Apartheid in East Jerusalem

February 25, 2010

Daphna Thier describes a brewing struggle to defend Palestinian residents in a neighborhood of the city where she grew up.

OVER WINTER break, I traveled home for two weeks. My friends had been sending me updates of their activities in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the city I grew up in. Many had been beaten and arrested at protests there, part of a solidarity movement to stop evictions of Palestinians from their homes.

In August 2009, a court order was issued to evict two Palestinian families from their homes. Since then, a total of five families living in 28 houses have been evicted. In the wake of the evictions, Israeli settlers moved in and are now constructing a new settlement right in the heart of this Palestinian neighborhood--"legally" no less.

Maged Hanun, aged 51, tells me he was born in the house he and his family were evicted from--the home that belonged to them for the past 60 years. "So how can they just take me out of my home?" he asks me.

Prior to 1948, these families owned homes in the western parts of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and other parts of what is now northern Israel. Now, their homes are in Sheikh Jarrah. All of these families are of modest means, and their options are limited. In other words, this is not a fight about ideology or religion. It is a fight that these families are compelled to wage as a matter of survival. It is a fight out of necessity.

Protesters stand in the back yard of a house now occupied by Israeli settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood
Protesters stand in the back yard of a house now occupied by Israeli settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood

Maged tells me that some of the evicted families have managed to rent apartments, and some have found refuge with other neighbors. But many families now live outside in tents, sometimes even in the backyard of their previous homes. On almost a daily basis, Israeli settlers and police take their tents down.

The elderly and children living on the streets suffer the most. But history has shown the Palestinians here that if they leave their land, they will never return to it. So they stay despite the hardship. As Maged explains:

For five months, we have been in the streets. And who has helped us? Who has given us another home? Who sees how our children are thrown in the streets? Nobody. The settlers in their homes watch us, and they don't care. What kind of a person lives in a house that doesn't belong to him, and looks out and sees us in the street--what kind of a heart has he? What kind of a mind? I don't know.

ON JUNE 5, 1967, Israel launched the Six Day War, during which it occupied the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Israel also occupied the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Not long after, a small group of Jews, claiming to be the continuation of the Committee of the Sephardic Community, came forward with a deed to the land in Sheikh Jarrah from the archives of the old Ottoman Empire, dating back roughly a hundred years. For whatever reasons, the legitimacy of this deed was not investigated or confirmed by any Turkish officials.

In 1972, an Israeli court accepted the claim and ruled that the Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah should be legally considered "protected residents" and obligated to pay rent to the Israeli Knesset Committee and the Committee of the Sephardic Community. This was the first time the residents had ever heard of the so-called owners of their homes and land.

The Palestinians, refusing to accept the Committee's ownership of their land, collectively refused to pay rent. Since then, the rights to the land were resold to an American settler organization, Nehalat Shimon International, which then demanded that the Palestinians be evicted on the grounds that they have not paid rent.

Thus, the legal battles that began in 1972 over ownership of the land in Sheikh Jarrah continue to the present day.

How did this all begin? What is the legal basis for the court's decision? In 1875, the Committee of the Sephardic Community allegedly bought land in Sheikh Jarrah, and for a few decades, Jews lived there alongside Arabs. But over time, as the aims of the Zionist project came into sharper focus, there was increasing conflict and violence, and by the early 1930s, the Committee left the neighborhood.

After the 1948 war, in which Israel drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood came to be occupied by Jordan. Many of the Palestinians who fled their homes in other parts of Jerusalem and the rest of the country arrived in the area in search of shelter. It became a large refugee camp.

Between 1952 and 1953, the United Nations and Jordan decided to build houses for the refugees. The idea was that the families would pay a symbolic fee over the course of three years, at the end of which they would be granted legal ownership of their homes. Through a bureaucratic mishap, part of the plan fell through, and the families never received the legal deeds to their homes.

But what is truly absurd is that a group of Jews claim they can prove "legal ownership" to land outside the so-called Green Line (the 1949 armistice line that formally ended the 1948 war) and move into houses that other people live in--while Palestinians, even if they can prove such ownership, cannot.

This raises another question: Why have Palestinians not been able to demand the right to return to the homes they lived in prior to 1948?

This is due to the 1950 Absentee Property Law, a perfect embodiment of legal apartheid. This law established that in the event that a Palestinian managed to prove ownership of a house or a piece of land within the 1948 or 1967 lines--a very difficult process that involves a lot of tedious bureaucracy and an almost impossible list of conditions to meet--the property must then be handed over to a "legal guardian."

This guardian becomes the legal owner of the property until a peace treaty is signed between Israel and Palestine. At this time, each property is supposed to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and a determination made as to whether the property will be returned to its Palestinian owner, if the owner will be compensated but not allowed to return, or neither. Nothing is promised.

The families of Sheikh Jarrah, of course, protest. "If you take the home we've lived in for the past 60 years, then give us back the home we lost 60 years ago," they say.

In 2004, Israel's High Court of Justice ruled that because the rent had not been paid, the Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah can be evicted. At first, one family was forced out. It later returned after a lot of international scrutiny and diplomatic pressure.

But in 2008 and 2009, the evictions resumed. Five families have since been removed from 28 houses, and in August alone, two evictions rendered 46 men, women and children homeless. No compensation was offered, of course.

The European Union, the United Nations and the U.S. have all rebuked Israel for its actions and called for the return of the families to their homes. No action was taken.

Police and settler security forces carry out the eviction warrants. In many instances, they give the family they are evicting no prior notice. They simply arrive and tell them they must leave their home. When the family refuses, they are removed by force, and their belongings placed in the street, immediately after which settlers move in to the premises.

Sometimes, the settlers enter the Palestinians' homes at night, using brutality and fear to drive the residents away, so that it's "easier" to seize all or parts of the houses. Many international volunteers and Israeli activists sleep in the neighborhood in order to prevent these crimes.

In 2008, a new lawyer for the Palestinian families evicted from their homes traveled to Turkey with the disputed deed belonging to the settlers in order to confirm its legitimacy. He visited the Ottoman Empire archives and, with the help of an Ottoman Empire expert, discovered two things:

1. The territory count in the document does not match the count in the archives. This means that even in the event of authenticity, the land referred to in the deed is not the same as the land the settlers are seeking to lay claim to. More seriously, this carries the strong odor of fraud.

2. At the top of the document, in ancient lettering that was not examined earlier, it is very clearly stated that this is a contract to establish a lease, not to sell the land. This kind of lease is valid for up to--and no more than--100 years.

The legal strategy is now focused on bringing forward this new evidence, but there is a new problem. Under the Israeli law "sofiut"--which, translated, literally means "finality"--the Supreme Court in Israel has the power to arbitrarily close a case after 25 years if no new evidence has been presented. In 2007, the court ruled that the case of Sheikh Jarrah should be closed--a year prior to the discovery of the apparent illegitimacy of the deed.

So having failed to prove their collective ownership of the land in the eyes of the court, each family is forced to make an individual legal claim to their home. The court then rejects these appeals, one family at a time.

In the streets, however, the fight continues collectively. In fact, the struggle over Sheikh Jarrah is increasingly attracting attention in mainstream Israeli political discourse.

THOUGH IT may seem that Sheikh Jarrah is an isolated case, the opposite is true. The developments at Sheikh Jarrah are the crux of a state strategy to "Hebronize" East Jerusalem.

Hebron is the West Bank town where Israeli settlers have taken over the homes of Palestinians by means of violence and terror, essentially occupying one house at a time until they controlled a strategic part of the city's center.

At present, the Israeli state plans to evict 550 Palestinian residents from East Jerusalem. In the summer of 2009, left-wing Israeli activists began organizing around the case of Sheikh Jarrah. Dozens of people slept every night in the homes of the Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah.

This stopped the evictions. But as the weeks went by, the numbers of activists staying in Sheikh Jarrah dwindled, and one night, when only a few stayed in the neighborhood, an eviction took place.

Since then, a new wave of activism was born, and with the Israeli activists building a united front of solidarity with the Palestinians. Shir Sternberg, one of the young activists at the heart of the organizing, explained how the new efforts got off the ground:

I met with many of the usual suspects in Jerusalem and asked that we hold a meeting in an attempt to organize the struggle. Though there are many diplomatic statements and international organizations that are aware of the situation in Sheikh Jarrah...there was no organized resistance within Israeli society.

We started to meet once a week and to talk about who we are, what we are, and how we want to do this. In the meanwhile, I undertook a personal investigation into how to organize nonviolent struggles and how to organize public resistance. I spent two months talking to everyone I could and reading a lot of material.

Then I discovered something amazing. We weren't alone. There were other groups trying to form a movement; we just had no connection to each other. We started to create an organized front, based on the principle that we all share certain goals, and that we can leave other things that we don't share in common for internal discussion.

Over time, the organization became more and more impressive. At one meeting, 40 people showed up to organize together. This is very rare. Most of the people are young, in their early to mid-twenties, and there's a smaller group of older, longstanding activists. The diversity is great. Students, anarchists, activists from Hadash [an Arab-Jewish socialist party that has four members in Israel's Knesset, or parliament, and supports a one-state solution], people from Meretz [a Zionist party to the left of Israel's Labor Party]--people from the entire political spectrum.

The first initiative of the new organization was a response to the violence that routinely occurs when settlers gather for Friday prayers. It had become customary for the settlers to hit the streets after prayer, throwing rocks and attacking Palestinian men, women, children and elderly. No one has been spared.

Sternberg explains that their action made a real difference. "The first time we were there, the mere fact of our presence lessened the violence significantly," says Sternberg.

But the group wanted to do more. "The next week, we decided that we needed to develop awareness within Israeli society of what was taking place," continues Sternberg. "So we started the march to Sheikh Jarrah in West Jerusalem and walked [through the center of town] to East Jerusalem. On the first march, there were 30 people, and on the second, there were 50. Within a few marches, we had reached 150 people. It was a huge leap."

Sternberg continues:

Most of the people are not experienced activists. We created a very significant circle of students, who have experienced their first real taste of activism in this struggle.

We defined this as a social struggle, because that's how we see it. More than just an Israeli-Palestinian struggle, this is a fight for the rights of every human being and every citizen not to be discriminated against on ethnic grounds.

This has attracted many, many people. The marches have been beautiful. We walk with drums, we sing, and we chant. When we reach the neighborhood, we protest in front of the houses, and the residents come out with Turkish coffee and tea, handing them out to everyone. They sit down, and we talk with them. This is a great way to tell the story in first person.

By the fifth demonstration, Israeli authorities had become concerned about the growing protests, and there was also increasing participation of more radical people. In Sternberg's words:

More anarchists and more Ta'ayush [a Palestinian-Jewish group that has taken direct action against Israel's occupation] were there, and the atmosphere was very tense...

At a certain point, when the crowd started to disperse and about 100 people were left, one of the demonstrators decided to pull down some small Israeli flags on a part of a house that once belonged to a Palestinian. As soon as he did, border patrol soldiers jumped him and started beating him. We pulled him from their hands, and everything went totally wild.

In retrospect, we understood that that had been the intention of the police to begin with. The protest ended with horrifying results--people were gassed despite their nonviolence. I saw female friends of mine getting punched in the face, and kicked and dragged on the ground. People our parents' age too were pushed and beaten, with brute force.

DESPITE THIS, the protests continue--as has the police repression, even when the nonviolent protests were finally declared legal. So far, more than 70 have been arrested, and dozens more have been beaten.

Recently, several prominent Israeli figures have joined the cause, among them Michael Sfard, a lawyer specializing in international human rights law. He served as counsel in numerous important human rights cases and has represented many left-wing and Palestinian organizations before the Israeli Supreme Court.

In the case of the village of Bilin, Sfard discovered the existence of a Canadian company, which subsidized the building of the settlement there. So Sfard went to Canada and sued the company in a Canadian court. He won the case, and the company collapsed. This established an important precedent, using a strategy that no one had thought possible before.

Sfard is now using his expertise in international law to look into the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. After all, the neighborhood is an occupied territory--no political or diplomatic bodies, except for the state of Israel itself, recognizes it as Israeli territory.

In early February, around 300 activists came out to another protest in Sheikh Jarrah, among them public figures with major prominence in Israel. Ilan Gilon, a Knesset member, spoke to the crowd, saying in his speech, "If [the Jewish settlers] can prove ownership of 28 houses, the Palestinians can prove ownership of 28,000 houses."

Author David Grossman, who lost his son in the second war on Lebanon, said, "[T]he right wing, with the massive support of the government, the justice system and powerful economic forces, are abusing the Palestinians in a thousand and one ways."

Mohammad Barakeh, leader of the Hadash Party, also attended the protest, as did Uri Avneri, Yossi Sarid, Avraham Burg, and other previous and current parliament members.

"To me, this struggle is important on two different levels," says Sternberg. "One is the Palestinian struggle against the occupation and solidarity with the Arab uprising in East Jerusalem. We want an immediate halt to the forced evictions, house demolitions, expansion plans and settlement building on Palestinian territory. The other is the 'struggle over my society.' We want to build a broad community of social and political activism that will create a powerful force based on civil responsibility and obligation."

Haula Hanun, Maged's wife, takes me for a walk in the neighborhood. She speaks no English and no Hebrew, and I understand so little Arabic, so communication is minimal.

But I see what she shows me. The houses of her family are covered with Israeli flags, while security cameras are perched outside, watching over large expensive cars. She shows me her improvised kitchen--shelves and cabinets with pots and pans and food--outside on a driveway.

Her husband's father and uncle sit in a tent next to the driveway, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and playing Shesh-Besh (backgammon). They make me a cup of very sweet tea. Haula and I use a translator, and we agree that if matters were in our hands, we would live side by side, as neighbors, as equals.

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