By Vita Bekker in Jerusalem, Financial Times – 11 Sept 2009
Since early August, when two families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem were forcibly evicted from their homes, Muhammad Sabagh has had little sleep. The 61-year-old retired plumber fears that he, his five brothers and their wives and children may soon also find themselves on the street.
The Sabagh family may become the next victim in a near 40-year battle that has been waged by two Jewish groups to reclaim properties in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab district north of Jerusalem’s Old City, that they say belonged to them before 1948.Evictions, demolitions of Palestinian homes built without permits and the building of new settler houses in East Jerusalem have helped spur the deepest rift between Israel and the US on the settlements issue in at least a decade. Israel’s staunchest ally has repeatedly urged it to freeze Jewish construction to help renew peace talks with the Palestinians. George Mitchell, the top US envoy to the Middle East, is expected to visit Israel early next week to try to finalise a deal on a temporary lull in construction.
But even in the midst of negotiations, Israel this week announced the building of 455 apartments in the occupied West Bank and plans to bring forward the construction of 486 homes in East Jerusalem. The announcements appeared to be an attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, to mollify the right-wing members of his coalition, who are opposed to a settlement halt.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in a move never recognised internationally. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while the Israeli government insists the whole of Jerusalem remains its undivided capital.
Sheikh Jarrah, home to 2,700 Palestinians, has become the new front line for control over Jerusalem. Rights groups maintain that settlers are advancing the construction of at least 540 housing units in the neighbourhood, helped by Israel’s legal system, wealthy backers and cooperation from the Jerusalem municipality and Israeli government.
The evictions last month prompted condemnation from western countries, despite Israel’s claim that they were apolitical and the result of a court process after the families failed to pay rent.
At dawn that day, following a court order, police carrying assault rifles removed the 53 members of the Hanoun and Ghawi families, including 20 children, from their homes.
The stone houses were then occupied by settlers who hoisted Israeli flags on the roofs and posted armed guards and security cameras near the front doors. They have refused to talk to journalists.
Mr Sabagh, who faces a court hearing over an eviction order next month, said: “The settlers are a powerful group. They succeeded with the two families, and now they are trying to succeed with us. This is a political thing – they don’t want just my house, they want the whole area.”
Mr Sabagh’s family and 26 others live in a part of Sheikh Jarrah in which a settler-related company is trying to get approval to construct a 200-unit compound.
The families are descendants of Palestinian refugees who had lost their homes during the 1948 war that created Israel.
In 1956, they agreed with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and with Jordan – then in control over East Jerusalem – to forgo their refugee aid in return for becoming owners of properties in Sheikh Jarrah within three years. The ownership transfer, however, was not finalised before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The legal dispute over the homes emerged after Israel conquered East Jerusalem. Using Ottoman-period property deeds that the families’ current lawyers say were forged, two Jewish groups in 1972 claimed they were the owners of the land and demanded rent payments.
A decade later, the then-lawyer for the families did not contest the Jewish groups’ ownership claims, instead agreeing that the families will keep their homes as long as they pay rent. Most of them still refused to pay and today claim they were not told of the details in the agreement, which serves as the legal basis for the attempt to evict them.
While their lawyers now intend to challenge the authenticity of the property deeds, the evictions are gathering pace.
The Hanoun and Ghawi families have camped out on a pavement outside their former homes, sleeping on mattresses and living on food, water and coffee offered by neighbours.
During the holy month of Ramadan, they often have to break the daily fast with take-away meals of chicken and rice donated by a nearby hotel.
Maher Hanoun, a 51-year-old food salesman, chain-smoked as he sat on a white plastic chair in the shade of an olive tree and stared at the house in which he had grown up.
He said bitterly: “If the Jews have the right to take back their land here, why can’t we get back the property my family lost in 1948?”
Mr Hanoun said he had little faith that the Israeli legal system would help return his home to him and added: “This is a political issue, so our best hope is pressure on Israel from the US.”