David Miller
The Media Line
April 4, 2011 - 12:00am

Sheikh Raed Salah stood up, wiping his hands from the earth that stuck to them after planting an olive sapling in the backyard of the Al-Kurd family in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Head of the Northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Salah had come to the neighborhood to show solidarity with the Al-Kurds, who have been forced to share their home with a group of eight Israeli Jews.

Normally outspoken and combative, Salah mumbled a few words and quickly left. But an aide articulated his boss’ message. "Your heroism has inspired us all and has shown the world what the Palestinians are facing," he told a local woman who had come to attend the planting ceremony. A young child lifted her hands to show the victory sign, holding up a small sapling.

Salah isn’t the only one making a political pilgrimage to the compound of homes, a few minutes’ walk from the walls of the Old City. The British author Ian McEwan stopped by in February when he was in town to accept an Israeli literary prize. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter came to support the Palestinians last October together with the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Every week, hundreds of Israelis and foreigners protest there against the Jewish presence.

The neighborhood – known as Sheikh Jarrah to Palestinians and Shimon Hatsadik to Israelis – is one of several battlegrounds dotting the eastern part of Jerusalem where Israelis are gaining control of properties through real estate deals and court suits; setting up home in areas once exclusively Palestinian.

But more than the other flashpoints, Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon Hatsadik captures the city’s complicated past as much as its tense present. Its veteran Palestinian residents and its newer Israeli ones occupy different rooms in the same house and bump up against each other more closely than anywhere else in the city. The neighborhood was once inhabited by Jews who were forced to leave, but its Palestinian residents are refugees themselves from what is now Israel.

The Jews came back in August 2009 after the Israeli Supreme Court ended a 40-year legal dispute by ruling in favor of Jewish ownership. Four Palestinian families were evicted from homes they had lived in for over five decades and Jewish families moved in. Nahalat Shimon International, a Jewish organization that bought the land from its original owners – the Jewish Sephardic community, which had acquired the land in the late 19th century - gave the young Jewish families the right to take over the homes.

The Ghawi and Hanoun families didn’t give up. They set up a tent across the street from their former homes and camped out for six months. The Jerusalem municipality confiscated the Ghawi family tent 17 times, fining the family 430 shekels ($125) each time for erecting an illegal structure.

The dispute over the homes isn’t a simple property dispute, even if the court related to it that way. Jerusalem’s eastern half was taken by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed by it shortly thereafter. In the decades following, Israel was content to solidify its control over the city by establishing neighborhoods on empty land at the city’s outer edges.

But in the last decade, right-wing Israelis – often financed and encouraged by American Jews – have sought to reclaim neighborhoods inhabited by Palestinians in and around the city’s historic core. Sheikh Jaarrah/Shimon Hatsadik is one. Others include Silwan, the Muslim Quarter and the Mount of Olives.

The settlement drive has prompted strong Palestinian opposition and – because Israel’s control of the city is not accepted by the international community – foreign concerns as well. When Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the claim of Jewish ownership, international condemnation ensued, calling the eviction of Palestinians "appalling" (UK) and "totally unacceptable" (UN).

And as much as the compound is a dispute over property and politics, it also represents a deeper conflict over history and historical rights. Sheikh Jarrah is a rashomon in which three narratives collide -- that of the Palestinians, of the Jewish settlers and of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, comprised mostly of left-of-center Israelis.

The Al-Kurds are one of 28 Palestinian refugee families from Haifa and Sarafand, inside Israel's pre-1967 borders, who were settled by the Jordanian government and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on a 70- acre plot after the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel. In exchange for the houses constructed on the plot, the families renounced some of their entitlements as recognized refugees.

"The Jews destroyed our home," Rifqa Al-Kurd, 90, tells The Media Line. "I have lived in this home for 56 years and am a refugee from Haifa. No Jews lived here at the time."

As Palestinians see it, Jerusalem is a Palestinian Arab city that is gradually being taken over by Israel – first by conquest and now home by home through any means at its disposal – in order to “Judaize” it. Nabil Al-Kurd, Rifqa's 67-year-old son says the Palestinian families refuse to recognize the validity of Jewish claims over the land they inhabit.

"We have the power of justice whereas they only have the power of Netanyahu, the army and the Shin Bet," Nabil Al-Kurd says, referring to Israel’s prime minister and its secret service. "The Jews don't treat us democratically – Israel doesn't want any Palestinian inside Jerusalem," he tells The Media Line.

Graffiti adorns the entrance to the Al-Kurd annex, built illegally by the family in 1999 and now inhabited by eight young ultra-orthodox Jews. Stars of David are spray painted around the door, some covering Hebrew graffiti written in pen reading "Jewish terrorists."

"Do you see that lemon tree over there?" Nabil asks, pointing to a newly planted tree in his front yard. Referring to a Jewish inhabitant of the house, he says, "That dog inside broke it with his hands."

"My father used to work with Jews in Haifa, we have nothing against Jews," he stresses.

Yehonatan Yossef, a spokesman for the Jewish residents of the neighborhood, says the return of Jews to the area is an act of historic justice.

"The Oslo peace accords were very hurtful to me," Yossef tells The Media Line, explaining why he began to volunteer with right-wing member of Knesset Benny Elon in 1997, when an ancient Jewish synagogue was reclaimed and settled, the first Jewish presence in the neighborhood.

The Jewish name for the neighborhood, Shimon Hatsadik (Simon the Just), memorializes a Second Temple-period Jewish sage believed to be buried in the compound. It recalls the Jews’ ancient connection to the city as well as their more recent presence in the area starting in 19th century.

"The Palestinian Authority undertook every effort to uproot all Jewish remnants from east Jerusalem," Yossef tells The Media Line. "Their agenda is based on a lie. They have no historic connection to the city, or at least none that precedes the Jewish connection. History is not on their side, it's on ours."

Yossef says 21 Jewish families and nine single men live in the neighborhood. He adds that there is a waiting list of 70 Jewish families yearning to inhabit the neighborhood homes. In contrast to the Al-Kurds’ neighbors, most of the families belong to the modern orthodox community and have served in the Israeli army.

Yossef insists that if there is any violence in the neighborhood, it is instigated by the Palestinian residents, or leftist Jewish provocateurs.

"I have debriefed the guys not to raise an arm or throw a stone. This has never happened and will never happen. Cases of violence come from the outside, from visitors who weren't debriefed and were duped by provocations of B’tselem,” he says, referring to an Israeli human rights organization.

Hillel Ben-Sasson, a 32-year-old doctoral student in philosophy at The Hebrew University, is the spokesman for the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, a group of mostly Jewish protesters who have been demonstrating near the homes every Friday afternoon ever since the eviction in August 2009.

For Ben-Sasson, the struggle isn’t between Palestinians and Israel or between Jews and Muslims. It is over the character of Israeli society and its democratic values. Set in those terms, it is very clear to him who the "good guys" are. The Palestinians are fighting for their legitimate rights. His fellows Israelis are violating them.

"Something happened here that awoke the sleepy Jerusalem left," Ben-Sasson tells The Media Line. "A combination of the terrible injustice suffered by Palestinians and the brutal arrest of out activists by the Israeli police created an entirely new phenomenon here in Jerusalem."

Ben-Sasson says his organization has carried out round-the-clock sit-ins with Palestinian neighborhood residents for over a year. As a result, he says, the neighborhood – which had started becoming Jewish – has reclaimed its Palestinian character.

"Our tactic is non-violent struggle and our strategy is ending the regime of privileges in Israel," Ben-Sasson says. “The Zionist revolution has succeeded and now we need to create a completely egalitarian democratic society, not a closed Jewish ethnic community."

His movement has recently expanded its activity to protest Israeli land confiscation in other parts of the country. On Land Day, which is marked every March 30 by Israeli Arabs to highlight their claims to equal rights to land, they demonstrated alongside the Arab residents of Lod, a mixed Jewish and Arab city near Tel Aviv.

"The youngsters there were shouting 'with blood and spirit we will redeem you, O Palestine!' but I know they will settle for simple equality as Israelis," Ben-Sasson says.


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