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Mohammad Sabbagh is one of the many Palestinian residents of the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah who is fighting attempts by Jewish settler organizations to take over their homes.

Photography by Heidi Levine/The Globe and Mail

A lush fig tree provides welcome shade on Othman Bin Affan street in the heart of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem. Underneath the tree are two worn armchairs, one of which is occupied by a well-dressed old Palestinian man in a striped blue shirt.

Cigarette in hand, he glares at the house across from him, as he often does every day for hours. The house is festooned with Israeli flags and Stars of David that illuminate at night. He wonders if his family’s home on a parallel street will soon look the same.

“That used to be a Palestinian house and seven Arab families live there,” Mohammad Sabbagh says in near-perfect English. “They were evicted on August 2nd, 2009. The Israeli police drove them out at night. They put up a tent under this tree and lived here for six months. All of us here are afraid of being evicted too.”

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Mr. Sabbagh was born in 1949. A year earlier, when the state of Israel was created, his family had to flee Jaffa, the ancient port city on the southern edge of Tel Aviv, and spent a decade wandering the region, looking for a permanent home. In 1956, the Jordanian Housing Ministry, in partnership with the United Nations, came to the rescue and moved them and about two dozen other displaced Palestinian families to Sheikh Jarrah.

In 1967, Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War gave the country control of East Jerusalem. Not long thereafter, various Jewish groups launched legal battles contesting property ownership of much of Sheikh Jarrah. Those battles continue today, triggering mass protests among Palestinians, who say their neighbourhood is “under siege,” and dividing public opinion around the world into pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli camps.

The Globe and Mail approached dozens of Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah and in Silwan, another East Jerusalem neighbourhood where some Palestinian families face eviction, to ask for interviews. All the requests were turned down.

Evictions in East Jerusalem

LEB.

Palestinian

neighbourhoods

SYRIA

Tel

Aviv

Israeli settlements

Around 600,000

Jews live in the occu-

pied West Bank and

East Jerusalem

WEST

BANK

Jerusalem

GAZA

JORDAN

ISRAEL

WEST BANK

Jerusalem

municipal

boundary

EAST

JERUSALEM

E1 – planned

settlement

Armistice

Line, 1949

Sheikh

Jarrah

ISRAEL

Old

City

WEST JERUSALEM

Silwan

Maale Adumim

Pop: more than

40,000

“No Man’s Land”

U.S. embassy

Sur

Baher

WEST BANK

Har Homa

0

2

Bethlehem

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS;

GOOGLEMAPS

Evictions in East Jerusalem

LEB.

SYRIA

Palestinian

neighbourhoods

Tel

Aviv

Israeli settlements

Around 600,000

Jews live in the occu-

pied West Bank and

East Jerusalem

WEST

BANK

Jerusalem

GAZA

JORDAN

ISRAEL

WEST BANK

Jerusalem

municipal

boundary

EAST

JERUSALEM

E1 – planned

settlement

Armistice

Line, 1949

Sheikh

Jarrah

ISRAEL

Old

City

WEST JERUSALEM

Silwan

Maale Adumim

Pop: more than

40,000

“No Man’s Land”

U.S. embassy

Sur

Baher

WEST BANK

Har Homa

0

2

Bethlehem

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS; GOOGLEMAPS

Evictions in East Jerusalem

Ramallah

LEB.

SYRIA

Palestinian

neighbourhoods

Tel

Aviv

Israeli settlements

Around 600,000

Jews live in the oc-

cupied West Bank

and East Jerusalem

WEST

BANK

Jerusalem

GAZA

JORDAN

WEST BANK

ISRAEL

EGYPT

Jerusalem

municipal

boundary

EAST

JERUSALEM

E1 – planned

settlement

Armistice

Line, 1949

Sheikh

Jarrah

ISRAEL

Old

City

WEST JERUSALEM

Silwan

Maale Adumim

Pop: more than 40,000

“No Man’s Land”

U.S. embassy

Sur

Baher

WEST BANK

Har Homa

0

2

Bethlehem

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS; GOOGLEMAPS

About 20 years ago, the first Sheikh Jarrah families were evicted to make way for Jewish settlers, who argued that they had an historic right to certain sections of the area. Citing Ottoman land registry records from the late 19th Century, they claimed that the sections were owned by several rabbis. An Israeli court upheld the finding that the land had been Jewish owned, though several Palestinian families produced Ottoman documents that, they said, suggested otherwise.

Dread set in among the remaining Palestinian families as the eviction orders rolled in over the next two decades. The Sabbagh family’s eviction order was upheld in the high court in 2019. Peace Now, Israel’s biggest peace group, alleges the court declined to consider evidence uncovered by the family that appears to undermine the claim by Jewish organizations that they bought the land in the Sabbaghs’ corner of Sheikh Jarrah in the 19th Century.

Aref Hamad, 70, and his wife Nufuz, 71, inside their home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

The extended Sabbagh family – 32 members, including 10 children – could be evicted as soon as this summer, when the court is to rule on their appeal and that of several other Sheikh Jarrah families. In June, Israel’s attorney-general said he would not intervene in the Sheikh Jarrah housing battles, a decision which may expedite the evictions. “We could be on the street soon,” Mr. Sabbagh says. “I sit here every day to tell everyone what is going on, about the injustice.”

One of his neighbours, Aref Hammad, who lives in a house with his wife, four children and 13 grandchildren, one of whom wears a black “We Will Not Leave” T-shirt, also has a sense of doom.

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Muna El-Kurd, 23, and her twin brother Mohammed have been at the forefront of a social media campaign to stop the evictions of Palestinians from their homes.

“The settlers first tried to evict us in 1972 and for 50 years I have been fighting them,” he says. “Since 2020, the court processes have accelerated. The settlers want to win immediately and connect East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem. The whole world says Israel has a right to defend itself but we have no right to defend ourselves?”

The plight of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, where Palestinian families are fighting what they call Israeli “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing,” have made headlines around the world in recent months as the eviction orders piled up. “Sheikh Jarrah is very important,” says Gwyn Lewis, director of the United Nation’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, known UNRWA, in the West Bank. “It’s part of Israel’s broader design to change the character of East Jerusalem.”

In early May, anti-eviction demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere in East Jerusalem were one of the triggers for the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the political and militia force in Gaza that Israel and several other countries, including Canada and the United States, consider a terrorist organization. Images of the protests and Israeli police action filled the social media pages of tech-savvy young Palestinians, including those of Muna el-Kurd, the Sheikh Jarrah resident who has 1.5-million Instagram followers, and helped to spark sympathy demonstrations in many countries, including Canada.

Some of the Jerusalem protests turned violent and Israeli police stormed the compound of the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site. More violence ensued and Hamas, which many Palestinians in the West Bank, Israel and Gaza consider the only effective protector of Jerusalem and its Muslim holy sites, issued an ultimatum to Israel: Withdraw from the Temple Mount (which includes al-Aqsa), and Sheikh Jarrah or there will be consequences.

That was on May 10. That evening, after the ultimatum went unanswered, Hamas unleashed its rockets and Israel responded by bombing Gaza and battling demonstrators in the West Bank. By the time the tentative ceasefire took effect on May 21, 256 Palestinians had been killed, most in Gaza. They included 66 children and 40 women. Thirteen Israelis were killed, two of them children.

The Israeli courts suspended rulings on the evictions during the war, but they are now back and tensions among Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are at a boiling point again. The UN, peace charities and governments around the world are watching the situation closely, fearful that either area could turn into a violent hot zone and ignite another war. “From the UN’s perspective, the evictions are illegal because East Jerusalem is occupied and falls under international law,” Ms. Lewis says.

Israeli forces detain a Palestinian during clashes that erupted following a public statement by far-right Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir near Damascus Gate, just outside Jerusalem's Old City, on June 10, 2021.

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi (center) joins Arabs activists in a demonstration against the threatened eviction of six Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on June 11, 2021.

In an interview at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Ahmad Tibi, the chamber’s senior Arab lawmaker, said he holds little hope that a new round of violence can be avoided if the courts uphold the evictions and Palestinian families are pushed onto the street. “There will be new confrontations, demonstrations, popular resistance, aggressive police action,” he says. “There could be another round with Gaza.”

One Palestinian who is frightened by the upcoming court rulings is Yaqub Talal Rajabi, 45, a member of the Protection of Silwan Committee. On June 10, he attended a court hearing for two Silwan families who face eviction and came out feeling no relief even though the hearing was postponed until early July.

“In the Israeli judiciary system, we are always the losers,” he says. “They always rule in favour of the settlers. If we lose Silwan, we have nowhere else to go.”

No Palestinian thinks the new government, which was sworn in on June 13, ending the long reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, will reverse course on the evictions. They note that Mr. Netanyahu’s replacement, Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Yamina party, supports the establishment of Jewish settlements, does not believe in Palestinian statehood and wants Israel to annex large swaths of the West Bank.

But one Western diplomat, who did not want to be quoted by name because he is not authorized to talk to the press, said that Mr. Bennett might not want to risk another war, one that could be sparked by an aggressive round of evictions. “If the war goes badly and there are a lot of Israeli and Arab casualties, his coalition could collapse,” he said, noting that, for the first time, an Israeli Arab party is in the government.

In Sheikh Jarrah, a multi-story home is adorned with Israeli flags and a Star of David.

Palestinians complain that the laws, regulations and policies covering property, movement and every other aspect of their lives puts them at a severe disadvantage. In April, Human Rights Watch said that Israeli authorities “are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” as they pursue the policy “to maintain domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.” Lior Haiat, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, called the allegations against Israel “preposterous and false.”

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A document published by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (Passia) notes that it’s almost impossible for Palestinians in Jerusalem to get building permits; many of the houses or extensions they do build are technically illegal, “placing them at constant risk of demolition.” The Israeli National Parks Authority has declared parts of East Jerusalem national parks, limiting Palestinian development. An archeological site was set aside in Silwan, only to be transferred to Elad, a settler group, Passia said.

One law that affects Palestinians households in Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah and other areas eyed by settlers is the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law. It denies Palestinians the right to reclaim properties lost in West Jerusalem in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when the city was divided into the Jordanian-controlled Eastern sector and the Israeli-controlled Western sector. But the law allows Jews to reclaim properties lost in the same year in East Jerusalem.

Jewish settlers erect Israeli flags and a Star of David atop a house they have occupied in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

In early May, just before the war, UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) called the Absentees’ law and its more modern offshoot, the 1970 Legal and Administrative Matters Law, discriminatory. Spokesman Rupert Colville said the laws are “based solely on the nationality or origin of the owner” and that the laws facilitate “the transfer by Israel of its population to occupied East Jerusalem.”

According to Peace Now, which bills itself as a Zionist movement devoted to the two-state solution, some 3,000 Palestinians in 200 East Jerusalem properties are under threat of eviction. It says about 20,000 Palestinian homes are under threat of demolition because they were built, or expanded, without permits, noting that permits are routinely denied to Palestinians.

“All this wears the mask of a real estate conflict but it’s really a conflict over the Judeaization of East Jerusalem,” says Budour Hassan, legal researcher for the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center.

Daniel Luria, the Australian-born spokesman for the Ateret Cohanim (Crown of Priests) settler group, claims Jewish settlers are legitimate returnees because they owned the disputed land in the 19th Century, and sometimes centuries before then. “The primary goal [of Ateret Cohanim] is to fulfill the Zionist dream of the revival of Jewish life and the return of our homeland,” he says. “The only master plan is Zionism.”

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He says that Ateret Cohanim “facilitates” the purchase of properties owned by Palestinians who want to sell, but would provide no details on how the process works. “We’re basically holy real estate agents,” he says. “Every single Arab [who wants to sell] is offered compensation.”

In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, the Star of David is seen illuminated over the homes of Israeli settlers.

Israeli border police guard Israeli settlers as they dance outside a former Palestinian home in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 7, 2021.

Sheikh Jarrah seems like a pleasant middle-class neighbourhood compared to Silwan, which is composed of a warren of narrow streets and mostly decaying houses plastered on the sides of a steep valley in the southeast shadow of the Old City of Jerusalem. There is virtually no green space or play areas for children.

Silwan is only 1.5 kms from the Dome of the Rock, the golden-topped shrine built on the spot where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Silwan’s 33,000 Palestinian residents consider their little corner of the Levant the final route to that holy site and are determined to hang onto it, though, like the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, their future looks bleak.

Since the 1980s, several hundred Jewish settlers have moved into the area, some with the help of Ateret Cohanim, and the displacements are on the rise as Jews and Arabs fight over who owned what property when, with each accusing the other of using faulty or inadequate documents or having no documents at all.

The homes of the settlers are generally in better condition that those of the Palestinians. Settlers and their children rarely leave the house without the presence of private armed guards, who are funded by the state. Knots of Israeli soldiers carrying tear gas canisters and automatic rifles guard some of the settlers’ houses.

There is virtually no friendly interaction between the settlers and the Palestinians and they accuse each other of provocations that sometimes turn violent. Some Palestinian families find life so unpleasant – and dangerous – in Silwan that they are happy to move elsewhere in East Jerusalem. A few risk building houses without permits, because they can’t get them. Some of the houses are torn down, putting them back on the street.

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Arij Rajabi, 38, walks past a home occupied by settlers in her East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan on June 10, 2021

Dressed entirely in black, Silwan resident Arij Rajabi, 38, shows The Globe her small white Hyundai car, whose window she says was smashed by an Israeli rubber-tipped bullet. She says she fears for the life of her son, who is 13. “About a month ago, he was playing on his bike on the street and a settler came and pushed him over,” she says. “The police intervened and hit my boy, not the settler, and pepper sprayed him.”

Ms. Rajabi says the violence has escalated in the last month and that, since her family is under an eviction order, she has no idea if they will last the summer in Silvan, where she has lived for 17 years. An Israeli court has ruled that an old Jewish trust, long dormant but revived 20 years ago, owns her building and a lot of the land around it. The Palestinians have lived in the properties for decades and claim they are the legal owners. The UN, meanwhile, continues to warn that, under international law, occupying powers cannot confiscate land in occupied territory.

Mr. Rajabi, the Protection of Silwan Committee member who is a cousin of Ms. Rajabi, is gearing up for yet another legal battle to protect his Silwan property - perhaps his last fight before his forced eviction. “We will only leave Silwan as dead people,” he says.

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