Sheikh Jarrah and the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem

Sheikh Jarrah and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in East Jerusalem
8 min read
07 April, 2021
In-depth: Palestinian families in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood are in danger of being forcibly evicted from their homes in an ongoing Israeli process of demographic engineering in the city.
More than 550 Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah risk being forcibly evicted. [Getty]
A total of 28 Palestinian families, or around 550 people, who live in the Sheikh Jarrah district in East Jerusalem risk being forcibly evicted to be replaced by Israeli settlers.

For 12 of the families, court rulings have been issued ordering evictions. Eight have already received eviction orders and are on the verge of being expelled from their houses between early May and August. 

These imminent evictions are the latest in a long history of demographic engineering in Jerusalem to create a Jewish majority. Israeli settlers, with the backing of the Israeli courts, military and police, have been displacing Palestinians from their homes for decades. Since 1972, residents of Sheikh Jarrah have resisted efforts by settler organisations to seize their properties. 

"There's a land theft going on, and this is happening all around Palestine. The Israeli judicial system works in collusion with well-funded settler groups to ethnically cleanse Palestinians and displace them from their rightful homes, in complete defiance of international law," Mohammed al-Kurd, a 22-year-old Palestinian poet born and raised in Sheikh Jarrah, told The New Arab.

In 2008 and 2009, four local Palestinians families were evicted from their houses without being provided compensation or alternative housing. A fifth family, the Rifka al-Kurd household, had the front part of their home seized in 2009.

Mohammed al-Kurd was only 11 when half of his home was invaded and taken over by a group of settlers protected by armed guards. They been occupying this portion of the house ever since, making the al-Kurd's life a living hell. For more than 11 years, the family has endured all kinds of harassment from their occupying neighbours, including violent physical attacks, Arabic curse words, obscene gestures, aggressive dogs unleashed on them, or rubbish thrown towards their side of the house - anything to try to force the family to leave their home.

There's a land theft going on, and this is happening all around Palestine. The Israeli judicial system works in collusion with well-funded settler groups to ethnically cleanse Palestinians

Mohammed, who's been tirelessly raising awareness about the situation in Sheikh Jarrah and across Palestinian communities, described his neighbourhood as "scary" and "uninviting" these days.

"There's police and army 24/7, it's under high surveillance with cameras everywhere, heavily armed settlers are wandering about," the young man said. "You feel you're not safe and can't do anything. It's really, really intense".

Last October, the Israeli Magistrates' Court in Jerusalem ruled to evict 12 local families, meaning half of the Palestinian families residing in Sheikh Jarrah are expected to lose their homes in the coming months.

Read more: Israel's demographic battle for Jerusalem 
leaves Palestinians struggling to survive

Four families (Iskafi, al-Jaouni, al-Kurd, and al-Qasim) who have been handed eviction decisions have until 2 May to vacate their houses. Three more families (Hammad, al-Daoudi and al-Dajani) were given until August to be forcibly evicted. Additionally, the court decided to dispossess the al-Sabbagh family.

"In 2009, settlers, with the help of occupation forces, took over half of my house in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. 12 years on, as we pass by in front of OUR house, we see this picture, a settler carrying a weapon enjoying the yard of our house! Today, they want to take the other half!" Muna al-Kurd recently tweeted.

The Hammad household has long been threatened with dispossession though it is the first time they were sent an eviction order.

"We're going to be in the street, and settlers will be in our homes. It makes me really mad every time I think of it," Aref Hammad, who's also a member of the Sheikh Jarrah Refugees Housing Units Committee, told The New Arab. He said their plan, like other families, is to stay in the district or at least in East Jerusalem.

"We won't leave, even if we have to stay in tents," the elderly man pledged. "We won't go to the West Bank or anywhere because that's their [Israelis'] goal, they want to get all Palestinian Jerusalemites out so they can take over".

We won't go to the West Bank or anywhere because that's their goal, they want to get all Palestinian Jerusalemites out so they can take over

Since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, Jewish settler organisations have tenaciously tried to take over homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Some of the Palestinian families targeted, who are originally from West Jerusalem and other parts of historic Palestine, were displaced by Zionist forces during the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe), when around 800,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes during the establishment of the State of Israel.

As part of an agreement between the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and Jordan - which then controlled eastern Jerusalem - 28 families displaced in 1948 were selected and provided a housing unit and a plot of land, allowing them to resettle in the newly built neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in return for renouncing their refugee status with the UN refugee agency. The refugee families were promised they would become owners of the property after three years of inhabiting the land, which did not happen. Settler groups are today using this to claim ownership of the homes.

Just two years after the original population of historic Palestine was pushed out of their homes and lands, Israel passed the Absentees' Property Law of 1950 that served to seize the land and property left behind by the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced out or fled the 1948 war. The law effectively denied Palestinian refugees their right to return and reclaim their stolen properties.

After the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, Israel enacted the Legal and Administrative Matters Law in 1970 exclusively allowing Israeli Jews to pursue claims to allegedly owned properties - but not to Palestinian land owners - in the city's eastern section that were lost in the 1948 war and transferred to Jordanian control. Thereafter, Jewish organisations began to recover ownership land rights, demanding that the refugee families leave their homes.

Read more: Battle for Silwan: The Palestinian family fighting Israeli eviction in Jerusalem

In 1980, East Jerusalem was formally, albeit illegally, annexed. To ensure its annexation is permanent, the Israeli government approved the Master Plan 2000, a scheme rearranging boundaries of the city with the aim of enabling and consolidating a demographic majority for Israeli Jews to the detriment of Palestinian Jerusalemites.

Settlement activity and Israeli settlers in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem are illegal under international law since the occupying state has an obligation to preserve the demographic composition of the inhabitants.

This state-sponsored ethnic cleansing has provided legal cover for Israeli individuals, in coordination with settler organisations, to permanently confiscate Palestinian land and homes. The Israeli judicial system is complicit in the implementation of unlawful and discriminatory policies in Sheikh Jarrah, which do not take into account that East Jerusalem is occupied territory.

Israeli courts refuse to recognise any documents held by Palestinian residents proving ownership of their homes and land, which pre-date those provided by settler organisations, while settlers file eviction lawsuits questioning whether Palestinian families have legitimate rental agreements.

Israeli settlers, with the backing of the Israeli courts, military and police, have been displacing Palestinians from their homes for decades

In a last push to resist Israel's policy of land confiscation and displacement, the affected families in Sheikh Jarrah appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court against the eviction verdicts recently issued by the district court. Lawyers are currently working on the plea.

"We have taken every possible legal step, this is the last legal recourse we have left," Mohammed said. "Resorting to the route of the law is the only option we have to fight back against these forced, baseless evictions". 

Yet, Palestinians don't expect the appeal to change the outcome of their case. They are well aware that Israel has the military might and resources to dispossess them, and its legislation is de-facto above international law.

Read more: 'We were and are still here': A visual history
of Palestine's lost past

"I don't think we will get a fair ruling, it's a political issue, Israelis control the whole judicial system," Hammad said. "It will let us buy more time". 

The forced evictions of Palestinians not only violate international law but also leave them homeless. Most of the families in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line, with no other place to stay in an increasingly unaffordable city, which would force them to move to the West Bank and lose their Jerusalem ID cards, resulting in the revocation of their residency rights.

Residents of Sheikh Jarrah live in a constant state of fear and anxiety, knowing they could be thrown out of their own homes at any time. Elders have developed chronic medical conditions due to stress; children are terrified and growing angry at the injustice they are suffering; and the community as a whole is being gradually eroded in its size and societal fabric. 

"I don't know where to go if the court decides to give my house to the settlers. Every stone in my house has a story," a resident named Abu Said said in an interview last month. 

As the danger of mass dispossession looms over much of the neighbourhood, Palestinians are continuing to fight legal battles for the right to their properties, and appealing to human rights organisations and local courts.

In an effort to mobilise international support, activists launched the online campaign #SaveSheikhJarrah (and its Arabic equivalent #انقذوا_حي_الشيخ_جراح) to stop Israeli efforts to remove Palestinians from their homes. 

Through the campaign, the Sheikh Jarrah community publicised a list of demands. Among them, they are calling on the international community to take strict diplomatic and political measures to condemn Israel's continued policy of forced displacement and ethnic cleansing in their neighbourhood, and pressure Israel to stop its settler-colonial policies in all other neighbourhoods of occupied East Jerusalem.

We won't let settlers take over our community, we're not going to let this happen to our families

They are demanding that UNRWA protects refugees in the district whose status was rescinded in 1956 in exchange for a promise that was never fulfilled. They are also asking the Jordanian government to put pressure on the Israeli authorities to recognise that the residents hold the legal right to their property.

On 10 March, 14 Palestinian and Arab organisations issued a joint urgent appeal to the United Nations Special Procedures on forced evictions in East Jerusalem to stop Israeli evictions in the area. The group of human rights organisations highlighted how 15 Jerusalemite families, about 195 Palestinians, residing in the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are at imminent risk of forced eviction. 

Like other indigenous inhabitants of Sheikh Jarrah, Mohammed stands resiliently against the impending fate of expulsion awaiting his family.

"We won't let settlers take over our community, we're not going to let this happen to our families," the young Palestinian voiced in firm defiance.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec