Back when The New York Times called Palestine by its name, it reported on Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood north of Jerusalem’s Old City, as a key and strategic location during the Zionist invasion in 1948. The area had seen the city’s “stiffest fighting,” as seizing Sheikh Jarrah meant centralizing Israeli control over the city. Today, while Palestine’s name is obfuscated, Sheikh Jarrah is one of the city’s last remaining fronts that is still resisting complete Israelization.
This neighborhood of figs and olives is as resilient as it is bruised. During the Nakba, the Zionist paramilitary group Haganah blew up 20 homes in Sheikh Jarrah and killed dozens of Palestinians. Seven decades later, the families in the neighborhood continue to confront a similar threat of ethnic cleansing, one that substitutes artillery with a supremacist judicial system. My family is one of them.
In October 2020, the Israeli authorities’ Magistrate Court ruled to forcibly evict my household, along with half of the neighborhood. The news came to me on Facebook. My family didn’t want to tell me in fear of worrying me, as if the word doesn’t travel fast — and far. I called them from New York, where I’m currently studying, and asked questions whose answers I already know. Are you going to sleep in the street? Is there any hope? Why won’t the judge look at our documents? How are the neighbors feeling? How can we afford the occupation’s legal fees? What will we do?
My mother begs me to stay in New York. “They’ve gotten bolder in their arrogance and tyranny,” she says, describing the Israelis roaming our neighborhood with their guns, entitlement, and what often feels like their personal police force. I couldn’t help but recall my late grandmother bitterly reminiscing about a time they didn’t dare set foot on our land.
Since that ruling, we’ve filed for an appeal. The word apartheid comes to mind, but saying there is asymmetry and injustice in the Israeli judicial system is a gross understatement. What we have on our hands is a colonialist, ideologically driven system, built by and for colonizers, working exactly as it was intended to. These unjust laws are not only preferential — serving the demographic and political goals of the Zionist project — they are concealed behind a cloak of quasi-democratic, seemingly disputable legislation. As I write this, our family lawyer is attempting to persuade a settler judge to rule against settlements: a zebra at the mercy of a jury of hyenas.
During our hearing on February 9, Palestinians protested outside of the courtroom on Salah Eddin Street, chanting “death over dignity!” Still, the Israeli court made no decision on our appeal. We might hear back next month, we might not.
I wasn’t surprised by this outcome. Since I was a boy, my sense of time has been intrinsically tied to court dates. “If they steal the house” was a constant refrain in my ear. The anxiety of anticipation and uncertainty accompanied me as I grew up and has haunted my family for decades. We’ve never once left the house as a family unit. Instead, I or another family member had to “guard the house” in case they came — as if my teenage body had the might to block a group of soldiers from occupying our home.
For the past half-century, Israeli authorities have been unsuccessful in seizing Sheikh Jarrah, and it thus far remains undigested by Zionism’s insatiable appetite for land. Over 50 years we have learned how to unburden ourselves from the occupier’s psychological warfare. We understand that elongating legal processes for decades, drowning us in bureaucracy, and making us pay the fees of our own dispossession are standard tactics of intimidation. If each home is taken over separately, if each case is stretched across the length of decades, then the ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah will no longer look like a mass forced dispossession event, but rather a series of individual lawsuits that are ethically troublesome but ultimately insignificant in the grand sweep of the settler-colonial project. That’s why it’s important to understand the political and legal history of Sheikh Jarrah.
In 1956, the Jordanian government and UNRWA built a housing project for 28 Palestinian refugee families in Sheikh Jarrah and agreed to transfer the land’s ownership to the families on the condition that they pay a nominal fee for three years. My Jerusalem-born grandmother brought her displaced children from Haifa and came. Jordan failed to deliver on this promise to officially transfer ownership. It wasn’t long before trouble followed.
After Israeli forces illegally annexed Jerusalem in 1967, settler companies began claiming our homes as their own in the early 1970s. Their narratives were widely inconsistent and their documents were sparse, and questionable, at best. Yet somehow these baseless narratives continue to be popularized in Western media. In a 2010 New York Times op-ed bewilderingly titled “Who Lives In Sheikh Jarrah?” the author neglects to interview or name any of the neighborhood’s natives, many of whom had been thrown out of their homes at the time the article was written. Instead, the author writes that Israeli courts have ruled that our houses “are actually legally owned by Jewish Israelis,” without mentioning Israeli authorities’ refusal to authenticate or investigate the paperwork provided by settlers, even though our lawyers repeatedly challenged them. By contrast, the court won’t even look at our documents. Is it really any surprise that the colonial system always gives legal cover to the colonizer?
I’ve seen coffee boil over and spill on the stove many times as my grandmother rushed to answer the door. It was usually two settlers with Brooklyn accents and they would “serve” her. I sat humiliated on the couch and waited for my fangs to grow. Today, it is clear to me that these settlers’ aspirations don’t stop at souring the last decades of my grandmother’s life. They are unabashed and billionaire-backed. Settler organizations like Nahalat Shimon, Ateret Cohanim, and El-Ad are multi-billion dollar real-estate enterprises, with offices all around the world, and they’re responsible for the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinian communities in Silwan, Batan El Hawa, and Sheikh Jarrah, among others.
These illegal settler organizations have been explicit in and quite proud of their efforts to Judaize the city. Their ties with the Israeli government are well-documented and their supporters go unquestioned. In September 2020, a BBC report unveiled that Roman Abramovich, owner of English Premier League football club Chelsea, donated $100 million to El-Ad. Countless Israeli mayors and ministers have paraded through Sheikh Jarrah, marveling in “taking home after home,” and promising “Jewish continuity” in Jerusalem.
For the 12 refugee families currently threatened with dispossession in Sheikh Jarrah, they worry about the broader fate of Palestinians in Jerusalem as much as they do about their own homelessness. “If Sheikh Jarrah falls, Jerusalem will follow,” says one of the residents. The Israeli authorities’ urban plans substantiate that assessment.
Zionist salivation over Sheikh Jarrah’s prime strategic location hasn’t paused since 1948. Since the 1967 occupation of the eastern part of Jerusalem, the neighborhood has been surrounded by settler outposts, settlements, and border police headquarters, severing centuries-old social and economic ties with neighboring Palestinian communities. The Zionist vision of a community completely ethnically cleansed of its indigenous people is fueled by billionaire-backed, government-sanctioned settler organizations who act with complete arrogance and impunity. If the Zionists are successful in stealing Sheikh Jarrah, they will steal all of Jerusalem, as it is the opening heart of the Old City, and Silwan, Batan El-Hawa, along with other areas, will fall like dominoes as well.
Sheikh Jarrah is yet again on the frontline of the battle over Jerusalem. For us living there, history is now. Our dispossession extends beyond the loss of property — it also signifies the loss of Jerusalem’s Palestinian identity, and presages a horrifying fate for the remaining, dwindling indigenous population in the city.
“What will we do?” I ask my mother on the phone. She responds, “We won’t leave.”
Editor’s note: On February 16, the Jerusalem District Court rejected the appeal filed by families in Sheikh Jarrah against a court order to dispossess them from their homes. The court has ordered 27 people from six families in Sheikh Jarrah, including Mohammed El-Kurd’s family, to vacate their homes by May 2, 2021.