East Jerusalem Exiles

The Ground Shifts in Sheikh Jarrah

Nasser Al-Ghawi lives in the street, in a flimsy wooden shack covered with garbage bags and nylon sheeting some 10 feet from the house where he was born. He and his family of five were evicted this April by officers of the Israeli court, accompanied by some 400 Israeli soldiers. A neighbor, Maher Hanoun, was also kicked out, but had the means to rent another house. Al-Ghawi runs a small print shop, and business in these times is slow. He says he cannot afford to move his family elsewhere.

Two blocks and a small hill separate Nasser Al-Ghawi's street from the stoop where Maria Gottlieb sits with her two children, Emmanuel and Yitzhak. The young mother, dressed for a Grateful Dead show, is all smiles as she describes how she came by her new home in Sheikh Jarrah, the Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Knesset member Benny Elon, she says, offered the previous owners a lot of money to move on. It is every Jew's dream, she says, to move to Jerusalem. She talks about her family's duty to reclaim Jewish property, to settle the land before the Arabs take over. But what about the Palestinian family down the street? "There are 22 other Arab countries," she says, still smiling innocently. "Iraq, Iran—they can go there, no?"

The fate of the Al-Ghawi and Hanoun families is being decided in Israeli courts. The cases hinge on the question of land ownership currently claimed by a Palestinian, Suleiman Hijazi, and contested by two Jewish groups, who say it originally belonged to the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities. If the court finds for the Jewish groups, some 27 Palestinian families could be evicted from homes they've lived in since the 1950s, homes built by the United Nations for the Palestinians who became refugees after Israel was created.

Carmel, Alisar, and Amal Al-Qassem on the porch of their home
photo: Jehad Nga
Carmel, Alisar, and Amal Al-Qassem on the porch of their home

The question of who claims this part of Sheikh Jarrah is an especially tricky one, and has been argued in court on and off since 1972. Currently, lawyers for both sides say their clients possess authentic deeds to the land, or kushans, which date back to the late-19th-century Ottoman era. Each side claims that the other's kushan is fake. Further, there is a contested holy site. Jewish groups claim that Shimon Hatzadik, a Jewish priest of the Second Temple, is buried in a cave in the middle of the area. Hijazi says the site is his grandfather's—not Hatzadik's—final resting place. But everyone agrees that the dispute is ultimately about something else.

"This is not law. This is politics," says Amal Al-Qassem, Al-Ghawi's next-door neighbor. We are in her skinny living room, a modest addition to the home she has lived in since 1956, which is too small for her and her four kids. On one wall hangs a portrait of her brother, Omar Al-Qassem, who died in an Israeli jail in Ashkelon after 20 years inside. "He is legendary," says Omar Jubran, a Palestinian human rights worker who brought us to the Al-Qassem house. Jubran met Al-Qassem in the Ashkelon jail, where he also spent time, and says the famous activist turned the prison into a college for Palestinian political prisoners. Amal Al-Qassem, who teaches development economics at Jerusalem University, shows us pictures of her brother's 1989 funeral, attended, it appears, by thousands.

Al-Qassem has been approached by the Jewish groups several times over the years, offering "whatever money I want" for her property. I tell her about my visit with Maria Gottlieb and her two children. "What did she say—that there are 23 other Arab countries we can go to?" The Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah don't talk to each other but most Palestinians are now well acquainted with the settlers' methods because this story is unfolding in Palestinian neighborhoods across East Jerusalem.

Mohammed Dahleh is the lawyer representing Hijazi's claim to the land. At his office he points to Hebrew University, sitting impressively on a hill to the northeast.

"The Israeli plan is, first, to have Jewish territorial continuity stretching from the university to what we call Highway 1, over there," he says, gesturing west. "They don't want Hebrew University to be an isolated enclave."

"Secondly," he says, "they want to destroy the Clinton plan, which says the solution in Jerusalem should be that wherever there are Palestinians, it will be Palestinian land and sovereignty, and wherever there are Jews, it's Israeli land and sovereignty. So the settlers are trying to penetrate houses, to establish 'facts on the ground.' When the Clinton plan is reviewed later, they will say, we can't really divide this land anywhere, because even in Palestinian neighborhoods you have Jewish settlers. The point is endless fragmentation of the land."

Haim Yacobi, an Israeli architect and urban planner, adds: "I think it's not a secret that the aim is to minimize the Arab population in the city." According to Yacobi, who helped start Planners for Planning Rights, and many other longtime observers, the plan is carried out through Byzantine laws and planning regulations. "The 'demographic balance' is the logic that drives every planning act in East Jerusalem," Yacobi says.

Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, says support from the U. S. Congress for the occupation is "Israel's trump card," providing cover from international pressure to make the Palestinians a fair deal. An anthropology professor at Ben Gurion University, Halper has documented the ways in which Israel extends control over the Palestinians.

"In principle, land ownership by Palestinians is recognized in Jerusalem," Halper says. "But 54 percent of the city was frozen, declared 'open green space.' These spaces are then rezoned, because Israel controls the zoning process. Palestinian land is expropriated for 'public purposes.' But it's never Palestinian public purposes," he adds. "It's all legal, but it's all just a mechanism for control and dispersal of the Palestinians." The pattern can be seen, he says, in the Jewish settlement of Har Homa, which was a nature preserve, "even though it was owned by Palestinians." It was rezoned, and the Israeli bulldozers went to work.

Samuel Shamir is representing the Jewish groups in the Sheikh Jarrah case, and he wants to know the Voice's "slant." After dwelling a bit on my ethnicity, a lecture begins on the case which differs greatly from Dahleh's view. When asked whether he is concerned that honoring the Ottoman deeds will open the floodgates on Palestinian claims to their former homes within the "green line," he replies, "Of course not."

Outside the Al-Ghawi shacks on Uthman Ibn Affar Street, Nasser's son Ayman studies for his Arabic exam on a bench. His mother says he's still at the top of his class, despite the turbulence at home. On a day off from work, Nasser is ambling around in white pants and a white T-shirt. He wears a long black beard and on his forehead is the round scar that is the mark of piety amongst Muslims. I ask him about what is happening in his neighborhood. "This is first and foremost about politics, and then, perhaps, about religion," he says.

But a dispute is beginning to crack their neighborhood solidarity. Some of the residents think the Al-Ghawi family should find a house, and have collected some money to pay for it. "They are giving the Israelis an excuse to act against us," one tells me. But Maysoon Al-Ghawi, holding her youngest, Abdullah, insists it won't be enough. Rental prices are high in Jerusalem, and they are afraid to go far because once Palestinians leave the city, they lose the ID that allows them to work in Jerusalem.

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