Jerusalem – Mazen Qerish, 58, should have been busy preparing for the holy month of Ramadan. Instead, he woke up earlier this month facing eviction from the Jerusalem home where his family has lived for generations.
Following a protracted legal battle to remain in the house, the family’s final appeal against the eviction was rejected by an Israeli court on May 30, giving him two days to leave his home and imposing a fine of 200,000 shekels ($50,000).
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“We don’t have a second home. There is nowhere else for us to go,” said Mazen, whose family has lived in this building in al-Saadiyeh neighbourhood, near al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, since 1936. Mazen’s grandfather originally rented the property from a Palestinian landlord.
But in 1987, the landlord sold the property to a third party linked to the ultra-nationalist Ateret Cohanim organisation. The group, which works to promote Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem, has backed a legal campaign to evict the family.
The first court battle lasted from 1996 to 2003, and the Qerish family won after it was established that they were “protected tenants” and could not be forced out, Mazen told Al Jazeera.
Their protected status was valid for three generations after the Israeli military occupied the eastern half of Jerusalem in 1967. However, when Mazen’s mother died in 2009, she was considered by the court to be the last member of the third generation, meaning the family lost its status as protected tenants.
In July 2010, Israeli settlers seized a number of units within the larger family home while most of the family members were attending a wedding, Mazen told Al Jazeera. He was home at the time, and recalled settlers entering the property after midnight.
“They broke down the door and entered. There were around 25 settlers and 10 to 15 soldiers. They were surprised to see me. I started shouting, and they said they wouldn’t do anything to me. They took the furniture from the homes and dumped it later at the UN. I was completely shocked. It was the worst day in my life.”
The owners of the property launched fresh legal proceedings, and an Israeli court ruled that Mazen’s family had to evacuate the property. Years of legal appeals followed as they attempted to stave off the eviction.
Meanwhile, his family lived in the same compound as the settlers, sharing an entranceway and courtyard. A huge Israeli flag adorns the shared front door. Plaques on the walls, bearing the logo of Ateret Cohanim, thank US-based families for sponsoring the renovation of the apartments.
The settlers tried to prevent me leaving and we got into a fight. Since they moved here, they have tried to put pressure on us in order to make us leave.
Asked about the organisation’s role in the eviction of the family, Ateret Cohanim’s executive director, Daniel Luria, said it acted as a facilitator, depending on what the owners wanted to happen. He would not discuss specifics.
“It’s very confidential, both in relation to the Arabs involved in the deal and the Jews involved in the acquisition,” Luria told Al Jazeera.
In the shared courtyard, a crowd-control barrier divides the space, while a string of Israeli flags hang from the apartments occupied by settlers.
“It has been like living in a prison,” Mazen said. “The settlers caused a lot of trouble. They threw garbage at us; they hit my kids. I called the police and submitted many complaints, but they never did anything about it.
“Sometimes there were fights and my kids were arrested,” he added. “I was afraid for my kids, because I didn’t want them to go to jail.”
Mazen’s son, Thaer, 20, remembered a fight that took place two years ago as he tried to leave the house and take his sweetcorn cart outside on to the street.
“The settlers tried to prevent me leaving and we got into a fight. People from the neighbourhood rushed to help me, but the corn went everywhere,” he said. “Since they moved here, they have tried to put pressure on us in order to make us leave.”
Human rights groups have warned that the eviction order delivered to the Qerish family should be seen as part of a wider trend, whereby ultra-nationalist groups are working with the Israeli government to establish and increase the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem.
“It is part of a mounting trend of evictions, demolitions and massive demolition orders in the Old City and the historic basin,” said Betty Herschman, director for international relations and advocacy at Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO. “We have a very insidious form of settlement going on in the historic basin. We refer to it as private settlement in the heart of Palestinian communities, but in fact the settlers receive all kinds of support, both covert and overt, from the Israeli government, including the government spending hundreds of millions of shekels on private security for the settlers.”
Israel’s annexation and control of East Jerusalem has never been recognised by the international community, and Palestinians claim the area as the capital of their future state. The transfer of Jewish citizens to these areas under occupation is considered illegal under international law and according to Herschman, it is also a grave threat to the prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict.
“This is not accidental and is designed to consolidate Israeli control of the historic basin,” she told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, in the living room of his home under a whirring ceiling fan, Mazen and two of his brothers, Majed and Monzeh, passed around old family photos and reminisced about happier days in the house.
“This was a beautiful time in our lives,” said Mazen, looking at pictures of a family celebration in the house in the 1980s. “We used to come together and make barbecues in the courtyard. We used to throw big family parties in this home. We used to be able to leave freely and not worry that our home would be taken when we returned. We used to rent a bus and all go to the countryside for picnics.”
“I celebrated my wedding in this house,” added Majed, smiling at a photo taken in 1986. “We all celebrated our weddings here in this house.”
Faced with the failure of his last appeal, Mazen remained adamant that he would not evacuate the house. As of this week, his family has not packed any belongings. “I am here,” he said. “If they want to evict me they will have to use force, because I will not leave.”