Who lives in Sheikh Jarrah?

Sheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem close to
the 1967 border that separates East and West Jerusalem. About 3,000 Palestinians live there.
In the late 1990s, Jewish settler groups began seizing buildings and
settling compounds in the neighbourhood.  One of the compounds at issue
is a plot of around 70 acres in the heart of the neighbourhood, in
which twenty-eight Palestinian refugee families who lost their original
homes, in what became Israeli territory in 1948, now live. These families
were housed in Sheikh Jarrah by the Jordanian government and the UN
during the 1950s, and in exchange, renounced their refugee status and
thus, the rights and welfare that go together with that status.

What triggered the struggle?

In the wake of a Court ruling in Israel, four families, consisting of
more than fifty human beings, were evicted from their houses without being
offered a suitable alternative and their homes were taken over by
Jewish settlers.  A similar threat hangs over the rest of the families. Lately,
additional suits for eviction have been filed.

What is the history of the place?

In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, there were a few
Jewish homes in part of the compound around a burial cave that served as a
pilgrimage site, in which, according to Jewish tradition, Simeon the
Righteous is said to be buried. These houses were gradually abandoned
during the 1930s and 40s. At the end of the British Mandate and
following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the area came under
Jordanian governance, and in the 1950s was given to Palestinian refugee
families. The area was conquered by Israel in 1967. In 1972 two Jewish
bodies, the “Sephardic Community Committee” and the “Knesset Yisrael
Committee”, claimed legal ownership of the land and initiated a series of
legal suits against the inhabitants. These included demands for rent and
later a request for the houses to be evacuated.

Did the houses in the compound originally belong to Jews?

No. The houses in question were built during the Jordanian regime on an
olive grove. They were proposed as a solution for accommodating
Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in various parts of Israel in
1948. The ownership of the lots is disputed.

Why did the Courts rule that these residents must be evicted?

The litigation over the houses is complicated and has been running for
over four decades. At a certain stage the Supreme Court recognized the
validity of the ownership deeds from the Ottoman period (from the end of
the 19th century), according to which the land belonged to the “Sephardic Community Committee” and the “Knesset Yisrael Committee”. The Sheikh Jarrah evictions are carried out on the strength of these deeds.

Who stands behind actions to evict Palestinian tenants from the houses?

 The ownership rights were bought from the “Sephardic Community Committee” and the “Knesset Yisrael
Committee” by a company called Nahalat Shimon Ltd.  In all likelihood, behind this company stand ideological
settler elements that took care to repopulate the evacuated homes with members of an extremist settler group.

When and how did the contested evictions take place?

On the night of 2 August 2009, a large force of Police and Border
Guards blocked sections of East Jerusalem and evicted the Palestinian
families by force (one family had already been evicted beforehand and
one was evicted afterwards). Private contractors removed the Palestinian
owners’ belongings and threw them out onto the street. According to
eye-witnesses, police officers then ceremonially presented the keys of
the houses to Jewish settlers, who moved in the very same day. The
evicted families were not offered alternative housing. For months they
lived in a makeshift tent in the street opposite their homes. This tent
was evacuated by Jerusalem municipal inspectors 17 times before it was
abandoned. The families were even charged for their eviction and
repeatedly fined for having put up the tent.

Then exactly who is populating the houses from which the Palestinian
residents were evicted?

Nahalat Shimon Ltd. tenants are families and yeshiva boys.
They are extremist in their opinions and violent in their behavior and
were filmed last Purim singing songs lauding Baruch Goldstein and
praising the murders he committed against Palestinian worshippers.

What is the nature of relations between settlers and Palestinians in
Sheikh Jarrah?

Daily life in the neighbourhood is extremely tense. Throughout the week
and particularly during weekends, the Jewish settlers are reinforced by
large groups of visitors who harass the neighbourhood’s Palestinian
residents. The settlers tear out fencing, break windows, puncture tires,
provoke scuffles, curse, throw garbage into Palestinian front yards and
deface the walls of their houses with paint and graffiti.

The settlers constantly submit false complaints to the police about
alleged aggression by local residents and international activists that
give rise to unjustified arrests and restraining orders from
the houses for protracted periods of time. The Israel Police Force takes
the side of the neighbourhood’s Jewish settlers and sees permitting
their presence there as its duty. Violent settler activity in the
neighbourhood does not, therefore, receive appropriate attention.

What is the aim of the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah?

On the immediate level, the settlers wish to increase the Jewish presence in the neighbourhood as much as possible, by gaining control of the sites and other buildings. In 2007 the settlers prepared a plan to demolish the houses that are on the site and to build 200 housing units in their place. The settlement in the compound is one of a series of other settlements in Sheikh Jarrah intended to create a continuous Jewish presence which will link Mount Scopus, via Sheikh Jarrah, to the west. These sites include the “Um Haroun” compound,  where Jewish families lived before 1948, the settlers’ houses in the ‘Shimon HaTzadik’ compound on the slope above the grave of Shimon HaTzadik, the Shepherd Hotel, the area of the Mufti’s Grove, and the plan to build a Yeshiva on part of the land in west Sheikh Jarrah (‘Glassman Campus’). In addition, the settlement in Sheikh Jarrah joins a series of existing settlers’ enclaves in a ring around the old city in Arab East Jerusalem. These enclaves are promoted by settlers’ organisations, with the aim of creating a situation in which it will be impossible to reach a peaceful solution based on a compromise of dividing the city. Naturally, extremist Jewish elements gaining control of Palestinian territories is also anticipated to thwart a solution based on shared and equal life of coexistence in the city.

Why oppose the evictions of the houses if the Israeli courts upheld them?

For at least two reasons.  Firstly, because the court decisions have turned ordinary people into refugees for the second time. Families in Sheikh Jarrah lost their houses for the first time in 1948, and now they are facing losing their whole world once again. This time, there is no war going on to justify it. Secondly, the ruling of the court is based on discriminatory legislation: Arabs are prevented from claiming entry to their old houses under the Absentees’ Property Law (1950), while Jews are allowed to do so. Equality before the law would give the Palestinians a strong claim to the buildings which were in their possession in Katamon and in Talbiyeh (formerly Palestinian neighbourhoods in West Jerusalem). So, with its ruling, the court may undermine the whole of into part of the whole system Israeli land policies in areas within the Green Line. With this ruling the court becomes one of the many parts of the Israeli system that maintains the entire occupation: the Knesset (Absentees’ Property Law), city and regional planning committees, the Ministry of Interior, the Border Police – nobody is directly responsible, but all of them are jointly responsible. Our opposition is not directed against the court, but rather against the policies of discrimination that give authority to its ruling. Besides, in principle, legal acts can also be controversial and it is the duty of those to whom their surroundings and society are precious to express their stand. 

What is happening in the rest of East Jerusalem?

The Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem has never been recognized by the states of the world and has been rejected in several UN Security Council resolutions. Since the annexation of the east of the city in 1967, an annexation which goes against international law, Israel has expropriated 96,000 acres of private land, around a third of the land which was annexed to the city. Since 1967 the Israeli government has planned and built on this land around 50,000 housing units for Jews, and not one unit for Arabs. The data regarding institutionalised discrimination in East Jerusalem is even more concerning. For example, there is a lack of 50km of sewage network, and around 1000 classrooms, and more than 160,000 Palestinian residents are not connected properly to the water network. The dropout levels stand at 50%, and around 65% of the population lives below the poverty line. A very small percentage of the city budget is directed to the east of the city, totally out of proportion with the percentage of residents of the city constituted by residents of East Jerusalem (and this, it should be noted, despite the fact that the level of municipal tax collection in East Jerusalem is very high). The Jerusalem municipality and authorities have in fact neglected East Jerusalem and have not maintained basic services, such as mail distribution. There is an especially serious problem in the area of planning and building. In the absence of a defined building plan for the east of the city, and due to clear discrimination in the planning and initiation of projects by the authorities, there is almost no possibility for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to build legally. Since 1967, and until today, an average of 140 building permits have been issued per year, for a population currently numbering more than 300,000 people! As a result of the increased population density, East Jerusalem residents are forced to build illegally. (The data is taken from a report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, May 2010, and from the website of the organisation Ir Amim.) In addition to the oppression and discrimination, the activities of settlers’ organisations, with the help of the government, dispossess East Jerusalem residents of their houses and land. More and more settler outposts are being established in the heart of Arab neighbourhoods. The houses are sometimes bought with money, although often by fraudulent means, and with the cooperation of the Israeli authorities. The plan for building in Sheikh Jarrah is, as stated before, part of a continuity of Jewish settlement which these bodies are trying to promote in the east of the city, in order to sabotage any solution of compromise which would entail the division of Jerusalem, and to displace the Palestinian residents. Whole Jewish neighbourhoods are being established in the remaining open areas of the city.

What are the aims of the ongoing struggle against the settlement in Sheikh Jarrah?

First of all, the struggle was born from the need to protest the injustice and the stupidity. In the short term, the goal of the struggle is to stop the various plans for building Jewish only areas in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, to prevent the eviction of twenty-four families of refugees and to return the four families who have already been evicted to their homes. In the medium term, the aim of the action in Sheikh Jarrah is to create a joint and effective voice of Arabs and Jews against the discriminatory policies of the Israeli occupation. In the long term, its aim is to help promote peace in Jerusalem.

In practical terms, what are we suggesting?

There are many different ways to create justice for the residents of Sheikh Jarrah and to solve the problem – there are political, legal and legislative solutions. For example there is the precedent of the directive given by the Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, during the period when Netanyahu was Prime Minister for the first time that the public interest comes before specific ownership claims, and ordered the removal of settlers in East Jerusalem from a house that they had taken over. The court could, and still can, rule that it does not have the authority to discuss the demand of eviction, because it is a political issue, or point out in its ruling to the inherent distortion in the Jewish right to claim assets from before 1948, a right which is not reserved for Arabs (under the Absentees’ Property Law).  An additional solution is to confiscate the ‘Jewish’ areas in Sheikh Jarrah, for public needs, and return them indirectly to residents of the neighbourhood, as was done in to Palestinian land in other parts of East Jerusalem. At the end of day the position taken by Israeli governments regarding issues like this has always been the result of the pressures placed on them. The public voice has great importance in influencing the legal as well as the political aspect.

Why is there so much noise being made over the local problem of a few families?

The injustice that is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is bad enough. But it is also the current example and symbol of the discrimination and oppression in East Jerusalem, and in the occupied territories in general. In Sheikh Jarrah part of the more general attempt to Judaise East Jerusalem has been exposed – a process that is likely to be the nail in the coffin of any future peace agreement in our area. Indeed, the activities of settlers’ associations have been continuing in other parts of Sheikh Jarrah (the Shepherd Hotel, the Mufti’s Grove, the Um Haroun compound) and East Jerusalem (in Silwan, the Muslim Quarter, Abu Dis, the Mount of Olives, and so on), in a continuous way, with the encouragement of the government and far from the eye of the media, for many years already. The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah is an attempt to put an end to this. Additionally, in Sheikh Jarrah you can see the problems of the entire occupation concentrated in one place and brought to the extreme. An extremist ideological body is trying to create a situation which will thwart a peace agreement for all Israelis and Palestinians by creating facts on the ground. To do so strikes a serious blow to the lives of innocent and weak residents, insofar as it relies on a discriminatory law enabling the appropriation of the property of Arabs, with the cooperation of the state and the authorities cooperate.

How is the struggle conducted today?

The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah is a non-violent democratic struggle. Varied activities are carried out in full cooperation with the Palestinian residents: for the past six months weekly demonstrations involving hundreds of participants are being held every Friday afternoon on the outskirts of the neighborhood, protest marches are held in East and West Jerusalem; volunteers take shifts sleeping in the neighborhood to support and protect the families from settler aggression and neighborhood residents and activists hold lectures and house meetings across Israel. Additional activities within the neighborhood are held regularly such as weekly dinners shared by Israelis and Palestinians, Shabbat ceremonies, activities for children, and other cultural events. Special conferences are held frequently throughout Israel. In May, hundreds of professors and students walked from the Hebrew University to Sheikh Jarrah to express solidarity with the struggle. Informational materials are sent regularly to the press or uploaded to the internet. Op-eds and letters to the editor are published in the press to build awareness about the situation in East Jerusalem.

The basic principle guiding the activity is the need to combine struggles through solidarity with other struggles. Sheikh Jarrah activists work in other places of oppression and discrimination. For example, they supported residents of another neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Silwan, when extreme right winger, Baruch Marzel, organized a provocative march through the neighborhood in April 2010, since that time activists, in coordination with the Silwan neighbourhood committees have maintained a constant presence in Silwan to prevent house demolitions and evictions. Sheikh Jarrah activists also participated in the struggle of Dahamash residents, an unrecognized village in Ramle, against the demolition of their homes.  In addition, Sheikh Jarrah activists took part in the struggle of an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev, El Arakib. The entire village was recently demolished, although its Bedouin residents have lived on this same land since before 1948.  

Who funds the activities in Sheikh Jarrah?

 There is no official sponsor or source of funding for the different activities associated with the struggle for Sheikh Jarrah. Meager means and donations for the organization come from private people or from the activists themselves. We are in desperate need of more donations to cover legal costs, production of outreach materials, demonstration costs, and other activities.

Why is there so little media coverage of the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah?

 Although the continuous activities in Sheikh Jarrah have not received widespread media coverage in the Israeli media, there is growing media coverage. However, the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah has had wide international coverage, including the front pages of leading newspapers across the world. In addition, this issue appears on the agenda of President Obama and other international leaders. Although the Israeli media has not given the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah much press, our activities have seeped into the conscience of the Israeli public. Today, the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah has become synonymous with the Israeli – Palestinian struggle against the occupation, discrimination and racism.

 Are demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah violent?

 Absolutely not! The demonstrations are peaceful based on the principles of non-violent struggles and conducted in an orderly manner. Moreover, following police attempts to prevent the demonstrations on the grounds that they are unauthorized, the court ruled that the demonstrations do not need any official legal approval. The only violence is police violence: often the police use violence to prevent the demonstrators from entering the neighborhood and therefore preventing the legitimate right to demonstrate within the neighborhood itself. The police enforce this ban without any legal justification. In May 2010, during a no-violent attempt to demonstrate inside the neighborhood opposite the homes from which Palestinian families were evicted, a group of activists sat on the road in front of a police checkpoint which blocked the entrance. The police used excessive force to remove the demonstrators and arrested a dozen protesters. Later, restraining orders were issued against these protesters, forbidding them to enter the area for three months. Protestors who wish to avoid friction with the police and any possible violence, protesters are invited to stay in the public park where the weekly demos take place; in the park there is no risk of contact with the police.

 Do the police take sides in the struggle?

 Yes. First of all, the police consistently support the settlers in the neighborhood. For example, in neighborhood skirmishes between the settlers and the Palestinian residents, many Palestinians have been arrested and restricted from the neighbourhood, as opposed to negligible numbers of settlers. Restraining orders against settlers are extremely rare, and even when they are ruled they are not enforced. In one case, the police was reprimanded by the court (March 2010) when they tried to frame Saleh Diab, a neighborhood resident, for an assault which he did not commit. Complaints of violence against Palestinians by settlers are almost entirely ignored.

Secondly, the way the police have responded to this political struggle has been, and still is, problematic. Since early in the struggle the police have tried to suppress the demonstrations by using various means such as de-legitimization, disinformation, define the demonstrations as illegal, and by using violence and arrests against activists. The court reprimanded the police a number of times reminding them that in a democratic country, where freedom of expression is a supreme value, it is the police’s role is to allow such demonstrations. Despite this, the police still choose to illegally restrict the activity: they do not authorize the demonstrations, deny entry to the resident’s compound, arrest large numbers of activists (one hundred and thirty detainees until now), enforce scandalous restraining orders, press charges against demonstrators, and use unreasonable force to scatter the demonstrations. On the other hand, police have allowed supporters of the Jewish settlement to riot freely inside the neighborhood, while consistently denying any attempt by the opponents of the settlement to peacefully demonstrate in the exact same spot. The police’s conduct and their constant limitations of the right to protest and to freedom of expression must sound a warning signal to any Israeli for whom democracy is important.

Who demonstrates in Sheikh Jarrah?

 A broad spectrum of Israelis and Palestinians, who view what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah as a horrible injustice, take part in the struggle. Every week, professionals of all backgrounds such as professors, rabbis, writers, and elected officials, join young men and women from Jerusalem and the rest of the country, to demonstrate in Sheikh Jarrah.

 Why isn’t the Israeli flag held in the demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah?

We refrain from waving the Israeli flag at demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah, in accordance with the wishes of our Palestinian partners, the residents of Sheikh Jarrah. The Palestinians residents see the Israeli flag flying over the very houses from which they have been evicted; to them it is the symbol of the settlers, the occupation and discrimination. The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah is unique in that it is conducted with the full cooperation of the Palestinian residents and Jewish Israeli activists. Both sides have to make compromises, but the achievement of this joint effort is much larger than the compromises. The Israeli flag is definitely important to many of us, but we prefer not to hold it in places where it symbolizes oppression and racism.