In Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, longtime Palestinian residents are challenging expulsions by Israeli settlers in court and bearing a violent response, fearing the repeat of history

Sheikh Jarrah family
Samira Dajani holds a photo of her father, Fouad Moussa Dajani and his sons, taken in the same place in the courtyard of their home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem, Sunday, May 9, 2021. When Samira Dajani’s family moved into their first real home in 1956 after years as refugees, her father planted trees in the garden, naming them for each of his six children.

  • A dozen Palestinian families face expulsions from the occupied East Jerusalem area of Sheikh Jarrah.
  • Peaceful sit-ins in the neighborhood were met with deadly violence from Israeli police.
  • Insider spoke to Palestinian families fighting to save their neighborhood, and their identities.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Rasha Budeiri and her mother often reminisce on the intergenerational, cheerful memories that define their family’s history in Sheikh Jarrah, a close-knit Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Her mother, Samira Dajani, remembers planting trees with her grandfather in the garden, and Rasha misses the summertime reunions with her cousins from across the diaspora, where they would play, fight, laugh and clamor for a spot on the swing. Budeiri distinctly remembers her grandmother’s eyes, and the way they would light up at the sight of her grandchildren, a unified family, gathered in her garden.

The swing is still there, but like many other Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, and scattered throughout the occupied territories, the fate of their family and land is uncertain.

A fraught history, and a chaotic present

Sheikh Jarrah has become the tense centerpoint of an expulsion campaign led by Israeli settlers, which Palestinian residents say is also sanctioned by the Israeli state.

Since 2020, eviction notices have been served to thirteen Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood which sits between East and West Jerusalem, a strategic location just north of the Damascus Gate and the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s old city.

The basis of the attempted dispossession in the neighborhood revolves around the use of a 1970 Israeli law that exclusively allows Jews to take back lands they claim to have lost before the state of Israel was established in 1948.

The history of the neighborhood is, “a microcosm of the Nakba,” Diana Buttu, the director of the Institute for Middle East Understanding told Insider.

“Because it’s a result of the Nakba,” Buttu added.

The Nakba, or the great catastrophe in Arabic, describes the mass expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their native land in 1948, as paramilitary Zionist forces raided villages and towns and established the state of Israel.

May 15 marks the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba, during a week in which Palestinians have mobilized globally to save Sheikh Jarrah. As the violent response increased tensions, Hamas launched missiles into Israel and Israel has launched a deadly, ongoing new bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip which has killed at least 65 people, including 16 children.

Between 1951 and 1967, Jordan controlled what is now known as the West Bank and Egypt maintained control of the Gaza Strip, while Israel occupied the rest of the land.

With the approval of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, Jordan allowed Palestinians displaced to other parts of Palestine and into Jordan to build homes in Sheikh Jarrah in 1956, if they renounced their refugee status.

The reality of an autonomous neighborhood was short-lived though, as the 28 Palestinian families who built houses in Sheikh Jarrah came under Israeli military occupation after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, interrupting Jordan’s ability to prefect all of the families new homes.

Budeiri’s maternal family was one of the expelled Palestinian families that was able to resettle in their homeland, in Sheikh Jarrah under the agreement, and who soon found themselves under occupation.

“You carry the weight of occupation wherever you go,” Budeiri said, who grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in Ottawa. “It affects every aspect of your life, where to study, who to marry, whether you have freedom to move, or relocate and access to medical care.”

Expulsions amounting to “war crimes”

The UN has maintained that the Israeli military occupation is illegal and the continued settlement of East Jerusalem is as well. In a statement addressing the current expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah, the UN said Israel’s actions, “may amount to war crimes.”

One woman, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, but whose identity is known to Insider, is among the dozen Palestinian families served an eviction notice by Israeli courts after settler groups claimed to have documents proving ownership from before 1948, demanding rent payments from the longtime residents.

An Israeli court ordered the woman’s family, as well as Budeiri’s family, to leave their home by August 1.

“We would lose the air we breathe,” she said. “My father said his life would be over without this home. He’s been here for 60 years, since he was five years old.”

She said her family, and others in Sheikh Jarrah, have been the targets of settler organizations mounting legal campaigns, filing land claims in Israeli courts, since 1972.

Two years after the property ownership law was passed, two settlement organizations, the Sephardic Committee and the Knesset Committee of Israel, challenged Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah and across the West Bank in courts, according to the Palestinian legal organization Adalah.

An uphill battle

Many Palestinian families found themselves advocating to preserve their land and homes in Israeli court processes they felt were designed for them to lose.

By 2002, 43 families had been evicted from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, the Middle East Eye reported.

A 2015 report from Haaretz found US registered nonprofit organizations funneled $200 million between 2009-2013 to settlements in Israel, with some of the money being used to cover the legal fees and building costs for expulsion and settlement. Buttu, the Institute for Middle East Understanding director, said groups like the Israel Land Fund benefit from political cover in their efforts to advance this process.

“The Israeli government could have tried to block these expulsions, they could have taken a public interest position when it comes to the land. The government has not only allowed for the claims to go through, but they have supported them,” Buttu said.

The Sheikh Jarrah resident said she is hopeful because of the mobilization of Palestinians, and people internationally, against the evictions, which she felt pressured the Israeli Supreme Court to delay a decision which could have evicted some families by May 6.

“I’m happy about the pressure we’ve seen, and it’s not clear what the ruling will be. We’re still not sure whether we will be evicted, or whether, god willing, we will stay in our homes,” she added.

Over the next few weeks, the Israeli attorney general Avichai Mandelblit will decide whether he will become a party to the Sheikh Jarrah families’ case, which they have requested. The Israeli Supreme Court canceled the May 10 hearing at Mandelblit’s request.

A glimmer of hope amid escalating violence over the land

The Israeli Foreign Ministry has called the string of expulsions, “a real estate dispute between private parties.”

After residents in Sheikh Jarrah held sit-in protests denouncing the looming evictions last week, Israeli police forces targeted protesters with rubber bullets, tear gas and sound bombs.

“The skunk water is even worse than the sound bombs and tear gas,” the woman added, describing a sewage water cannon used by Israeli forces, “the smell stays on your skin for weeks, and my parents got sick from it.”

The Palestinian Red Crescent said some 700 Palestinians were injured by police forces through Monday. Almost 300 were injured over the weekend, when Israeli forces stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, while worshippers were praying inside.

“Coupled with the other things that have happened just this month alone, the ‘Death to Arab’ campaigns that we’ve seen, the blocking of access to Al-Aqsa mosque, it’s terrifying being Palestinian,” Buttu said, adding she woke up to news that a Gaza City residential building where she used to live was leveled.

“It’s a process of what I call death by a thousand cuts. And the reason that it takes a long time is because Israel wants to drag it out so that we lose all momentum when it comes to protests, and one day, we all wake up and we see that there aren’t any more Palestinians left in Sheikh Jarrah,” Buttu added.

As the Israeli courts weigh in on what’s next, Palestinian families in the neighborhood hope international pressure to stop their expulsions will persist, and that they can live free of occupation and violence.

Buttu told Insider it was a hopeful sign that Israeli organizations like B’Tselem, and Western organizations like Human Rights Watch have called the conditions to which Palestinians are subjected, “apartheid.”

Meanwhile, Budeiri is looking ahead: “I hope one day, it’s my daughters who I can push on that swing,” she said.

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