammad says.

Many in the Hammad and Dajani families were educated in the West and lived there for long stretches of time — two of Samira’s three brothers still live abroad — but those in Jerusalem plan to continue their fight.

Dajani sees the ultimate proof of their claim to ownership in her own garden. Today, she waters the four cypress trees her father planted some 70 years ago — one for each of his children. The leaves have since dried out, but she is sure they will survive. “I kept telling everyone: Don’t worry about it. It is still standing. The roots here are very strong,” she says.

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