Batan al-Hawa, Occupied East Jerusalem – Over the years, Israeli settlers have repeatedly offered Zuheir Rajabi and his neighbours millions of dollars for their modest homes stacked on the hillside of Silwan’s Batan al-Hawa, a neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem.
The homes are in what is known as the Historic Basin of the Old City and in proximity to the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque, making them prized possessions.
A Jewish settler once offered Rajabi a blank cheque for his house, asking him to write any figure he chose, from 3m to 30m shekels ($800,000 to $8m).
But for Rajabi and 700 other neighbourhood residents – who are now facing eviction – no amount of money could make them part with their homes.
“They thought that in 30 days the people would give up their houses,” Rajabi said, standing on the roof patio of the neighbourhood’s community centre, overlooking the valley.
“The people here are very simple. They have only one thing, which is honour. We don’t mind living in poverty or in bad conditions, but we just can’t handle losing our honour,” said Rajabi, who is also the spokesperson for the Batan al-Hawa Committee.
A large number of Batan al-Hawa residents have been there for over 70 years, many after being expelled from their ancestral homes as Israel proper was being established.
Residents now face another expulsion with a Jewish settler organisation, Ateret Cohanim, trying to wage what Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO, calls the single-largest takeover of a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem since Israel occupied it in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Ateret Cohanim, which aims to Judaise East Jerusalem, claims the homes in Batan al-Hawa were built on land owned by the Jewish Benvenisti Trust in the 19th century, which it used to settle Yemeni Jews in the area.
In 2002, Israel’s Justice Ministry issued a title deed for the land, about 5.5 dunams (1.4 acres), to the Benvenisti Trust without notifying the residents. By then, Ateret Cohanim had established control of the Trust.
The deed was used as a basis for eviction notices to residents, such as the one received by the Rajabi family in 2015 demanding that the seven families living in the house leave.
In June this year, over a hundred Palestinian residents fighting evictions filed a petition, arguing that the Benvenisti Trust owned just the buildings and not the land on which they stood.
Since the original buildings had since been destroyed and rebuilt, the Trust could not claim the land, the residents argued.
That same month, the Israeli government admitted that the Ministry of Justice had failed to investigate the Trust before issuing the title deed.
Yet, the Israeli High Court of Justice last month rejected the residents’ appeal to overturn the 2002 decision, effectively allowing Ateret Cohanim to pursue the takeover of Batan al-Hawa.
Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem said that the court’s ruling had paved the way for the cleansing of Palestinians from Silwan.
“The judgment proves, yet again, that the Israeli High Court gives its seal of approval to almost any infringement of Palestinians’ rights by the Israeli authorities.”
So far, Ateret Cohanim has evicted 17 families and now owns six buildings in the area.
According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 45 percent of all Palestinian families facing eviction in East Jerusalem live in Batan al-Hawa.
B’Tselem called it “the most extensive expulsion process” in recent years in the city.
Rajabi said his father bought their plot of land in 1966 after they were expelled from the Old City’s Jewish Quarters without any compensation.
“I was born here, I grew up here, I got married here, I have lived here all my life,” he said.
Disappointed over the court’s ruling, he said Israeli society is heading to the “extreme right”.
Rajabi compares Ateret Cohanim to an octopus whose tentacles have gripped the Old City and Silwan.
“Ateret Cohanim is a powerful organisation, not just politically. It has money too,” Rajabi said.
According to Israeli daily Haaretz, the organisation uses a number of tactics to coerce Palestinians into selling their properties, including sexual entrapment and blackmail of various types – such as threatening to publicise a sale agreed in secret so the seller, fearing for their life, would then be forced to lower their price significantly to avoid their community’s ire.
Ir Amim says the Israeli government has been directly involved in facilitating illegal private settlement in the Old City and surrounding Palestinian neighbourhoods.
“The government acted through the General Custodian and the Registrar of Trusts (both under the Ministry of Justice) to facilitate settlers’ seizure of Batan al-Hawa, as well as increasing its security budget by 119 percent from 2009-2016 to ensure the protection of radical Jews settling in the hearts of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem,” the NGO said.
According to a report by Ir Amim, the political objective of groups such as Ateret Cohanim is to consolidate Jewish control in East Jerusalem and thwart the two-state solution.
Yacoub al-Rajabi, a member of the Batan al-Hawa Committee, said that settlers have been trying to buy their house since 2003.
A year and a half ago, Ateret Cohanim offered him $2m to sell his home and drop the court case, but to no avail.
“If they evict us from our homes, we will build tents next to our homes. We will not go anywhere. We refuse to go anywhere. We refuse to be transferred [for the third time],” Yacoub said.
He described their neighbourhood as a prison where residents feel trapped and are regularly harassed by settlers, police, army and Israeli governmental institutions who pressure them to leave.
Whenever there is a Jewish holiday, he says the residents cannot leave their homes and the children can’t go to school under military order.
“We do not have anything but our steadfastness. [We will] try to defend ourselves and our rights … We have the ownership of this land and it is ours by law,” he said.
Rajabi’s office is located in the community centre built for children – the only place in the neighbourhood where the kids can play safely. In one corner of his office, a screen displays CCTV footage from the cameras installed outside.
Across the street, a dozen more cameras surround his home. He had them set up to document attacks by settlers or Israeli authorities after his father died from inhaling tear gas fired by the police.
Rajabi says his cameras have been extremely useful in disputing false claims by the settlers and the Israeli authorities.
The fate of their homes is now with the magistrate’s court in Jerusalem, which has to decide whether the Benvenisti Trust owns just the buildings or the land too.
But Yacoub said there is little hope that justice can be delivered from Israeli courts.
“Even during the hearing the judge herself mentioned that there are some legal dilemmas in the court’s verdict,” Yacoub said adding that residents will try all possible means to stay, even taking the case to the International Criminal Court.
“This [court decision] will never break us. We will keep fighting for our rights, we will keep fighting for our ownership over our land and houses,” he said.