It must be the smallest Israeli settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories: just half a house. But Palestinian officials and Israeli human rights groups are concerned that it represents the first stage of a plan to eradicate the historical neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, cutting off one of the main routes by which Palestinians reach the Old City and its holy sites.
The home of Mohammed and Fawziya Khurd has been split in two since 1999 when the Israeli courts evicted their grown-up son Raed from a wing of the property. The elderly couple has been trying to regain possession, but were stymied last week when an Israeli high court backed the petition of a group of settlers and ordered the immediate eviction of the Khurds. The decision paves the way for the takeover of 26 multi-storey houses in the neighborhood, threatening to make 500 Palestinians homeless.
The verdict has been denounced by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and in the past few days the Khurds have been visited by foreign diplomats, including from the United States.
In a letter to consulates in Jerusalem, including those of the United States, Britain, France and Germany, Rafiq Husseini, Mr Abbas’s aide, warned that the takeover of the Khurds’ home was part of a wider drive to change the geography of Jerusalem by forcing out Palestinians and replacing them with Israeli settlers. Such a development would deal a death blow to already-strained peace negotiations, he wrote.
Today there are 250,000 Israeli Jews living illegally in East Jerusalem, and the Israeli government has announced that thousands more apartments are to be built — despite promises to the US government to freeze settlement growth.
Israeli human rights groups and Palestinian solidarity activists, meanwhile, have been staging a 24hour vigil at the Khurds’ home in the hope of preventing the order’s enforcement.
According to Meir Margalit, an analyst on Israeli policies in Jerusalem, the Sheikh Jarrah evictions are part of a much bigger goal being pursued by shadowy settler groups, backed by the Israeli government, to establish wedges of Jewish settlement around the Old City and secure it for any future peace agreement.
“The settlers have submitted a plan to the Jerusalem municipality seeking the demolition of Sheikh Jarrah’s Palestinian homes to make way for the building of 200 apartments for settlers,” he said. “They have chosen one of the most sensitive sites in East Jerusalem: it’s full of Palestinian political and cultural institutions. Its takeover would contribute significantly to the encirclement of the Old City.”
The Khurds and other Palestinian families have been living in Sheikh Jarrah since the mid-1950s, when the Jordanian government and the United Nations allocated them land as refugees. All had been forced out of areas that became Israel in 1948.
After Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, however, the settler organizations began pressing their claims to former Jewish homes. A religious organization, the Sephardi Jewry Association, says it purchased Sheikh Jarrah’s lands in the 19th century. The families’ lawyers, on the other hand, say the land belongs to the Darwish family. The courts have been unable to authenticate the documents, which date to a murky period of land dealings.
Until last week’s decision, the courts had decided that the Palestinian residents should be allowed to stay in their homes as “protected tenants” until ownership could be determined. However, the courts insisted that the families pay rent to a trust set up in case they found in favor of the Sephardi Association at a later date.
The families argue that, under the terms of the deal with the Jordanian government and United Nations, they were entitled to ownership of the properties after 30 years. The eviction order against the Khurds is believed to have been issued after Mohammed Khurd, 55 and bedridden, was unable to keep up his payments.
The Khurds say they have faced constant pressure since settlers moved in next door. “At first we were offered a lot of money to leave,” said Mrs Khurd, 62. “When we refused, the settlers started making our lives a hell. The family next door changes every few months to make it difficult for us to start legal proceedings.
“Armed Israeli guards have been posted on the path to our house and there are a network of surveillance cameras to watch our every move. Armed settlers have broken into the house, pointing their guns at us.
“The family next door makes noise through the night to disturb us, and brings large parties of settler children to play on our shared balcony as though they were on a school outing. We have even seen them put up posters of Palestinians and encourage their children to shoot at them with toy guns.”
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, which has taken a keen interest in the case since 2001, says official policy towards the Khurds reveals a double standard. “In claiming back what they say are Jewish properties from before 1948, the settlers are opening up a Pandora’s box. Before 1948, Fawziya’s family was from Talbieh, now in West Jerusalem, and her husband Mohammed’s family lived in Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv. Do the settlers want these refugees making similar claims for the return of their old properties in Israel?”
The Palestinian Authority has pointed out to the foreign consulates that nearly two-thirds of the land in West Jerusalem was owned by Palestinians before 1948. Human rights groups also note that it is against international law to change the legal status of occupied land. None of the consulates has responded officially, although they have made visits to the area.
Behind the settler families is an organization known as Nakhalat Shimon, founded by Benny Elon, a former cabinet minister and leader of the Moledet Party, which seeks the expulsion of Palestinians. He recently stated: “ Building Jewish neighborhoods next to open areas [in Jerusalem] will prevent invasion and illegal construction by Palestinians who live near the Old City.”
The settlers have recruited a large number of religious supporters because they claim a cave in Sheikh Jarrah as the resting place of a famous rabbi from 2,000 year ago.
The Khurds are far from alone in their plight. Twenty-five homes are under similar threat. Maher Hanoun, his three brothers and their families were forced out of their large home in 2002 when settler groups brought an action against them. The courts overturned the order in 2006. “My home was boarded up for four years while the courts decided who owned the land. So far the judges have not reached a decision, but the verdict against the Khurds puts all of us at risk again,” he said.
Mr Margalit points out that the Khurd case is just one of several fronts being pursued by extremist Jewish organizations keen to settle Sheikh Jarrah.
Israeli officials have been leasing an olive grove belonging to the Arab Hotels Co. to a settler group called Ateret Cohanim in a deal the local Haaretz newspaper recently termed “underhand”. Together with a right-wing US Jewish millionaire, Irving Moskowitz, who has bought the Shepherd’s Hotel on nearby Mount Scopus, the settlers hope to build 250 flats on the grove.
“For the settlers, Sheikh Jarrah is the link they need between the western half of the city and neighbouring Mount Scopus. Although they seem to be acting on their own initiative in this case, they are in fact doing the dirty work of the government.”
The settlers next to the Khurds refused to comment. However, a friend, Shira Ganz, 32, an immigrant from Ukraine who has been squatting in an empty Palestinian home nearby with her husband and three young children, said the families were committed to living in Sheikh Jarrah. “It’s written in the Bible that we have a right to everywhere in this land, and here we are only minutes from the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. We are not frightened of living next to the Palestinians. If we were, we would leave the promised land and move to Britain or the US.
* This article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.