Why So Much Rests on the Fate of a Tiny Neighborhood in East Jerusalem

The Sheikh Jarrah families who have faced eviction are Palestinian refugees who were driven from their homes in Haifa and Jaffa during the 1948 war. Israel prevented refugees from returning to their cities, seized their homes and moved Jewish Israeli families in. In the 1950s, the Jordanian government, which controlled East Jerusalem until 1967, settled 28 refugee families in Sheikh Jarrah in coordination with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

After the 1967 war, when Israel extended its occupation to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, Jewish settlers began making claims on the refugees’ houses in Sheikh Jarrah. The settlers have been relying on a 1970 Israeli law that allows Jewish people to reclaim properties their families owned in East Jerusalem before 1948.

In 2009, settlers began taking over some of the families’ homes in Sheikh Jarrah, displacing 53 refugees, including 20 children, under Israeli court order. I met the affected families in 2009. We organized together, brought delegations of Israeli and international solidarity activists to the neighborhood and laid the foundations for a grass-roots movement. I co-produced a documentary on the community’s response to those expulsions.

Last fall, Israeli courts ruled to evict several more Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Four of those families appealed, and an Israeli Supreme Court hearing was scheduled for their case on Monday.

Led by a new generation of Palestinians, the community in Sheikh Jarrah resumed and heightened its protest movement. Scores of Palestinian youths joined the Sheikh Jarrah families to break the Ramadan fast each night, eating, singing and dancing together, despite being attacked by the settlers with stones and being beaten, Tasered, arrested and doused with a stinking liquid by the police.

On Saturday, thousands of Palestinians were on their way to Jerusalem to spend the final days of Ramadan in Al Aqsa Mosque, as is our tradition. When stopped by the Israeli police from entering the city, they parked their cars and buses on the highway and began walking. Residents from across East Jerusalem — including Sheikh Jarrah — drove to the highway to pick them up.

It gives me hope to see displays of unity and support from all parts of Palestine and abroad. #SaveSheikhJarrah pops up on my Twitter feed every few seconds, in Arabic and English. Activists on the ground have made it clear that these evictions are not a “real estate deal between private parties,” as the Israeli government tries to portray it, but part of a systemic policy to replace Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem with Jewish Israelis.