The neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem, doesn't look like much. A series of fifty-odd homes set on more-dirt-than-concrete streets, festooned with spray paint, and overrun, like much of the city, with scrawny feral cats, it is a short, dusty walk—and a socioeconomic world—away from the American Colony Hotel, on one side of the barrio, and a series of manicured consulates and consular homes on the other. Barack Obama did not visit the neighborhood on his trip to the Holy Land last month. Had he done so, he would have seen firsthand a trip wire to peace in the region. Sheikh Jarrah is one of the most contested strips of ground in a city that doesn't lack for controversy.
East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel after 1967, though its future has remained hazy in the intervening decades: the Palestinians would like this slice of the city to be the capital of a Palestinian state. But, for the last several years, radical Jewish settlers have made use of a 1970 Israeli law that allows Israelis to reclaim East Jerusalem properties that, prior to 1948, were owned by Jews and abandoned when the city was divided. Heirs to the original land can make a legal claim and—theoretically—take it back and evict the residents. Tenants are protected only if they have rented continuously since before 1968. Twenty-eight Palestinian families have lived in the neighborhood even longer—since the nineteen-fifties, when Jordan, working with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, doled out plots of land for refugees from across former Palestine. Another twenty or so families moved in sometime before 1967. All of them paid rent to a "general custodian" for abandoned properties, first under Jordanian authorities, then under Israel. But, in 2008 and 2009, a number of the remaining Sheikh Jarrah homes began to receive eviction notices set in motion by Jewish settler groups who used Ottoman-era deeds, or other legal mechanisms.
One family—the Al Kurds—lost half their property; they now live, uncomfortably, behind the settlers who took up residence in their compound. Mohammad Al Kurd, the fourteen-year-old son of the family, was the star of "My Neighbourhood," a documentary about Sheikh Jarrah that premièred at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and, last week, won a Peabody Award. "My Neighbourhood" narrates his family's story and that of a seemingly miraculous, and broad, assemblage of Israelis and Palestinians—prominent writers, politicians, artists, young people—who gathered each Friday afternoon from 2009 through 2011 in the streets of Sheikh Jarrah under the banner "Solidarity" to protest evictions. "The protests changed a lot," Mohammad Al Kurd said recently, in the courtyard of his family home, where graffiti ("No Justice, No Peace," in Arabic, alongside Lady Gaga lyrics—"Born this way"—in English) is scrawled on the external walls. "I was, like, shocked—how could they be Israeli? How can they be Israeli and also support Palestine?" International media attention arrived with the protestors. "They helped. They made it costly for the government," Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch program of Peace Now, said. "There were diplomats calling our government, calling our foreign office, asking questions, and it became a headache to the system."
Evictions are not unique to Sheikh Jarrah; across Jerusalem, ideological (generally religious) settlers have set down stakes in formerly Palestinian areas, including the Muslim Quarter of the Old City itself. They are part of an effort to establish a Jewish presence, and at the same time make a future division of the city violent and difficult, if not impossible. But the protests were something new. Writing in Haaretz in 2011, Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar noted that "the struggle over Sheikh Jarrah has become the way to revive the Israeli left and build a bridge connecting Jews and Arabs." The film ends unresolved, but cautiously upbeat—solidarity seemed to have an upper hand.
It didn't. The protestors largely drifted away after 2011. Internal divisions between solidarity activists, and weariness on the part of police and protestors alike, led to a shift in attention from the neighborhood. That same summer, social-justice protests across the country focussed more on the cost of living and away from these strange, and often hard to understand, legal cases. Yet the threat of eviction remained. The basic inconsistency of the law—that Jews can sue for land owned before 1948, but Palestinians cannot; that Palestinians find it extremely difficult if not impossible to receive building permits that are far, far more easily approved for Jews—creates a legal landscape that settler groups are only too happy to make the most of. (The Palestinians in East Jerusalem are generally not Israeli citizens; instead, they have residency permits. Technically, an Arab Israeli who was somehow the heir of a Jewish property-owner could make use of the 1970 law, but lawyers told me this hasn't happened in practice.)
Thus this dynamic is as combustible as ever, even if the number of protestors has diminished. "Sheikh Jarrah is numerically insignificant and symbolically very significant," explains Daniel Seidemann, an attorney and founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a group that closely monitors the map and makeup of Jerusalem. "There are maybe eight settler families in Sheikh Jarrah, and eight families don't determine the border between Israel and Palestine. After forty-five years, you now have twenty-three hundred settlers in existing Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, [and while] that's negligible numerically, symbolically it's nuclear fusion, because you take the two radioactive subjects of the conflict, which are Jerusalem and refugees, and you fuse them."
On the other side of Sheikh Jarrah, the Shamasneh family also received their first notice of eviction in 2009. After several appeals in district courts, on December 8, 2012, they were told they would be evicted on New Year's Eve. "Good News from Jerusalem, Thursday we got an order of aviction [sic] of Arab family…" tweeted Arieh King, founder of the Israel Land Fund, an organization dedicated to "acquiring all of the land of Israel for the Jewish people" that has been linked to efforts to evict Palestinian families from parts of the east.
There are ten family members living in two miniscule rooms at the house King's tweet referred to: Mohammad and Amaal Shamasneh; their six children, ranging in age from eleven to twenty-two; and Mohammad's elderly parents. "We grew up here," Mohammad Shamasneh said recently, in Arabic, as Amaal plied my translator and me with cakes and strong coffees. "I have all my memories here. I have all my history here, and for someone to come out of nowhere, and to say that there is an heir to this property, and claim it is their property, it is as though they are taking all my history, all my life, and cancelling it."
Shamasneh was referring to the problem of their legal case. The heirs to the Shamasneh house have appeared and are using the courts to ask for the property. Still, the Shamasneh family, until their case began, had assumed they had the status of protected tenants, which would put the law on their side, since they have been in the house for close to five decades. But unfortunately for them, Mohammad's father sublet the house between 1964 and 1969. As he was not able to prove his early sixties residency in court, they missed protected tenancy by one year.
While the eviction notice has now been delayed, most recently on the first of March when the Israeli Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, the family lives in limbo. They now face eviction in May. It would take a bold move from a high-level government official to change their status. It doesn't look good.
"This is the hornet's nest of the conflict: the right of return, and Jerusalem," said Seidemann, the lawyer. "By insisting on a Jewish right of return to Sheikh Jarrah, Israel is opening the 1948 file and strengthening the Palestinian claim of a right of return to Israel."
"You start thinking, what will happen if they throw me out?" said Mohammad Shamasneh, as a muezzin called the city to prayer. "Will I end up in the street?" He is angry, he said, as he twisted his hands in his lap. "Our home is part of a larger policy to really erase Palestinian presence from the city." He added, "If they are claiming that this house belongs to Jewish owners, well, we have houses and land in Talbiya and Katamon"—neighborhoods in West Jerusalem that were largely Palestinian before 1948. "If there is equality then we can also claim those houses." But really, he said, as we got up to leave, all he wants is to stay home.