Mohammed Sabbagh, aged 72, lives in Sheikh Jarrah, an area in East Jerusalem just to the north of the Old City in occupied Palestine. He is a small, polite, quietly spoken man with a ready smile. He and his family have lived here since 1956 when the UN built 26 houses on the land for 30 Palestinian families, all refugees who had fled from Jaffa, Haifa and West Jerusalem in modern-day Israel, following the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The 40 relatives of the Sabbagh family, including 30 children, live in a building with five apartments. Mohammed Sabbagh dedicates his time and energy to trying to prevent the eviction of these families by the Israeli authorities, which would make them refugees for a second time. He does this by taking every opportunity to communicate the situation to visiting internationals, participating in the weekly peaceful Sheikh Jarrah demonstration and attending the many court hearings that are ongoing about the case.
The apartments were built on lands once leased by two small Jewish communities who had fled during the 1948 war when the State of Israel was founded. The eviction lawsuit against the Sabbagh family was filed by a company called ‘Nahalat Shimon’, which represents Israelis seeking to build houses in Sheikh Jarrah. They purchased the land from two Jewish associations, the Sephardi Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee, which in turn claimed the land using the Legal and Administrative Matters Law (1970).
Peace Now, an Israeli human rights organisation, explains that the Legal and Administrative Matters law was made to deal with issues concerning East Jerusalem, which was illegally occupied by Israel in 1967 and then annexed. One of those issues was the status of properties owned by Jews before 1948. In the 1948 war, about 35,000 Palestinians fled from their homes in West Jerusalem, and about 2,000 Jews fled from their homes in East Jerusalem. The law was intended to restore property to its original Jewish owners. The law was not applied to Palestinian properties, however, meaning that in the same city, as a result of the same war, two populations lost properties but only one can return to its property, while the second cannot.
Palestinians also cannot claim former property which today is in the state of Israel. During the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Sabbaghs left two houses in Jaffa and property nearby, all now within Israel. Mohammed says,
‘We have two houses in Jaffa, on Hasneh Street and Hagidam Street, and we have 250 dunams [0.25 square km or 62.5 acres] in Yavneh and also in Ashdod. Why can’t I ask for my property from before 1948?’
There is no connection between the original purpose of the Legal and Administrative Matters Law and its current use: the settlers who stand behind the eviction lawsuits in Sheikh Jarrah are not connected to the owners of the original properties. They locate the heirs of the properties, acquire their rights and demand the evacuation of the properties to establish settlements in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods. These settlements are illegal under international law.
According to Peace Now, the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah are,
‘part of an organized and systematic campaign of settlers, with the assistance of [Israeli] government agencies, to expel entire communities in East Jerusalem and to establish settlements in their stead. Dozens of other families face the risk of eviction by legal proceedings in which settlers and government officials exploit discriminatory laws that allow Jews to return to pre-1948 assets yet forbid Palestinians from doing the same. In this way, settlers seek to create a buffer [islands of settlements] inside the Palestinian neighborhood and make it difficult to reach a territorial compromise in Jerusalem so essential to a two-state solution.’
According to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, in June 1967, immediately upon occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel annexed some 70,000 dunams (70 square km) of West Bank land to the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and applied Israeli law there, in breach of international law. The annexed area is currently home to at least 370,000 Palestinians and some 209,000 Israeli settlers.
In June 1967, Israel held a census in the annexed area. Palestinians who happened to be absent at the time lost their right to return to their home. Those who were present were given the status of ‘permanent resident’ in Israel – a legal status accorded to foreign nationals wishing to reside in Israel. Yet unlike immigrants who freely choose to live in Israel and can return to their country of origin, the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have no other home, no legal status in any other country and did not choose to live in Israel.
The occupation, annexation and establishment of settlements are all illegal under international humanitarian and human rights law. Like the West Bank, East Jerusalem is internationally recognised as part of Palestine. But the current coalition government of Israel has made annexation a key issue in its plan for government, stating that it will advance legislation on the annexation of 30% of the West Bank after 1 July 2020. Whilst coronavirus adds to the daily hardship of the Palestinians it has also reduced the amount of international news coverage of these plans.
Another tool used by the Israeli authorities to systematically evict Palestinians from their homes and replace them with settlers is the Absentee Property Law. This law defines people who were expelled, fled, or who left the country after 29 November 1947, mainly due to the war, as well as their movable and immovable property (land, houses and bank accounts etc) as absentee.
As reported by the UN, settler organizations have acquired land and property in the midst of densely populated Palestinian residential areas in East Jerusalem, in the so-called ‘Holy Basin’ area in and around the Old City. An estimated 2,000 settlers reside in this area in houses which have been expropriated by means of the Absentee Property Law; on the basis of alleged former Jewish ownership; in buildings purchased from Palestinian owners; and in residences custom-built and financed by settler organizations.
Sheikh Jarrah falls within this key area targeted by settler organizations and is already the site of a number of Israeli government institutions, including the police and border police headquarters, the Ministry of Justice, and the new national insurance building. The Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah was expropriated by the Israeli authorities in 1967 and a new settlement has been constructed on the site. On another plot of land in Sheikh Jarrah, the Amana Association, a settler organization, has constructed a new building and moved its headquarters there in August 2018.
‘Israel has been treating the Palestinian residents of the city as unwanted immigrants and has been working systematically to drive them out.’
It was in 2008 that the first family was evicted from Sheikh Jarrah. At 4.15 in the morning soldiers broke into the house and the family of 37 people were forced to leave. Within hours the property was inhabited by settlers. As a protest the family built a tent to live in outside the site of the house. The tent was demolished 17 times. There was a great deal of support for the local Palestinian residents from internationals and Israeli organisations over this period which has diminished over time. The weekly Sheikh Jarrah peaceful protest began in January 2010. Initially, at its height, these protests were attended by up to 200 people but over the years the attendance has decreased as some supporters have chosen to protest in different ways.
So whilst Mohammed Sabbagh’s court cases continue, 75 families remain living under the ever present possibility of eviction. If you find yourself in Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon then do attend the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration. You will find a small committed group of older people (whatever the weather) standing on Nablus Road, below the garage, observed from the opposite side of the road by a group of Israeli soldiers. Amongst them will be Mohamad Sabbagh who will be only too happy to tell you his story himself over a cup of tea or coffee at his nearby house.