Sheikh Jarrah residents refuse to be displaced

9 July 2009

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Umm Kamel’s protest tent in East Jerusalem. (Marcey Gayer)


Fawzieh al-Kurd, 57, clad in black, spends her days on a promontory overlooking Tomb of Simon the Righteous in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Enduring the cold of winter and the summer’s blazing sun, she relates her family’s tragic story to visitors from around the world with dignity and resolve.

For 38 years al-Kurd, known to all as Umm Kamel, lived in a home with a tiled patio and garden directly above the tomb of Simon the Righteous. The neighborhood was constructed jointly by the Jordanian government and the United Nations in 1956 to provide temporary housing for 28 Palestinian refugee families who were forced to evacuate their homes during the 1948 war. In return for these homes, the families agreed not to claim further food benefits from the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA. After paying a symbolic rent of five piastres to the Jordanian government for three years, the houses were supposed to pass into the families’ ownership. The residents have all the documents from that time and Umm Kamel says that in this house she and her husband Muhammad raised their five children and saw the birth of their 16 grandchildren. It was her intention to pass the house on to her descendants when she died. However, on 9 November 2008 it was all overturned. Without emotion, Umm Kamel related, “My life was blackened. I lost my home, my husband, my furniture, my future.”

In the stealth of night, a specially-trained force of 500 Israeli police and border guards surrounded the neighborhood, blocking off all access and forcing any onlooker back into his home. At 3:30am they knocked brusquely on Umm Kamel’s door as she was changing the urine tube for her diabetic husband. The urine tube went flying as four Israeli policewomen physically restrained her and forced her into the children’s playground outside the walls of her home. The semi-paralyzed Muhammad was dragged out of the house by two burly policemen and deposited unceremoniously in the entranceway of the home of the nearest neighbors, the al-Sabbagh family, and he had a heart attack on the spot.

The women of the al-Sabbagh family ministered to Muhammad to the best of their abilities, but without medical resources they could not prevent the deterioration of his condition. They did manage to call an ambulance; however, it was not allowed to cross the police blockade. The men of the al-Sabbagh family then offered to carry the distressed man to the ambulance on their backs, but that request was also denied. Muhammad did not receive any medical attention until 10am when his sons who live in a village north of Jerusalem were permitted to enter the neighborhood and transport him to the hospital in their own car. Meanwhile, nationalist religious Jews from the Simon the Righteous compound arrived in a minivan and quickly began packing up the al-Kurd household, loading its contents into a waiting truck. With fervent singing and dancing, they rededicated the home as a Jewish household. An Israeli flag now flies from its roof.

The incident is part of Umm Kamel’s long history of dispossession, dating from 1972. When she first arrived in the neighborhood in 1970 as a young bride, there was not one Jewish family there. The only Jewish-owned house, one that pre-dated the 1948 war — when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in the same neighborhood — remained unoccupied. Then the Council of Sephardic Jewry, using an Ottoman document from 1887, made claim to the area and pressured the residents to leave. While it is true that the Sephardic community has deep ties to the catacomb grave where many came to pray and ask blessings prior to 1948, some observers contend that the document is irrelevant since it only states that the Sephardic community had temporary use of the property, not ownership. Moreover, the residents’ current lawyer claims that no comparable document was found in the Turkish archives in Ankara when he went there expressly to check on the document’s authenticity, fortifying the assertion that the document itself is fraudulent.

The Israeli Land Registry nevertheless certified the document as valid in 1972. This decision was taken within the framework of the 1950 Law of Absentee Property, which revokes all claims of pre-1948 “absentee Arab property owners” (i.e., Palestinian refugees), while reestablishing title to property owned by Jews prior to 1948. After 10 years of acrimonious negotiation, the court recognized the land claim of the Council of Sephardic Jewry, with the residents of Sheikh Jarrah becoming its “protected tenants.” The Sheikh Jarrah residents repudiated this revocation of their rights of ownership granted by the Jordanian government that was signed by their former Jewish lawyer supposedly without their prior consent. The family consequently refused to pay the rent demanded by the Council of Sephardic Jewry. Since 1982 this document has become the subject of intense litigation, with the Palestinian side continually bringing up more and more evidence to prove that the basis for accepting the Sephardic Council’s claim of ownership is spurious. Saleh Abu Hussein, the residents’ current lawyer, has presented the courts with records from the Registry of Property Taxes dating from 1927 indicating that Suleiman Hijazi, a Palestinian, paid the property taxes on the land and hence is its rightful owner. These documents seem impeccable, yet the court has so far refused to acknowledge them.

In the intervening years the Council of Sephardic Jewry tried to buy some of the Sheikh Jarrah houses outright, offering the residents astronomical sums for their simple homes. A few families accepted the offers and the neighborhood became sprinkled with nationalist religious settlers whose political agenda was to drive the remaining residents from their homes. The Jerusalem municipality hired a private security company to guard the Jewish homes and from a small observation post built on the crest of Nashashibi Street, a security guard armed with a submachine gun descends into the warrens and alleys of the neighborhood every half hour to check for signs of disturbance or suspicious objects. For this formerly peaceful Palestinian community, the constant surveillance is yet another intrusion into their private lives.

Meanwhile, the temporary homes built for the refugee community eventually became too small as the families grew, and the families received permits from the Jordanian government to enlarge them (Jordan administered the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, prior to Israel’s occupation of the territory in 1967). Upon receiving permission from the Jordanian authorities, the al-Kurd family built a cement block appendage perpendicular to their house. In 1999, wanting to use this portion of the house as the matrimonial quarters of one of their sons, the al-Kurd family approached the Jerusalem municipality with a petition to resurface the extension with stone.

At the time they were told by an inspector working in the office that no permit was necessary as the extension’s foundation already existed. However, when the improvement was completed, an inspector sent to reassess the value of the home for tax purposes delivered instead a court order requiring the family to appear at a hearing that very day regarding a structure built illegally on Jewish land. Feeling deceived, the al-Kurds nevertheless appeared in court and were ordered by the judge to seek an out-of-court settlement with the Sephardic Council. The Council offered the family several million dollars for their home, a price out of proportion to its market value. Conscious of the implications for the Palestinian people in general and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in particular, the al-Kurds refused to sell. The judge then ruled that the family had to seal the extension that they had formerly occupied and to pay fines of 28,000 shekels (the 1999 exchange rate was 4.14 shekels per US dollar) to the municipality and 120,000 shekels to the court, a sum that Umm Kamel is still paying off despite her forced eviction from the premises.

In 2001, Muhammad al-Kurd was receiving treatment in Hadassah Hospital when religious settlers using a falsified warrant broke into the sealed portion of the house and began living there. The family proceeded to sue the settler family and won; but at the time of the trial, that settler family moved out and a new one moved in, thus invalidating the results of the court procedure though continuing the illegal occupation. In July 2008, the al-Kurds received a letter from the Development Corporation for Rabbi Simon’s Patrimony (Nachlat Shimon) stating that they had purchased the deed to the neighborhood from the Council of Sephardic Jewry and demanded that the al-Kurds immediately vacate the house that three generations of the family had lived in for more than 50 years. The Nachlat Shimon Corporation — financed by American millionaire Irving Moskowitz, who has underwritten many controversial Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem — indicated its intention to expand the study and prayer complex located in the catacombs of the original Nachlat Shimon compound. The plan was to bulldoze all the houses existing on the property and build 200 housing units complete with a shopping center for ultra-Orthodox Jewish families who would form the core of worshippers at the Tomb of Simon the Righteous.

At this point the al-Kurds realized the enormity of the forces arrayed against them. Umm Kamel broadcast a radio appeal “to all the kind-hearted people of the world” for help. Galvanizing Palestinian civil society, many non-governmental organizations responded to her call. One of the most visible organizations was the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which agreed to post international volunteers who would maintain a constant presence at the al-Kurd premises to help Umm Kamel nonviolently defend her home. If police attempted to evict the family, the activists intended to handcuff themselves to the door with heavy metal chains that they had coiled in huge circles on the patio. In the course of half a year, more than 200 individuals from all over the world camped out on the al-Kurd’s patio.

During that time, many dignitaries like Kyler Kornweiller, the political attache to the American consulate, made solidarity visits. In the evenings the Sheikh Jarrah Defense Committee organized cultural events on the al-Kurd patio. Sometimes as many as 50 persons would be seated on the patio drinking sweet tea and bitter coffee, listening to presentations by local politicians or viewing performances of traditional Palestinian dance staged by neighborhood youth. On every occasion, Muhammad al-Kurd led the evening prayers followed by Umm Kamel, who spoke eloquently of her family’s long struggle. In this atmosphere thick with festivity and apprehension, the settler family occupying the extension to the al-Kurd’s house rarely appeared, preferring to shutter themselves behind closed blinds.

With the arrival of winter only five ISM activists remained to defend the home. When border guards surrounded the neighborhood one night, no one shouted out to warn them. Quickly overwhelmed by the massive force, the activists did not have the time to shackle themselves to the door of the house as planned. So the elderly al-Kurd couple did not resist. Two weeks after the seizure of his home, Muhammad al-Kurd died of a massive coronary attack. His body was laid in a flag-draped coffin in the empty field where Umm Kamel now has her tent. A solemn cortege proceeded on foot to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City where thousands of mourners attended the funeral ceremony.

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Umm Kamel insider her tent. (Marcey Gayer)

Yet, Umm Kamel’s story does not end here. Israeli border police attempted to destroy her protest tent on six occasions and fined her each time. Once they even came with bulldozers and pockmarked the field with huge craters to prevent a tent from being positioned there. However, neighborhood youths began filling in the holes with shovels and within two weeks another tent was erected in time for the Eid al-Adha holiday. The entire neighborhood jubilantly participated in the celebration, providing generator-powered heaters to warm the tent on that cold December evening.

Having surrounded East Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods to prevent Palestinian expansion, the Israeli government is now creating Jewish wedges into Palestinian neighborhoods in order to preclude the division of the city as would be required by a two-state solution. The Nachlat Shimon Corporation’s plan to expand the religious complex continues, and neighborhood families are displaced one at a time. Following Umm Kamel’s eviction, two other families received eviction notices. The Hanoun family consists of three brothers, their wives, and 10 children. The Gawi family has four generations under one roof, 38 members in all. Both families are slated for eviction on 19 July and their cases also have a long history of unsuccessful litigation in the Israeli court system.

Well-versed in all the convoluted legal machinations of the struggle, Maher Hanoun recalls his family’s sudden eviction in 2002 and the confiscation of all its furniture in a large-scale police operation similar to that undertaken against the al-Kurd family. This occurred despite that both the Hanoun and the Gawi families paid a sum equal to the disputed rent into an escrow account while awaiting a decision by the Israeli high court regarding the ownership of the land. The families lived in rented dwellings for four years until the high court ruled that the Ottoman document supporting the Council of Sephardic Jewry’s claim of ownership was without legal basis. However, the high court refused to declare a rightful owner, stating that the determination should be made by the district court, whose legal purview it is to decide on these matters. In this legal limbo, a lower court ruled that since the original lawyer for the 28 families accepted the Sephardic Council as the owner of the property on which they reside, the 1982 document is still valid, even though the high court had nullified its basis. Consequently, last August Hanoun was sentenced to prison for three months for failing to comply with an eviction order based on this outdated ruling. At the heart of the issue is whether the Israeli courts and the Nachlat Shimon Corporation can continue to treat the case as though it were just a civil issue of a tenant who refuses to pay rent to the landlord, when in reality the issue is political: the court is refusing to recognize the Palestinian families as the true owners of the land.

Meanwhile, the lives these families, who have been innocently living in their homes for 53 years and raising their children and behaving like model citizens, hang in the balance. Once again, on 17 May 2009 at the behest of the Sephardic Council and the Nachlat Shimon Corporation, the court gave the two families until noon on 19 July to voluntarily leave their homes or incur exorbitant fines. In addition, the male heads of the two families, Maher Hanoun, 51, and Abed al-Fateh Gawi, 87, face indefinite incarceration until their families leave. Knowing that neither of the families can pay the exorbitant fines and that the long-term incarceration of the fathers, especially that of the elderly Gawi, would create intolerable hardship, the Israeli litigants presume that they could coerce the families into leaving voluntarily. Hanoun contends that he feels he is about to be taken hostage and emphasizes that his home was never even officially claimed by the Sephardic Council.

Following US President Barack Obama’s recent speech at the University of Cairo, international interest in this case has been mounting. In mid-June a 40-member delegation from the European Parliament visited the Hanoun family and promised to take up their cause during the very next session of parliament. The families still assert that under no circumstance will they voluntarily leave. Meanwhile, as recently as 28 June a notice from Hotza’ah Lepoal, the agency empowered to execute court orders, was delivered to the homes informing the Palestinian families that at any time they are liable to be evicted. Looking out at the troubled neighborhood from her tent, Umm Kamel averred, “Victimization lasts but an hour, but truth goes on until the Day of Judgment. I am seeking the truth.”

Marcey Gayer is an Israeli-American activist residing in Tel Aviv. Information about a letter-writing campaign on behalf of the Hanoun and Gawi families can be found at: http://bit.ly/Z0er5