On Tuesday, 4 August, 2009, the families of Hannoun and Al-Ghawi in Sheikh Jarrah woke up to loud knocking on the doors of their homes before dawn.
Opening the door, members of the families were shocked by Israeli police and soldiers’ ordering them to evacuate their homes within half an hour.
An Israeli officer among the colonial troops raiding the neighborhood threatened the families that they would be expelled by force from their homes, should they refuse to leave by then. In a blink of an eye, the 55 members of the two families were forcibly thrown out of their homes along with their furniture and dreams.
Only their memories remained in the homes.
Israeli brutality and savagery are nothing new to the Al-Ghawi and Hannoun families. In 1948, their grandparents were kicked out of their homes by the Zionist gangs when Israel came into being.
Since 1970, the Al-Ghawis and the Hannouns had been fighting battles in Israeli courts to preserve their presence and their rights to their homes. That morning they were eventually replaced with Jewish settlers.
Currently, 28 families, numbering about 550 people are threatened with forcible expulsion. Four of them expect to be expelled like the Al-Ghawis and the Hannouns at any moment since last May after they received eviction orders from Israeli Magistrate Court Since last May.
Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood is located on the mountain of Al-Masharef to the north of Jerusalem, outside the Old City. Most of its inhabitants are Palestinians who were expelled from their homes by the Zionist gangs when Israel was created in 1948.
Since decades, government-backed Israeli settler groups have coveted the houses of 34 Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah. In their place, Jewish settlers are supposed to start living. They have no right to the homes, but have apparatuses of systemic violence and apartheid backing them.
The strategic location of Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood has made it a target for Israeli settlement expansion. The takeover of the area allows Israel to tighten its control over the Old City of Jerusalem and its surrounding areas.
The story of the threatened families and the four ones that have already been expelled started in 1956 when they moved to live in Sheikh Jarrah. They started building their homes there, based on an agreement between the Jordanian Government and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
The agreement stipulated that in exchange for nominal rental payments, adherence to various conditions, and the forfeiture of their refugee ration cards, the families would lease the homes for three years at which point they would then receive legal title to the property. The families respected their part of the agreement but they never received the official title.
After the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the homes of the targeted families fell under the control of the ‘Israeli General Custodian’, in accordance with the Law and Administrative Matters Law of 1970. No decision on the destiny of the families inhabiting these houses was decided until 1972. In this year, two settler groups, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee, claimed ownership rights of the houses on the basis of historical and religious affiliation to the land. To prove their false ownership of the plots of land the houses are built on, the settler committees presented a Koshan from 1886, a legal title commonly used to convey ownership during the Ottoman era.
However, the validity and authenticity of the presented documents by the settler committees have been challenged by the Ottoman archives in Ankara as the alleged title deeds do not exist within their records. Despite this, the threatened families have continuously received letters from the committees demanding rent payments. Though they knew Israeli courts would not give them justice, the families were forced to start a legal battle against the settler groups to consolidate and assert Palestinian ownership in Sheikh Jarrah.
Making matters worse, Yitzhak Toussia-Cohen, a lawyer representing 17 of the families, betrayed his clients when he reached an agreement under which he did not question the validity of the Committees’ ownership claims in 1982. Instead, he accepted the status of “protected tenants” for his clients. This agreement was reached without the knowledge and the consent of the families he was defending before Israeli courts.
In another attempt to refute the committees claim of ownership based on the 1886 document and the Toussia-Cohen agreement, Suleiman Hijazi produced 13 legal deeds from the Ottoman and Jordanian archives tracing his ownership of 18 plots at which the settler committees’ gaze is turned. In 2002, the Israeli Magistrate Court rejected Hijazi’s appeal based on the 1982 Toussia-Cohen Agreement. The Israeli Supreme Court rejected another appeal by Hijazi in 2006 under the pretext that the documents he presented were unverifiable and damaged.
Last May, it was expected that the Israeli Magistrate Court would make a final decision that would expel four families from their homes. Yet, due to popular actions and demonstrations in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Palestine, as well as international solidarity, the court has suspended the issuance of a final decision. Other three families are expected to be forcibly evicted in August.
Palestinians are well aware that Israeli courts are nothing more than institutions to administer apartheid and colonial policies against them. They are counting on popular resistance and international support to thwart Israeli schemes of ethnic cleansing while Israel is counting on the wane of this support to ethnically cleanse the remaining families.
For more details about the cases of Sheikh Jarrah, please read a report released by the Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem here.