Sheikh Jarrah residents organize in the face of mass house evictions

A member of the al-Ghawe family stands beside a poster inside his threatened house in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

“We are like the roots of a tree. The Israelis may cut us in places, but we will never die. We will not be transplanted from Jerusalem. I will not leave this house,” Maher Hanun tells a crowded room of Palestinian community members supported by Israeli and international solidarity activists. Hanun is one of 51 residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem living in two housing units that are facing imminent eviction by Israeli authorities.

The mood is tense as more than 25 individuals pack into a small room in Hanun’s house to plan how to fight the house evictions. Palestinian residents, organized under the Sheikh Jarrah Committee, have invited solidarity activists to come and support their struggle. Internationals from more than 10 countries and Israelis sit in chairs and on the floor as Hanun tells them his story. After his speech, they divide themselves into groups to cover the two threatened housing units. Both the families and the activists gathered in support are determined to stay inside the houses as long as possible when the police arrive to carry out the evictions.

The people living in these housing units, belonging to the al-Ghawe and Hanun families, are due to be forcibly removed from their homes this week, as the papers from the Israeli court they were served with are valid between 15 and 22 March. The courts have justified these evictions by saying that the land that the houses are built on is disputed. Yet, the houses were built under a joint construction project by the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) and the Jordanian government in 1956, 11 years before Israel occupied East Jerusalem. The houses were given to the families, both made refugees in 1948 after Palestinians living in what became the state of Israel were expelled and dispossessed during what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Now these families are threatened with another Nakba. Israeli settlers that have moved into Sheikh Jarrah have falsified documents claiming ownership of the land. The Hanun and al-Ghawe families have presented their legitimate documents and an Israeli judge has not yet ruled on the legality of these papers. Yet the eviction orders are still proceeding, even though no official decision has been reached as to whom the Israeli courts recognize as the true owners.

Both the Hanun and al-Ghawe families were forcibly evicted once before in 2002, after which they lived in tents for four months within sight of their former homes. This traumatic experience stands out as a vivid memory even for the children of the families. As they brace themselves to be evicted for the second time, the distress and apprehension in both households is clearly noticeable. Family members have spent many sleepless nights waiting for the police, never knowing exactly which night they will come. Women in the al-Ghawe residence often recount how their small children were thrown from a second floor window by police when they were evicted the last time.

A banner reading “stop ethnic cleansing” hangs in front of one of the houses slated for eviction.

In addition to the al-Ghawe and Hanun families, 25 other households are also threatened with eviction in Sheikh Jarrah, though official orders have not yet been issued by Israeli courts. In November 2008, the al-Kurd family was evicted from their home in the middle of the night despite widespread public support and diplomatic pressure from American and European diplomats on the Israelis to halt the eviction order. The al-Kurd family has erected a protest tent in the middle of Sheikh Jarrah from where they continue to demand the right to return to their homes. The Israeli police have destroyed the tent five times on the grounds that it is an “illegal structure” even though it is built on private Palestinian property.

Now, with the threat of removal again hanging over their heads, community members of Sheikh Jarrah are organizing. “Stop ethnic cleansing” is their main message to the Israeli authorities and the broader international community. These words can be seen on posters hung in the windows of neighborhood shops, on large banners over the entrances to the al-Ghawe and Hanun residences, as well as the T-shirts that organizers have distributed in the community.

This past week has seen a buzz of activity in the neighborhood. The Sheikh Jarrah Committee, supported by the Coalition for Jerusalem, the International Solidarity Movement, and other human rights organizations, have utilized a myriad of tactics to fight the eviction orders. Throughout the week, dignitaries from foreign nations, journalists, consular representatives from numerous European countries, and even Knesset members have all visited the homes and the protest tent to express their support for the residents of Sheikh Jarrah. The committee has held press conferences, demonstrations outside of court hearings and drafted statements condemning the orders.

The community also attempted to host an event as part of the Jerusalem Capital of Arab Culture festival at the protest tent on 23 March. Israeli authorities have banned the festival in occupied East Jerusalem, yet organizers have continued to defy the ban in order to celebrate Jerusalem’s rich Palestinian heritage. Sheikh Jarrah residents also gathered to protest the impending house evictions in addition to the increased repression of Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem. Police violently prevented Sheikh Jarrah residents from praying in front of the tent in conjunction with the festival. Participants were badly beaten and eight people were arrested. The following week, another resident was arrested by police inside the tent for refusing to take down a Palestinian flag hanging inside.

The Sheikh Jarrah Committee members view their struggle against eviction as part of a larger struggle against Palestinian dispossession from East Jerusalem. The nearby neighborhoods of Silwan, Beit Hanina and Shufat refugee camp are also facing large-scale house demolitions and evictions. In the al-Bustaan neighborhood of Silwan alone, 88 houses are slated for demolition. Al-Bustaan residents have erected a protest tent similar to the one in Sheikh Jarrah, and this model of resistance seems to be spreading.

For now, the families and supporting activists wait for the police to come each night. They take shifts to make sure someone is up in each house to alarm the community when the Israeli authorities arrive. Some of the family members have removed all of their furniture in anticipation of the coming raids, but they continue to sleep on mats in the floor. The message is clear: they will not go quietly in the face of this injustice.

All images by Jeff Pickert.

Jeff Pickert is an American who has been working in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem for the past four months.