For at least a dozen Palestinian families living in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, the threat of eviction from their homes looms over their heads, paralysing any thoughts of the future.
In October, the Israeli magistrate court of Jerusalem ruled to evict 12 of the 24 Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and to give their homes to Israeli Jewish settlers. The court also ruled that each family must pay 70,000 shekels ($20,000) in fees to cover the settlers’ legal expenses.
The families were given 30 days to file an appeal, but most expressed little hope for a ruling in their favour, saying the Israeli judiciary is no more than an instrument of the Israeli occupation policy of forcibly displacing and erasing the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem.
“Since the eviction order, we’ve been living with the daily anxiety of not knowing when the Israeli army will come and evict us from our home,” said Ahmad Hammad, a resident of Sheikh Jarrah.
“All of my memories are here. I was born here and my father, aunts, uncles and grandparents all lived in this house.”
‘Well-oiled colonial machine’
Sheikh Jarrah, located on the slopes of Mount Scopus just north of the Old City, is home to 3,000 Palestinians, all refugees who were ethnically cleansed from their homes in other parts of historical Palestine during the 1948 Nakba.
The neighbourhood is a juxtaposition of affluent and poorer areas, home to the American Colony and Ambassador hotels. But the part where the refugees and their descendants live is marked by unpaved roads and homes that are in disrepair because the Israeli municipality in Jerusalem prevents any kind of renovation work.
The refugees, 28 families displaced from their homes by Israel, were able to relocate to Sheikh Jarrah in 1956 after Jordan, which had a mandate over the eastern part of Jerusalem, built housing projects for them there. An agreement between the United Nations and Jordan stipulated that the families would receive the houses in return for renouncing their refugee status with the UN refugee agency and that after three years the Jordanian government would transfer ownership titles to the families.
However, that did not happen and by 1967, Israel had captured East Jerusalem.
According to Grassroots Jerusalem, an NGO that is a platform for Palestinian community-based mobilisation, there has been an influx of Jewish settlers since 2001 “who have been responsible for forced evictions and terrorism in the neighbourhood”.
According to Fayrouz Sharqawi, global mobilisation director for Grassroots Jerusalem, it is “absurd” to count on the Israeli judicial system to protect Palestinian rights.
“This system is an integral part of the Zionist colonial state, which identifies as a ‘Jewish state’ and accordingly and systematically oppresses, dispossesses and displaces Palestinians,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Rulings that momentarily suspend eviction or demolition orders serve only Israel, as they create the illusion that it is a democratic state where courts hold the government or army accountable and prevent violations of Palestinian rights,” she continued.
Sharqawi said even in the best-case scenarios, more than 70 years of occupation prove that court decisions postpone but rarely reverse such orders, which are eventually implemented.
“Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem, have to face a well-oiled colonial machine: the Israeli military, bureaucratic and judicial systems, who work hand in hand on dispossession and displacement of Palestinians,” she said.
Evictions part of Israeli ‘demographic balance’
For Hammad, he knows the reality all too well.
“I’m not optimistic regarding the appeal,” he said. “I just feel like it’s buying more time but only for the inevitable to happen.
“We have all the documents and proof needed,” he added. “But the overwhelming feeling is that of fear and seeing our home being taken away from us and given to settlers.”
This Palestinian writer wants Americans to understand how their tax dollars are making his family homeless. pic.twitter.com/2D85iM7BUl
— AJ+ (@ajplus) November 26, 2020
Since the 1970s, the Israeli government has been working on implementing a “demographic balance” in Jerusalem at a 70-30 ratio, limiting the Palestinian population in the city to 30 percent or less.
This urban planning has been executed by a number of policies such as land confiscation, displacement, and colonisation of Palestinian neighbourhoods.
On November 26, the Jerusalem District Court authorised the eviction of 87 Palestinians from the Batan al-Hawa area in occupied East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighbourhood in favour of the Israeli settler group Ateret Cohanim.
The 87 Palestinian residents of Batan al-Hawa have been living in their homes since 1963.
After launching a legal case against the residents, Ateret Cohanim settled 23 Israeli families among 850 Palestinian residents, under heavy security.
Other settler organisations, some funded by individuals in the US, include Nahalat Shimon and the Israel Land Fund.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 689 structures have been demolished across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in 2020 alone – more than in any full year since 2016 – leaving 869 Palestinians homeless.
For Mohammed al-Kurd, a poet and writer from Sheikh Jarrah who is currently studying in New York, the evictions of Palestinians, which he describes as “forced displacements”, are not just an isolated event.
“It is a rooting of a sustainable dispossession movement,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We need to always constantly remind people that this is not just some poor Palestinian family [who] for some weird legal reason [is] losing their property. This is [about] hundreds of thousands of Palestinians all around Jerusalem and neighbouring cities – Palestine at large – who are facing the vicious fangs of a judicial system designed inherently to displace them.”
Al-Kurd was just 11 years old when Jewish settlers forcibly took over half of his home in November 2009 and described sharing it with “squatters with Brooklyn accents” as “insufferable, intolerable [and] terrible”.
“They are just sitting in our home, tormenting us, harassing us, doing everything they can to not only force us to leave the second half of hour home but also harassing our neighbours into leaving their homes as part of an effort to completely annihilate the presence of Palestinians from Jerusalem,” he said.
Hammad, who grew up with al-Kurd, said it is difficult to think and plan ahead for the future.
“I don’t know what will happen if they evict us,” he said. “This ruling came at a time where life is pretty much as a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re taking this day by day,” he continued. “Even if we decided to pitch a tent outside our house and live there, the Israeli government will not allow it.”
Al-Kurd said his family cannot afford to rent a place in Jerusalem, and the only other choice they will have will be to go to the occupied West Bank, where they will lose their Jerusalem residency and not be allowed to come back to the city again.
“That is the larger issue here,” he explained. “It’s home demolitions, forced displacements, evictions, but it’s also psychological – losing our ability to enter Jerusalem again.
“The way Israel has created this to look like some kind of a legal problem – it’s not, it’s irrevocably political.”