In East Jerusalem, a defining battle over Palestinian ownership in Sheikh Jarrah

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 14, 2010; A19

JERUSALEM -- The small Palestinian community in the Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem began as an experiment by the United Nations after Israel was created in 1948 -- an effort to keep 28 families out of refugee camps by providing them with homes of their own.

But the promised property titles were never delivered, and more than a half-century later, with the original dwellings expanded into multi-family, multi-generational compounds, the residents face eviction as a long legal battle nears its end in the Israeli courts.

The fight is in many ways a defining one in the debate over Jerusalem, as Palestinians try to hold on to Arab neighborhoods to establish a future capital and Israel asserts its jurisdiction over the entire city -- including Arab areas it captured in a 1967 war and annexed in a step not recognized by the international community.

The dispute in Sheikh Jarrah is ostensibly over ownership. Two Jewish groups say they owned the land there before Israel was created and have succeeded in forcing the removal of some Palestinian families for nonpayment of rent. But the larger stakes are well understood as Jewish residents move into the emptied apartments of the small but centrally located Arab neighborhood.

"We know the ramifications of a Jewish family moving in -- that it can have a ripple effect on the peace process. But that is no reason to stop," said Daniel Luria, director of Ateret Cohanim, an organization that promotes Jewish housing in Arab neighborhoods. "One thing has been learned: that the world does not like Jews in East Jerusalem."

The evictions in Sheikh Jarrah have drawn protests from the Obama administration, the United Nations and others, all arguing that any change in the status quo of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods undermines prospects for a peace deal.

On a citywide scale, the stakes do not seem so momentous, involving just a few acres of land and a few dozen families. Jerusalem's Arab population as a percentage of the city's total is about 35 percent and climbing -- in seeming contradiction to charges that Israeli policies are "Judaizing" the city.

Some of the most populous Arab neighborhoods, however, are far from the areas around Jerusalem's Old City that Palestinians regard as the anchor of their presence.

The current municipal boundaries, greatly expanded by Israel's annexation of land after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, extend almost to Ramallah in the north and Bethlehem in the south, hubs of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank. Those borders include thousands of homes hived off behind the West Bank barrier that Israel erected in recent years, accessible only through a military checkpoint.

Jewish attachment

It is in other neighborhoods -- from Sheikh Jarrah, north of the Old City, to the hillside neighborhood of Silwan and beyond to the south -- where the tension with Jewish attachment to the area becomes more acute, playing out on a house-by-house basis.

On Silwan's northern ridge, for example, a community that began as a haven for Yemenite Jews in the late 1800s is now virtually all Arab -- except for the seven-story Beit Yonatan building, marked by a Star of David flag hanging down its length. To Luria, Beit Yonatan's presence in Silwan simply marks the return of Jews to a neighborhood where they had lived until the ethnic strife that preceded Israel's founding forced them out.

To others, it illustrates how the enforcement of Jerusalem's land and building laws has become "very asymmetrical and blunt," to Palestinians' disadvantage, said Orly Noy, spokeswoman for Ir Amim, a group that monitors housing issues in Arab neighborhoods.

Beit Yonatan's tenants also face eviction since an Israeli court ordered the building sealed because it was built without the proper permits. Rather than proceed with the evictions, however, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has proposed new rules that would make all but the upper floors of the building legal. Barkat has said the idea also would bring some Arab buildings into compliance and has threatened to enforce demolition orders against Arab homes if he is forced to evict the residents of Beit Yonatan.

The Silwan case goes to the heart of the larger dispute: For Luria, one building of Jews among hundreds of Arab homes is not enough to threaten neighborhood demographics or warrant international concern; for advocates of the Palestinians, the presence of those few families means security guards, increased Israeli police patrols and the risk of seemingly isolated projects eventually connecting and growing more encompassing.

"The juxtaposition of two cultures, with its accompanying violence and tension, destroys the communal atmosphere that has evolved over decades" in East Jerusalem, Karen Abuzayd, former commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, said in a speech delivered from the steps of a Sheikh Jarrah home in December.

Left in limbo

Even the most ardent advocates for the Sheikh Jarrah families acknowledge that they have been left in limbo for more than five decades, lacking the promised titles to their homes, in some cases refusing to make the rent payments that would give them rights under Israeli tenancy law and now finding themselves embroiled in a larger debate over one of the most contested cities in history.

Among the families, the mood is defiant. They say they are hesitant to move or make other plans because of what the future might hold -- a peace deal and creation of a Palestinian state, perhaps, or, as one resident said, the return of Arab control in a new war.

On a recent night, a protest tent on the street near one of the disputed homes attracted a trickle of visitors, while the former tenants gathered around a small bonfire. A weekly Friday rally routinely draws a crowd of a few hundred. The evicted families have found other places to live, said Fouad Ghawi, 64, an evictee whose 88-year-old father was an initial beneficiary of the U.N. program. But they still want to show their presence.

"We don't want to let them stay here," he said, nodding toward his former home, where a large menorah now adorns the roof. At the opposite end of the building, Ramadan lights were still on display, put up by a Palestinian family whose case is pending in the courts.

"We don't want them to rest in peace and quiet," Ghawi said of the new occupants. "We want to show the world they are sleeping in our homes."

Washington Post special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company