Evictions, along with Israeli raids on the Al Aqsa compound, have sparked some of the worst attacks seen in the city for years as dozens of Palestinians, including children, have so far been killed in Israeli air raids on the besieged Gaza Strip. Days-long protests have also erupted in Palestinian cities inside Israel.
After years in court, four Palestinian families in Karm al-Jaouni in Sheikh Jarrah have been ordered to vacate their homes in the coming weeks, while three others have until August, after exhausting their appeals. Their fate now lies with the Israeli Supreme Court.
These seven families, made up of at least 150 adults and children, are Palestinian refugees or their descendants who were expelled from their homes during the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 – referred to as the Nakba – according to the families’ lawyer.
“There’s a lot of anxiety here,” says 22-year-old Mohammed el-Kurd, speaking from his family’s home in Sheikh Jarrah. “We are trying to stay hopeful. But all of us have witnessed Israeli authorities do this over and over again to families inside and outside of Jerusalem. It’s really hard to stay hopeful because this machine of Israeli colonialism seems unstoppable at times.”
More than 60 Palestinians, including at least 20 children, have been displaced from Sheikh Jarrah since 2008 as a result of Israeli settler-driven evictions, without compensation or the provision of alternative housing. At least 500 Palestinians in the neighbourhood remain at risk of displacement.
These pending evictions are a continuation of a decades-long Israeli project to increase the number of Jewish settlers in Jerusalem while expelling Palestinians from the city, according to the families and Palestinian experts.
There have been frequent protests organised in Sheikh Jarrah against the evictions, which Israeli forces have dispersed violently. Dozens of Palestinians from the neighbourhood have been arrested.
Israeli forces raided Al Aqsa Mosque – the third holiest site in Islam – on the last Friday of Ramadan, firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets at thousands of Palestinians after Al Aqsa worshippers began chanting their support for Sheikh Jarrah.
Israeli raids in and around Al Aqsa compound continued for days, with Israeli forces injuring hundreds of Palestinians. Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and Islamic Jihad, another group active in the Palestinian enclave, fired rockets at Israel after a Hamas-issued ultimatum for Israel to withdraw its security forces from Al Aqsa compound and Sheikh Jarrah expired.
The Israeli army responded by carrying out aerial bombardments on the Gaza Strip, which has been held under army blockade for almost a decade and a half, while Hamas has continued to fire hundreds of rockets at Israel. At least 48 Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip have so far been killed, including 14 children. Seven of these deaths, including three children, were from one Palestinian family. At least six Israelis have been killed, including two Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Solidarity protests have been held throughout the occupied West Bank and in more than a dozen Palestinian cities and towns inside Israel, which were absorbed into the state in 1948, escalating into fierce confrontations with Israeli soldiers and police officers.
In al-Ludd, a mixed Palestinian-Jewish city 15km southeast of Tel Aviv, hundreds of Palestinians protested and rioted over two consecutive nights on 10 and 11 May, along with other Palestinian cities in Israel, confronting the police and setting alight cars, a synagogue and a pre-military training academy. At least one Palestinian man was shot and killed in al-Ludd amid the unrest. The police suspect that a Jewish civilian opened fire on him and other Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since declared a state of emergency in the city.
Israel’s forces massacred hundreds of Palestinians in al-Ludd about two months after Israel was founded in May 1948 and expelled most of the city’s residents. Only 1 052 of 19 000 Palestinians remained in the city, the rest were replaced with Jewish immigrants who are now the majority.
The Jordanian government, which administered the West Bank at the time, built homes in Sheikh Jarrah, just north of Jerusalem’s Old City, for 28 displaced Palestinian families in the 1950s in exchange for them renouncing their refugee status, as part of an agreement with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Once the home of a Jewish community, they gradually abandoned the site in the 1920s and 1930s amid rising intercommunal tensions and through the 1948 war.
The Jordanian government was supposed to transfer house ownership titles to the families after three years but did not do so and by 1967, the Israeli army had occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, later annexing East Jerusalem into its territory. Israel introduced the Legal and Administrative Matters Law in 1970, which afforded Jews the right to claim ownership over land and property said to have been owned by Jews in East Jerusalem before 1948. Palestinians displaced from West Jerusalem in 1948 were not afforded the same right. They were labelled “absentees” and their property, including bank accounts, transferred to the Israeli state.
Israeli settler organisations are using this law to take over Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. At least 175 families there, including in Sheikh Jarrah, are under threat of being expelled from their homes based on this law. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are governed by Israeli domestic law because of Israel’s unilateral annexation of the area, while Israel’s military law continues to be applied to Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank. Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem are considered illegal under international law.
United States-based real estate company Nahalat Shimon International filed a plan with the Jerusalem municipality in August 2008 to demolish existing Palestinian homes, evict hundreds of Palestinians and build at least 200 new settler units in their place.
Kurd, a poet and writer studying in New York, recently returned to Sheikh Jarrah to be with his family while they continue their decades-long battle to remain in their home. The threat of displacement has been constant in Kurd’s life.
The unrelated Um Kamel el-Kurd family was forcibly removed from their home in November 2008 after losing their case in court. Abu Kamel, the elderly husband and head of the household, was ill and confined to a wheelchair. He was rushed to hospital immediately after the eviction and died from a heart attack just two weeks later. Um Kamel, his widow, stayed in a tent outside her home in protest, along with dozens of solidarity activists.
The Israeli police evicted the Hanoun and Ghawi families in 2009, loading the families’ belongings on to a truck and dumping them on a street close to the UNRWA’s headquarters. Israeli settlers also forcibly took over half of Kurd’s family home and more than a decade later, they still live alongside them. The Shamasneh family was evicted in 2017.
The last hope the seven families have to avoid the same fate as their neighbours is to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court, which delayed the 8 May hearing that was expected to deliver a preliminary decision on whether the court would consider their appeal.
It is a common sight now in Sheikh Jarrah to see Israeli settlers sauntering down the streets, almost always with guns slung over their shoulders, while Israeli flags and the Star of David decorate the homes of evicted residents.
“We are living in fear,” says 39-year-old Reem Hammad, whose family, which includes five small children, faces eviction in August. “We are feeling constantly worried. Even the children are having a hard time sleeping. They are worried about where we will go if we’re evicted.”
But the families have vowed to stay put. “Here in Sheikh Jarrah, we are a very close-knit community,” Hammad says. “We feel like one big family and we support each other. The idea of being uprooted from this community is a painful thought. They will have to come and drag us out because we are staying no matter what.”
Meanwhile, the online campaign #SaveSheikhJarrah aims to garner international attention to put pressure on Israel to overturn the eviction orders. Kurd says the solidarity protests and the international focus on the families’ cases have given him hope.
“We have to go to the coloniser’s court and stand in front of a judge who is a settler on our land and try to convince him that settlements are bad and we have the right to be on this land,” says Kurd. “The whole process is so frustrating. We do it because it’s the only way we can buy ourselves some time.
“All of this makes me realise that the Nakba has never ended. We know they want all the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah gone, not just our families. But instead of doing it en masse and just wiping us out all at once, they’ve managed to stretch this out for decades.”
Along with Sheikh Jarrah, dozens of Palestinian families in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, where Al Aqsa is located, and other neighbourhoods outside the Old City walls, such as Silwan and Wadi al-Joz, face Israeli settler organisations whose aim is to cut off the Palestinian territorial contiguity with the Old City.
“Taking the land to build colonies inside and around our communities serves two purposes: increasing the number of Israeli settlers living in Jerusalem and displacing and dispossessing Palestinians,” explains Fayrouz Sharqawi, the global mobilisation director for Palestinian advocacy group Grassroots Jerusalem.
‘Nakba never ended’
Many Palestinians in East Jerusalem, 72% of whom live below the poverty line, are forced to move into the congested Jerusalem neighbourhood of Kufr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp on the West Bank side of Israel’s separation wall.
Families previously evicted from Sheikh Jarrah ended up in these neighbourhoods, says Kurd, where municipal services are almost non-existent. This and overcrowding forces many families to seek services in the occupied West Bank, including enrolling their children in schools outside of Jerusalem, which is grounds for the revocation of their residency status.
“It’s all very strategic and calculated, pushing Palestinians into these two enclaves and making them slowly, against their will, cut off ties with Jerusalem and using that as a pretext to legally expel them from the city,” Sharqawi says. Israeli leaders have been discussing for years removing Kufr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp from Jerusalem’s municipality.
“These families in Sheikh Jarrah are not being evicted because of some legal issue, they’re being systematically expelled,” Sharqawi adds. “And these expulsions are part of a bigger policy of ethnically cleansing Jerusalem of Palestinian people.”
Kurd is reminded of his late grandmother Rifqa, who died last year at the age of 103. Rifqa was about 31 when she was forced to flee her home in Haifa, now in northern Israel, during the Nakba. “She never wanted to leave Palestine,” says Kurd. “So she would flee to the next town or city over. When the Zionist militias would come, she would flee again to the next city. And then they would come again, and she would flee again.”
Zionist militias detained Rifqa’s husband and she had to raise their six young children. “She used to tell me about hiding from the Zionist soldiers in a cave with a bunch of other refugees,” says Kurd. “They had a bucket of olive oil and they had bread they would dip into the oil. That sustained them for weeks.”
Rifqa moved from city to city after losing everything in 1948. She only found stability when she was provided her home in Sheikh Jarrah. But her reprieve was short-lived, as Israel eventually caught up with her.
Rifqa developed dementia in the last years of her life. “She didn’t remember my name. She didn’t remember my father’s name,” says Kurd. “But she would always ask me, ‘Where am I?’ and then ask me to please take her home.” She was referring to Haifa.
“She forgot everything, but she would constantly talk about the Nakba and how they forced her from her home. It makes me scared that maybe when I’m 80, I’m also going to forget all my children and grandchildren, but I will have this bitter frame of remembering what happened to me in Sheikh Jarrah in 2021.
“I feel less and less able to articulate my feelings, the more real these expulsions become,” he says.
“There’s this level of psychological torture. This is a wound I feel deep down to my bones. It’s like a terrible heartbreak. I’m worried about the loss of property. But I also worry about the loss of my own sanity. This is absolutely criminal, what they are doing to us.”
Update, 13 May 2021: The number of dead in Gaza now is 67 people, including 17 children.