Occupied East Jerusalem – Mahmoud Haj Mahmoud, 56, spent a whole morning removing hundreds of rocks that carpeted the grounds of the courtyard of his modest, cement home in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
The night before, stone-pelting Israelis had attacked his home as tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers exploded in the neighbourhood. “We are suffering so much here,” said Mahmoud, a father of six children whose 19-year-old son is currently imprisoned by Israel.
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Mahmoud wandered into his home in the Um Haroun section of Sheikh Jarrah and took a seat on a couch. “The Israelis are just waiting for the right moment to come to our door and throw us out,” Mahmoud said, his eyes appearing exhausted. Heightened tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the area have kept Mahmoud from getting much sleep. “They want Sheikh Jarrah to be a neighbourhood only for Jewish people.”
While periodic confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli settlers are the most visible aspect of settler groups’ attempts to transform Sheikh Jarrah into a Jewish neighbourhood, the actual dispossession of Palestinians from their properties occurs in the shadows of quiet and sterile Israeli courtrooms.
Now, Palestinian and Israeli rights groups have sounded the alarm about what Mounir Marjieh, international advocacy officer at Al-Quds University’s Community Action Center, told Al Jazeera is the “biggest Jewish settlement campaign in East Jerusalem’s history”.
Israel has begun the process of resolving conflicting ownership claims, known as a settlement of title process, in various Palestinian neighbourhoods, including Sheikh Jarrah.
In light of Israeli laws that eased the transfer of Palestinian property to Israeli ownership, such as the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law and the Legal and Administrative Matters Law of 1970, rights groups have said the current legal process is more than just a neutral way of settling a dispute, and will result in the mass dispossession of Palestinians from their lands and properties and their removal from the occupied city.
“The manner in which the settlement of title process is being implemented, alongside the existing legislative framework, clearly turns it into a mechanism that places entire Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem in danger of displacement,” Ir Amim, an Israeli rights organisation, has warned.
Following 1948, when Israel was established upon the displacement of about 750,000 Palestinians – including 60,000 Palestinians from the western side of Jerusalem, Israel deemed the approximately 10,000 Palestinian homes in West Jerusalem whose owners fled or were expelled by Zionist militias as “absentee property”.
The Absentees’ Property Law regulated properties belonging to Palestinians, comprising about 70 percent of the overall land, who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war.
The state confiscated Palestinian properties and “these houses were given to Jewish immigrants”, Marjieh told Al Jazeera. “Israel carried out a final settlement of land title very quickly to ensure Jewish immigrants that moved to the Palestinian houses would have full ownership over the properties.”
More than 95 percent of the land on the Israeli side of the Green Line, or the 1949 border between Israel and its Arab neighbours, has undergone a settlement of title procedure.
However, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and subsequently annexed the territory, these proceedings were frozen by Israeli authorities, who feared backlash from the international community that viewed East Jerusalem as part of the occupied Palestinian territory. According to international humanitarian law, as an occupying power, it is illegal for Israel to conduct a final settlement of land title in the eastern half of the city.
That is now changing.
Israeli authorities have stated that the land title settlement process would benefit Palestinians by buttressing and affirming their land ownership rights through formal registration. The decision aims to “create a better future for East Jerusalem residents”, Israeli authorities have claimed.
After 1967, the Absentees’ Property Law was applied to the eastern part of the city. Properties of Palestinians who were outside East Jerusalem at the time – including many Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank that held property in East Jerusalem – were transferred to the Israeli Custodian for Absentees’ Property and the Palestinian owners lost their rights to use them.
Throughout the decades, Israeli settler organisations, whose stated goal is to create a Jewish majority demographic in East Jerusalem, have worked together with the Custodian to identify these “absentee properties” and take them over, according to Marjieh. A spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Justice, however, denied these allegations.
This, Marjieh said, is “one of the scariest parts of the land title settlement in East Jerusalem”, as all these properties, which some have estimated to be about 60 percent of properties in the eastern part of the city, would be officially registered under a different owner, while the Palestinian owners outside East Jerusalem would have no rights to object to this transfer of ownership.
In Um Haroun, a different statute, the 1970 Legal and Administrative Law, has also become a way of forcing Palestinians from their homes.
The law gave Israelis the right to claim properties believed to have been owned by Jews in East Jerusalem before 1948, a right not extended to Palestinians who owned property inside Israel before 1948.
According to Muhammad Dahleh, a prominent Palestinian lawyer in Jerusalem, most of the land in Um Haroun was managed as a Palestinian family’s waqf property – a legal trusteeship that ensures the property remains in the family for future generations – during the Ottoman period (pre-1917).
Before 1948, thousands of Jews lived in East Jerusalem and many Jewish families had been granted leases for plots of land in Um Haroun owned by the waqf, to whom they paid rent.
Owing to a massive influx of Palestinian refugees after 1948, the Jordanian government, the new rulers of East Jerusalem, signed lease contracts with Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in what became Israel, allowing them to live in homes where Jews had formerly resided.
This was how Mahmoud, who is a 1948 refugee, moved into his current home in 1963, signing a lease contract with the Jordanian government. After Israel’s military takeover of East Jerusalem in 1967, these properties were transferred to the Israeli General Custodian, to which the Palestinian families continued to pay rent.
Following the passage of the Legal and Administrative Matters Law in 1970, the Israeli government applied a broad interpretation of ownership within the Ottoman, British, and Jordanian legal systems, permitting Jews to claim ownership rights to all properties managed by the Israeli General Custodian.
The 1970 law set in motion the creation of various Jewish settler organisations with the stated aim of locating these properties and dragging Palestinian families into decades-long court proceedings in an attempt to evict them and replace them with Jewish residents.
According to Marjieh, this process has often involved collusion between private settler groups and the Israeli General Custodian. The Israeli justice ministry’s spokesperson, however, told Al Jazeera that these allegations were “not true”.
“These settler associations find the descendants of Jews that left their homes pre-1948,” Marjieh explains. “Then, they purchase the property rights from them and open legal cases against the Palestinians to dispossess them from the homes they are living in.”
‘Won’t leave without a fight’
One of the most notable figures in this settler movement is the right-wing Israeli activist Aryeh King, who is now serving as the deputy mayor of Jerusalem. Mahmoud said he was approached by King to part with his home in 2005.
According to Mahmoud, King visited his home in Sheikh Jarrah, and told him: “I want you to leave this house in 45 days”, adding that if he did not part with his property and leave, he would be thrown out.
A few weeks later, Mahmoud says, King returned with a $6m offer for Mahmoud to part with his home.
According to residents, other families in Um Haroun were also approached by King at this time; however, all the families say they refused his offers.
“[King] said to my face that he doesn’t want Arabs in Jerusalem and that’s why he wants our homes so bad,” Mahmoud added.
King, the former director and founder of the non-profit Israel Land Fund – which works to buy land in Palestinian neighbourhoods to sell to Jewish settlers, has made similar remarks in public in the past, even running for local office with a campaign slogan promising to “Judaise Jerusalem”.
In 2010, he was quoted by McClatchy Newspapers telling a room full of local city officials and development experts: “Jerusalem is for the Jews, and we need to stop apologising about this.”
Previously, in 2005, the same year residents in Um Haroun were approached to sell their homes, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that King worked with Jewish-American millionaire Irving Moskowitz to buy land from Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
Since 2008, several Palestinian families have been forcibly evicted from Sheikh Jarrah and replaced by Israeli settlers. One of these most recent cases, when the Shamasneh family was evicted in 2017, involved King buying the property from the granddaughter of one of the Jewish owners pre-1948, Haim Ben Sulimani; King then filed an eviction case against the family in 2009.
After he refused King’s offer, Mahmoud was soon pulled into court proceedings for decades with an obscure company believed to be backed by King.
“It is hard to know who actually stands behind [these companies] because they are registered in places that offer some confidentiality regarding the shareholders,” Dahleh explained.
Al Jazeera reached out to King multiple times for comment on the allegations raised about him in this story, but he did not respond.
Mahmoud and the other Palestinian residents of Um Haroun lost the legal battle about a decade ago, as Israeli courts ruled that “al-hikr”, or Ottoman-era long-term lease agreements that were historically used to develop waqf properties, were considered permanent sales of these properties to Jewish families.
According to Dahleh, the only thing now delaying these families’ evictions is convincing the Israeli courts that they are “protected tenants”, a status originating from an Ottoman-era law that guards against arbitrary evictions and establishes rent controls. After 1967, Israel abolished this right, but for those who had obtained it beforehand, Israel issued the Third Generation Law, which strips Palestinians of the right of protected tenancy after three generations.
This legal strategy therefore has its limits, and will only postpone the inevitable since “eventually the protection will end and they [Israelis] will take over the entire neighbourhood”, Dahleh told Al Jazeera.
Now, almost all the residents of Um Haroun, which includes about 45 Palestinian families, are facing forced evictions, along with approximately 35 more families in the adjacent Kerem Alajoni section. According to Ir Amim, approximately 200 Palestinian families in East Jerusalem are under threat of eviction.
But even if they were not already stripped of legal rights to their homes, they would have likely still had their properties transferred to Jewish owners, as they had not been told that the settlement of title process was taking place, according to Ir Amim.
Mahmoud says he only found out that his property was officially registered in the name of a Jewish family after the 60-day window for objections had already passed. Once land is registered through the land title settlement process, it is nearly impossible to challenge those ownership claims.
Ratib Abu Hamza, 53, is Mahmoud’s neighbour. He also found out that his home had already been registered under the name of a Jewish family in the land title settlement process two years ago. “I was devastated when I found this out,” said Hamza, a father of five children, one of whom is also currently imprisoned by Israel. “They took our home from us without us even knowing. It’s like they don’t even consider us as existing.”
Next to him is a home shielded by a tall grey gate with an Israeli flag fluttering from the top. On an adjacent telephone pole, a camera is pointed directly at Hamza’s home. After an elderly Palestinian couple who had lived there since the Ottoman times passed away, a Jewish family moved in.
“We have no privacy because of these cameras,” Hamza said. “Every time I want to come inside my house, these settlers step in front of me and try to prevent me from entering my own home. I can’t touch them because they have the Israeli police here to protect them.”
Several Israeli settlers sauntered past Hamza and a group of Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists who had congregated around his home to launch a protest in support of Palestinians and against Israeli settlements in Sheikh Jarrah.
Soon enough, a group of Israeli police approached the small crowd and demanded that anyone not from Sheikh Jarrah leave immediately. One of the Palestinian residents responded, “They are the ones who are not from here,” frustratingly pointing to their Israeli neighbours.
Despite properties in Um Haroun already being registered in the land title settlement process under the names of Jewish families, giving the Palestinian residents no legal recourse to challenge the ownership claims, they have continued to refuse the imminent forced evictions.
“I was born here,” Mahmoud said. “All my memories are here. With what the Israelis are offering me, I could buy a place in one of the wealthiest areas of Jerusalem. But I would never trade this house for even the best house in the world.”
“We’re close to the Old City and Al-Aqsa Mosque. We are in the heart of Jerusalem. We are living like family here with all our neighbours. We will not leave without a fight.”