Expelled on Eid by Israel: The Shamasnehs' last days in Sheikh Jarrah, Occupied Jerusalem

Expelled on Eid by Israel: The Shamasnehs' last days in Sheikh Jarrah, Occupied Jerusalem
At their Jerusalem family home of over half a century, the Shamasneh Family's Eid celebrations were cut short when Israeli forces came knocking.
6 min read
06 September, 2017
A day before Mohammad Shamasneh was evicted from his home in East Jerusalem for it to be handed over to Israeli settlers, he knew that a visit by the police in the early hours of the morning on the third day of Eid didn't bode well.

"They gave us two options. They said either you give us they keys, or we'll take the house by force," Shamasneh told The New Arab in a small sitting room in the home he shared with his elderly parents, his wife and four children in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood north of the Old City of Jerusalem. Hours later, early on Tuesday morning, police paid the family another visit and evicted them.

Sitting across from him, his 75-year-old mother Fahimeh, wearing a black dress adorned with Palestinian embroidery, the kind one wears for special occasions, fiddled with prayer beads with a concerned look on her face.

A deadline for the family to evacuate the home had been postponed till the previous day, giving the family a break over the holiday period. She knew eviction could now happen any day. She's lived in this house for 53 years, and "I can't imagine" is all she can say about the prospect of losing it.

The furniture appeared to be still in its place, a sign the Shamasneh never had any intention of complying with the order.

A few hours later, their belongings were driven away. Ayyub, Mohammad's 84-year-old father, was escorted by police out of the house in a wheelchair. Israeli settlers immediately moved in.

Fahimeh Shamasneh, 75, lived in the family home for 53 years [AFP]

With no other place to go, the entire family staged a day-long sit-in outside the house, alongside activists and local supporters who scrambled to find enough tents to stay for the night. 

While this is the first eviction in the neighbourhood since 2009, six other families living in the same area received eviction notices this week, according to Mohammad Shamasneh.

The family's predicament began in 2009, when they were dragged into a court battle following ownership claims made by the property's former Jewish owners with the help of the Israel Land Fund, a settler organisation with tax-deductible status as a nonprofit in the United States.

The lawsuit was based on a 1970 law that allows Jewish property owners to reclaim the homes they lost in East Jerusalem when it fell into Jordanian hands after the 1948 war. No such law exists for Palestinians who lost their homes in West Jerusalem or elsewhere across Mandate Palestine as a result of the same war.

Fahimeh Shamasneh is herself from a family of 1948 refugees from the Jerusalem area, like dozens other families in the neighbourhood who rented properties from the Jordanian authorities after 1948. At a court hearing years ago, Mohammad Shamasneh said he thought he'd meet the property's original owners. 

"They were supposed to be five Yemeni Jews," Shamasneh recalls. "We were surprised when they didn't show up in court and Aryeh King was there instead."

Ayyub, Mohammad's 84-year-old father, was escorted by police out of the house on a wheelchair. Israeli settlers immediately moved in.

Jerusalem city council member Arieh King heads the Israel Land Fund, whose declared mission is "acquiring all the land of Israel for the Jewish people."

The organisation's website markets properties on offer in East Jerusalem neighbourhoods as "ideology property", while King said in a recent interview with Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post that his organisation provides legal and financial assistance, as well as security, to settler families who wish to move to the neighbourhood. 

In August 2013, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the Shamasneh family's appeal and ruled they must leave the property within 18 months on the basis they do not enjoy the status of protected tenants. The family has been living with the threat of eviction hanging over their heads since then.

They filed another appeal this summer when the Israel Land Fund decided to get the bailiff's office involved. They had been given an August 9 deadline which their lawyer had managed to extend.

Opening the 'settlement floodgates' 

Observers and local residents believe the timing of the eviction is "political".

Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now reported earlier this summer that in mid-July, the Jerusalem regional planning committee discussed four plans for Sheikh Jarrah, two of which would require the demolition of Palestinian homes where five families currently live.

Palestinians living in these properties are embroiled in legal battles against eviction, though most of them should enjoy the status of protected tenants. However, the watchdog explains, "the law enables landowners to destroy and restructure a new building while protected tenants do not lose their legal rights, hence the advancement of these plans". 

The two plans that would require evictions are being advanced by settlers and involve the construction of two residential buildings. The Israeli government is also moving forward with plans to build a Yeshiva campus in the neighbourhood.

He [Netanyahu] was proceeding with caution after Trump's election, he was showing a certain level of restraint. That restraint is now over

"It's an indication that Netanyahu has opened the settlement floodgates," Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who specialises in the politics of Jerusalem, told The New Arab. "He was proceeding with caution after Trump's election, he was showing a certain level of restraint. That restraint is now over," he added.

In his Jerusalem Post interview, Aryeh King said he aims to have "some 400, maybe 500 Jewish families" move into the neighbourhood within the next decade. He explained that a second phase of development is planned in two more compounds of 300 and 200 housing units respectively. Sheikh Jarrah, King said, "is going through a revolution".

Members of the Shamasneh family were arrested
by Israeli police after the eviction [AFP]

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 800  Palestinians in East Jerusalem are at risk of eviction as a result of court cases against them, pursued mostly by settler organisations.
According to Seidemann, the stakes in the neighbourhood are high. "This has enormous geopolitical significance. It will establish a continuous land breach deep into Sheikh Jarrah which will be under Israeli control," he said. "So this is a game changer in terms of potential border regimes in the future."

While the Palestinian leadership and the international community see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, Israel unilaterally declared the city its "undivided capital" and illegally annexed it with a law passed in 1980. 

Hours after the eviction, Israeli police had arrested Mohammad Shamasneh and his son Derrar. His elderly parents, Fahimeh and Ayyub, watched the sun go down as they sat in plastic chairs outside their former home.

Ylenia Gostoli is an independent Journalist based in Jerusalem. Her work was shortlisted for the Anna Lindh Mediterranean Journalist Award in 2014. Follow her on Twitter @YleniaGostoli