Occupied East Jerusalem – In the darkness, just after 4:30am [01:30 GMT], police officers began to seal off the narrow sloping street, al-Khalidiyya Ascent, named for an illustrious family who had established a nearby public library.
Some of the officers positioned themselves in doorways opposite the designated building, equipped with Kevlar vests and truncheons, others in a row along the top of a stone step.
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Despite the dim grey light, the soaring Dome of the Rock inside the al-Aqsa Mosque compound was still visible in the near distance, towering over the alleyway and the rooftops.
The police commander’s quiet signal was eventually given less than an hour later. After decades of conflict, debate and courtroom drama leading up to this finale, the speed of the eviction on July 11 was itself extraordinary.
A small team of officers entered through the cornflower blue metal door into the building’s cramped foyer.
They needed just a handful of seconds to break open the white wooden doorway of the Sub Laban family home for the past 70 years.
“It was very, very fast,” said Alma Shibolet, one of a small number of people who had been inside the cramped 60-square-metre (645-square-foot) apartment. “They just push the door, came storming in, like dozens of them, immediately.”
This account is based on testimony and videos from Shibolet and fellow members of the Free Jerusalem group of activists, who use non-violent methods to protest what they consider to be Israeli government discrimination against Palestinians in Jerusalem. Half a dozen of them had barricaded themselves in the house, alongside Mustafa Sub Laban, 72, whose wife Nora Ghaith, had been born there.
The six activists were forcibly ejected – some physically carried out – while the elderly Sub Laban was given just a few minutes to collect his belongings.
Once they were removed, the furniture and the family’s other possessions were simply left inside. The family even says they have been told to expect an invoice to cover the cost of legal proceedings and their subsequent removal.
It was not the first time Palestinians have been forced out of their homes in this manner. It will likely not be the last.
Instead, the events represent just the latest salvo in a continuing citywide battle over housing and homeownership.
But at the heart of it was a single family, and its matriarch, 68-year-old mother of five, Nora.
She was born in a Jerusalem that was markedly different from the city of today.
At the time of her birth, her family had been renting the small stone-walled home in the Old City for about decade – the rental agreement signed in 1953, just a few years after the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel, an event Palestinians describe as the “Nakba”, or catastrophe.
The landlord back then was a Jordanian government authority that maintained control over Jerusalem’s walled Old City according to a 1949 Armistice agreement that concluded the first war between Israel and several Arab states.
By her late teens, much had changed for Nora. On the personal front, with her father already dead years earlier, her mother also passed away, and she was left to look after some of her siblings alone.
“I admit I deprived myself a lot,” she recalled tearfully. “But I did not deprive my own children.”
Politically, too, the situation in Jerusalem had radically shifted following the 1967 war, after which Israel occupied East Jerusalem. Nora began to slowly feel like a stranger in places she had known as a child.
“People in the streets were buying and selling, but they were not speaking our language,” she remembered. “I don’t even speak Hebrew.”
With most of her siblings living overseas by then, and denied legal standing in the ensuing dispute over the property, a legal battle began, seeking to take Nora’s home from her, even as she and her husband Mustafa set down their own roots and started to raise children there.
Proxy for a wider battle
Initially, it was an Israeli government entity that acted as a hostile landlord, seeking to force the growing Palestinian family from their home.
But later, an organisation called the Galetzia Trust continued to pursue their eviction through years of persistent court action.
The Trust asserted that, prior to 1948, the home’s owners had been Jewish. The Sub Laban family does not dispute that. But they point out that the Trust is not a family descendant of those original owners, so its control over the building is not rooted in a defensible historical claim, but is, in fact, a product of Israel’s current military-backed occupation of the Old City.
The contest over residency in the Sub Laban’s building has become, to some extent, a harbinger of the future of Palestinians in the Old City; reflecting the wider conflict over land and living that is playing out across the occupied West Bank.
The fate of Nora’s childhood home, where – until this month – she slept in the same bed her own mother had passed away in, is just one battle in the politicised real estate contest that is roiling the holy city under Israel’s current government, with hard-right political parties exerting unprecedented influence on the state’s behaviour.
The rise of successive right-wing governments has meant that some of Israel’s most powerful and politically connected settler organisations have felt more supported than ever in their long-running efforts to ensure Israeli Jewish families take over homes across occupied East Jerusalem.
That had already happened to adjacent properties above, beside and below the Sub Laban’s home.
After years of ill health that stemmed from stress, Nora had grown especially “agitated” in the weeks leading up to the eviction, she told Al Jazeera, and began using sedatives multiple times a day. “I’ve taken them morning noon and night because I can feel my heart pounding.”
But the Sub Labans’ experience is symptomatic of that wider issue, said Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, the European Union’s Ambassador to Palestine, a “case of eviction of a family who has housing rights here given to them on the basis of contracts established decades ago”.
They had paid their rent throughout that period and enjoyed protected tenancy status even after the end of the 1967 war, he insisted.
“For me, it’s politically, it’s legally, it’s morally unacceptable,” von Burgsdorff told Al Jazeera in June outside the home, at a time when the police-led eviction was initially expected. “We hope that the Israeli authorities will change their position.”
The Israeli state did not, and within hours of the eventual eviction in July, Israeli flags could be seen flying from the apartment’s windows and rooftop.
Israeli citizen Eli Attal, who acts on behalf of the Galetzia Trust and has been the driving force behind the eviction and many others in the neighbourhood over recent years, was crowded by protesters as he arrived at the doorway, shouting defiantly at those opposed to his efforts.
Entering alongside him were several young men in traditional Jewish garb, who were soon visible from the same upstairs windows where Nora had looked out on the street below for her entire life.
Outside, much younger boys from observant Jewish families who lived in the building next door held up their own signs in support of the move.
Reached by phone last week, Attal responded in a WhatsApp message in Hebrew, “I don’t talk to journalists,” before insisting he was not excited by the eviction, but was merely “doing what’s right”.
In 1973, Israel enacted a law that allowed anybody who could show a connection with a property’s pre-1948 owner, if they were Jewish, to assert their rights to it, explained Muhammad Dahleh, the Sub Laban family’s lawyer.
He said it is this legislation that has helped Attal and other Israeli organisations he works with to take control over many similar homes in the Old City.
“It’s outrageous that Israel, even today in 2023, is using this discriminatory law against Palestinians, only to evict Palestinians from houses and homes in East Jerusalem,” Dahleh told Al Jazeera.
He said the Sub Laban eviction was “based on a legislation that Israel enacted purposefully for this matter, to be able to evict Palestinians from their houses in East Jerusalem”.
Palestinians are not permitted to assert equivalent ownership rights over homes in Israel that were owned by their forebears prior to 1948.
Several hours after the eviction, activists and more family members, including a distraught Nora had gathered outside the building.
Dozens of police had also gathered. Her sons Luay, Ahmad and Rafat remained close to her in support.
Rafat, a human rights officer at the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, sometimes used a megaphone to lead chants among the group as they walked along the historic via Dolorosa, part of the route Jesus Christ is believed by Christians to have made through the city before his crucifixion.
Today, that maze of ancient alleys lies in a neighbourhood that was codified by the British in the early 20th century as the Muslim Quarter.
Rafat’s chants focused on both the eviction and Israel’s continued occupation of East Jerusalem.
At a nearby spot where an unarmed, autistic Palestinian man, 32-year-old Eyad al-Hallaq, had been shot and killed in 2020, the group shouted, “Justice for Nora, Justice for Eyad.”
Just days earlier, an unnamed Israeli policeman charged with the “involuntary reckless manslaughter” of al-Hallaq had been acquitted by an Israeli court.
One man sporting a New York Yankees baseball cap, a Free Jerusalem activist who had been forced out of the Sub Laban’s home by police earlier in the morning, carried a sign that read “This is Ethnic Cleansing”.
On at least two occasions, videos taken by activists showed the same man being violently pushed or carried away from locations in Jerusalem’s Old City by Israeli police personnel.
Back at the building later that night some of the same activists – “anti-occupation fairies”, as Rafat Sub Laban terms them – had daubed ‘FREE’ on the outside wall, and ‘Free Nora’ on the door itself. Scrawled in blue and black pen on cardboard and placed about the doorway earlier had been another sign, too, reading “Here Live the Thieves”.
Nora herself seemed to agree with that description, at least in a metaphorical sense, during an interview inside the home before the forced eviction. “They are stealing the past,” she said, her eyes often damp with tears. “Through the past, you live your present and your future. When they do that, you’ll have no past and no future.”