Amid international inaction, Israel continues its systematic eviction of Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem. Just recently, Israeli police forcibly removed a Palestinian family from their home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where last year evictions helped trigger a round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. About a dozen police officers arrived at the Salhiyeh family’s house in the early hours on Jan. 25 and dragged the 15 family members outside before demolishing their home with a bulldozer. The eviction was the first to be successfully carried out in the neighborhood in nearly five years.
Many earlier attempts resulted in clashes between protesters and police. On one occasion the confrontation intensified after Mohammed Salhiyeh, one of the family members, took to the roof of his house and threatened to set himself and the building on fire with gas canisters if Israeli forces entered. “We will not flee again. We have nowhere else to go. You expelled us once already in 1948. We either die in our home or we live. We are not leaving,” he had said.
The neighborhood stretches over a small hill in the north of East Jerusalem, a 10-minute walk from the Old City. Several diplomatic missions and offices of international organizations are located in the upper quarters of the residential area. For most Palestinians, the fight over the neighborhood is a symbol of the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over East Jerusalem, which Palestinian’s plan to have as their future Palestinian capital.
Last May’s 11-day clash between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip was born out of anger over other Sheikh Jarrah eviction orders that would make way for Jewish settlers to reside in the Palestinian neighborhood. It was one of the worst violent demonstrations witnessed in years across Israel and the Palestinian territories. The tension is usually fueled by the presence of approximately 200,000 illegal Jewish settlers who live in the area. According to the United Nations, the rate of Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem increased by 21% in 2021 compared with the previous year.
Dozens of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem have been threatened with forced displacement by Jewish settler organizations and several cases have been making their way through the Israeli court system for decades. Last October, Israel’s Supreme Court proposed a deal that would have seen four Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood remain in their homes for 15 years as “protected tenants” while paying rent to settlers who have claimed the land. The families rejected the deal. “This refusal comes from our faith in the justice of our case and our rights to our homes and homeland,” they said. Tel Aviv portrayed the case as a private real estate dispute, but the Palestinians and human rights groups view it as a coordinated attempt to push Palestinian residents out of East Jerusalem, erase their presence and change the city’s identity.
Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and other neighborhoods in East Jerusalem have seen a systematic push by the Israeli government to take over Palestinian homes, and there is clear collusion between the settler organizations and the Israeli judicial system. The violent skirmishes in recent days have added to long-standing legal battles between the residents of Sheikh Jarrah and Israeli settler organizations since evictions started in 2008. Over the last decade, both Palestinian and Jewish activists have demonstrated against expanding takeovers by settlers in the neighborhood.
In addition, several families in the Silwan neighborhood, to the south of the Old City, are also facing imminent expulsion. According to the Israeli anti-occupation group Ir Amim, Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are under the “greatest pressure from ideological settler groups.”
The eviction battles lie at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the aftermath of the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, the wider family was scattered between Gaza and neighboring Jordan. East Jerusalem and the West Bank were then administered by Jordan, which gradually resettled Palestinian refugees in new housing projects in Sheikh Jarrah under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). In exchange, resettled families renounced their status as refugees. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel occupied and later annexed East Jerusalem.
What hardens the legal battle is the fact that Israeli law prevents Palestinians from claiming assets or compensation for assets lost in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. However, it does allow Israelis to claim property that was lost during the war, even without the provision of having actual ties to the original owners.
“The legal basis of all these evictions are discriminatory laws,” said Hagit Ofran from Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog. “It is not a purely legal matter. It is a political matter which is carried out through legal means.”
Ofran has followed the eviction cases closely. “The court is the tool to displace hundreds of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and in Silwan in favor of settlers, in order to take out a community and to replace it with settlers,” she said.
Jerusalem remains at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1980, Israel declared the whole city its “eternal and indivisible capital.” After Jordan gave up its claim to the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1988, the Palestinian state was proclaimed. Palestine also declares Jerusalem as its capital.
What is happening on the ground is another illustration of Israel’s criminal policy of forced displacement of Palestinians in motion. Israel’s authorities must immediately halt plans for forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and other neighborhoods. They shouldn’t be allowed to violate international humanitarian law and commit war crimes. There must be a strong effort to stop Israel’s systematic oppression and deprivation of Palestinians from their homes which causes repeated cycles of violence and civilian bloodshed.