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Why we must support Palestinian families resisting eviction in Sheikh Jarrah

The silence of the press and TV on the eviction of the Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem is deafening. The only explanation one can have is the effectiveness of the lobbying by the Israeli state and the collusion of journalists and editors in silencing this issue. It is patently clear that Arab lives do no matter to our media. This confirms the long history of anti-Palestinian racism as Ghada Karmi has so well argued.

Sheikh Jarrah is a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.  Some 300 Arab residents belonging to 28 extended families in Sheikh Jarrah could be evicted and made homeless.

The Israeli Haaretz newspaper interviewed and published the stories of several families.  I would just like to recount four of those stories.

At 72, Mohamed Sabbagh’s family fled from their home in Jaffa in 1948 when he was one year old. Their original home is now a synagogue. The family wandered around nearly a decade, beginning with a stay in an Egyptian town, then the Gaza Strip, followed by a journey on foot to Hebron, from where they moved to Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem their first home was a makeshift car garage. The Jordanian government brought his parents to Sheikh Jarrah in 1956, where they settled in a compound allocated to them. Over time this developed into a maze-like complex to accommodate the families of his four brothers, as well as his family, with his wife and two of their grown-up children, with their spouses and children – altogether, 32 members including 10 children.

Through his adult life, he did all sorts of odd jobs which included working as plumber, a driver and a hospital receptionist.  They remained together under cramped conditions because Palestinians cannot get permits to build extensions or move to newer locations.

Moving on to the Diab family with seven family members: Saleh Diab, 51, was born in Sheikh Jarrah after his father moved to Jerusalem in 1956 from Jaffa, as part of the Jordanian resettlement programme.

In early May, the family were sitting on the patio of their home when they heard a commotion. He popped out to see what was going on. There was a protest against evictions. The Israeli soldiers assaulted him and broke his leg.

Diab had his own business, a bakery but about seven years ago, but it went bust. He got a job in the bakery department of a large supermarket. He was fired from his job in May without a good reason. He believes that the real reason was complaints by some settlers to his employers about his political activism.

Abdel Fattah Skafi’s family comes from the Baka neighbourhood of West Jerusalem. They were forced out in 1948 and dispersed to different areas of East Jerusalem. Eventually his parents moved to Sheikh Jarrah in 1956 by arrangements with the Jordanian administration. At 71, he is now retired after working his entire life as a shoemaker with great pride.

Skafi and his wife share a small four-room space with three of their six children and their grandchildren, altogether 14 family members. His grandchildren are refusing to attend school, fearing that they would be evicted and won’t be able to come home. He fears that they are regressing in the current situation from being outstanding students.

Finally we come to El-Kurd family with six family members with one minor, who are threatened with eviction. The family was expelled from Haifa in 1948.

The response from 24-year-old Muna El-Kurd was to throw herself into campaigning against eviction. She rose to prominence internationally, with Arabic and international media regularly quoting her in their reports about the protests.  She has 1.2 million followers on Instagram.

On Sunday June 6th, Israeli police arrested her, suspecting her of “participation in disturbing the peace and in riots” that have taken place recently in Sheikh Jarrah. A video posted on social media showed her being handcuffed on arrest at her home and taken off to the police station.

The police allegations are false. They want to silence her because she is getting the message out about the Sheikh Jarrah evictions. She does not have a history of violence towards anyone.

Her brother Mohammed is also active in the protest movement and was summoned by the police on Sunday. He turned himself in. The outrage of these unjust arrests got worldwide attention and the police released both of them.

Reading their stories, one can only admire them for their resilience and strength in surviving against all the odds. Every individual in the families involved are under immense stress because of the threat of evictions. The children suffer from anxieties and their education is damaged. It is a living nightmare for them.

Through May and still continuing, Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood have held demonstrations in response to the imminent threat of forced eviction.  Amnesty International has documented arbitrary arrests of peaceful demonstrators, the use of excessive force, arbitrary use of sound and stun grenades as well as the arbitrary spraying of maloderant (skunk) water cannons at demonstrators and homes in Sheikh Jarrah. The Israeli police have placed the area under siege and continue to attack peaceful protestors and injuring hundreds.

Israeli forces have also been intimidating and arresting journalists who are reporting on Sheikh Jarrah. On May 28th,  the Al Kofiya satellite channel TV crew were attacked and their leading reporter Zaina Halawani and cameraman Wahbi Mikeh were arrested and removed from the neighbourhood. After five days in jail, the judge at Jerusalem’s Central Court released them on bail of 4,000 shekels ($1,230) each and ordered them to be put under house arrest for a month, forbidding them from communicating with each other for 15 days.

On June 5th, Al Jazeera News Channel’s journalist Givara Budeiri was arrested brutally when covering a demonstration and remanded in custody for several hours. Her left hand was fractured and she had to be treated in a hospital on her release.So what is behind these evictions? After 1948, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was under Jordanian administration, which struck an agreement with the UN agency for refugees (UNRWA) in 1956 to build housing units for these refugee families. 

In the 1960s, the 28 families agreed a deal with the Jordanian government that would make them the owners of the land and houses, receiving official land deeds signed in their names after three years. In return, they would renounce their refugee status.  However, this was scuppered when Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem after the 1967 war.

Since 1972, several Jewish settler organisations, mostly funded by donors from the United States, filed lawsuits against the Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah, alleging the land originally belonged to Jews during the Ottoman rule in 1885. 

Khalil Toufakji, a Palestinian cartographer and expert on Jerusalem, found a document in the Ottoman-era archives in Ankara which negates any Jewish ownership of the neighbourhood. However, when he presented the deed to the Israeli district court, it was promptly rejected.

In 1991, the Palestinian families accused their Israeli lawyers and legal representatives of forging their signatures on documents stating that the ownership of the land belonged to settlers. This skulduggery turned Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah from owners to tenants facing removal orders from settlers.

But it was not until 2008, after a US-based settler group, Nahalat Shimon International, bought the disputed land rights, that they used inherently discriminatory laws, such as the Legal and Administrative Matter Laws as well as the Absentee Property Law of 1950, to confiscate Palestinian land or property and transfer it to settler groups. 

In 2009, the Ghawis, along with the Hanoun family (a combined total of 55 people) were forcefully kicked out of their homes, their furniture and belongings strewn across the lawn.  The memory is still fresh in the minds of all residents in this neighbourhood.

In the first week of May, the Jordanian government ratified 14 agreements from the 1960s with Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah to strengthen their position against the Israeli courts. But all the families feel that they will never get justice from the Israeli courts which always favour settlers.

Israeli law allows Jews who may have historic property rights in East Jerusalem to recover those properties, but Israeli discriminatory apartheid laws do not allow Palestinians to claim their properties in West Jerusalem and elsewhere, even if they have the deeds.

Underlying all this is the policy of the Israeli government to limit the population of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to 30 percent or less. This is achieved by arrests, demolition of structures, land confiscation and forced displacement of Palestinians.

It is urgent that the Jordan, UNRWA and the international community take diplomatic and political action against this ethnic cleansing, dispossession and land theft. The Israeli government is shirking its responsibilities as an occupying power.

The good thing is that hundreds of Palestinians and Jews in East Jerusalem marched together on June 11th to stop the evictions.  We must support the grassroots organisations leading the resistance. International solidarity does matter. 

On Facebook, support the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement.  If you are a twitter user, you can get updates and share using the hashtags #SaveSheikhJarrah, #SheikhJarrah and #StopJerusalemExpulsions. You can also find a sample of tweets to share here.

Also follow Mohammed El-Kurd @m7mdkurd.  On Instagram, you can follow muna.kurd15 where she posts latest updates on the situation in Arabic but in most cases English translations are available.            

Don’t donate to funds claiming to help Sheikh Jarrah. The families are not taking donations and haven’t endorsed any funds. “We are committed to keeping the fight for Sheikh Jarrah a political one. It is not time for humanitarian support yet,” Mohammed el-Kurd tweeted.

Join the ‘Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions’ movement. BDS is a form of protesting, boycotting and working towards ending international support of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Find their call to action here.

Sign these petitions:

Stop Israel’s forced displacement of Palestinians from East Jerusalem

Facebook, we need to talk.

Demand an end to Israel’s forced displacement of Palestinians from East Jerusalem

Sheikh Jarrah -Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Image: Sheikh Jarrah Demo, June 11th. Author: Kara Newhouse Creative Commons image was marked with a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

First publishes by Labour Hub on June 16 2021 https://labourhub.org.uk/2021/06/16/why-we-must-support-palestinian-families-resisting-eviction-in-sheikh-jarrah/