Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Eviction Stirs Old Ghosts in a Contested City

The New York Times


March 9, 2010

An Eviction Stirs Old Ghosts in a Contested City


JERUSALEM — Having been removed in favor of Israeli nationalist Jews, members of the Palestinian Ghawi family have been sheltering this winter in a tent on the sidewalk opposite their home of more than five decades in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

For those who want to see a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the eviction of the Ghawis has touched on two sensitive nerves: the fate of East Jerusalem, where Israel and the Palestinians vie for control, and the abiding grievances of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war.

The circumstances of the Palestinians’ removal and the old ghosts it stirred have managed to arouse even Israel’s long-dormant peace camp. About 2,500 Israelis and Palestinians attended a demonstration here on Saturday night. Young Israeli and foreign activists have rallied around the cause. Increasingly, veteran members of Israel’s leftist establishment are also appearing at the weekly vigils held in Sheikh Jarrah every Friday afternoon.

“We are here to shout,” said David Grossman, a prominent Israeli author and peace advocate, while attending a vigil near the disputed houses on a recent Friday in the pouring rain. The settlers, he said, are doing everything they can to preclude any future deal for a Palestinian state.

Being close to the Old City and its holy sites, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood is coveted by both sides.

Last summer, 38 members of the Ghawi family were evicted by Israel from a two-story stone house in the mostly Palestinian neighborhood just north of the Old City walls. They were immediately replaced by a group of fervent Israeli nationalists after the Israeli courts, including the Supreme Court, upheld a 1970s ruling that the property had originally belonged to Jews.

Two other Sheikh Jarrah families have been removed by similar means in the past 16 months.

The Israeli government and municipal authorities say that they cannot intervene in the workings of the court and that they support the rights of Jews, like Muslims and Christians, to live in any part of the city they want.

For those who advocate dividing sovereignty over Jerusalem, however, the trickle of Jewish nationalists moving into predominantly Arab neighborhoods that were seized from Jordan in 1967 complicates the map. Moreover, reclaiming properties owned by Jews before 1948 in these areas, critics argue, invites counterclaims from Palestinian refugees who lost property in what is now Israel and undermines Israel’s rejection of their demand for a right of return.

The Friday protests have been attended by Israeli-Arab lawmakers, legislators from the leftist Meretz party and some high-profile intellectuals like Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish law and philosophy.

Mr. Halbertal said he supported Israel’s policy against the right of return for Palestinian refugees — a position meant to ensure a Jewish majority in the Israeli state. But when it comes to Sheikh Jarrah, he added, Israel cannot have it both ways. He added that “the fabric of coexistence” in the city was delicate. Like others, he said he feared it could explode.

Heavy-handed police action against the demonstrators has only brought them more support. In January, 17 protesters were held for 36 hours after the police declared a rally illegal; a Jerusalem court later ruled that there was no basis for their arrest.

Accessibility is another draw. Unlike the relatively remote Palestinian villages where young Israeli leftists and anarchists join local residents and foreigners in protests against Israel’s West Bank barrier, Sheikh Jarrah is a few minutes’ drive from downtown Jerusalem.

Because of both the humanitarian and political aspects of the case, Israeli advocacy groups like Rabbis for Human Rights and Ir Amim, which focuses on Israeli-Palestinian relations in the city, have campaigned to bring it into the public eye.

Orly Noy, a spokeswoman for Ir Amim, said that by opening up the 1948 files, the Israeli authorities had crossed “a very dangerous red line.”

Israel claims sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, including the annexed eastern part that it captured in the 1967 war. The Palestinians demand the eastern section, including Sheikh Jarrah, as the capital of a future state. They see the Jewish settlement there as part of a larger plan to cement Israeli control.

At the heart of the neighborhood lies a shrine held by Jews to be the ancient tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, or Simeon the Just, a Jewish high priest from the days of the Second Temple. A small Jewish community lived in the compound around the tomb from the late 19th century; the last remnants left during the hostilities leading up to the establishment of Israel in 1948, after which the area fell under Jordanian control.

In the 1950s, Jordan and the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees gave 28 refugee families homes there. The families say that Jordan promised them full ownership, but the houses were never formally registered in their names.

In the early 1970s, the Israeli courts awarded two Jewish associations ownership of the compound based on land deeds that were a century old. The Palestinian residents were allowed to stay on as protected tenants on the condition that they paid rent to the Jewish groups.

Rejecting the court ruling, many of the Palestinian families refused to pay rent, making them eligible for eviction. Their lawyer claimed that the Jewish land deeds were forged but was not able to convince the Israeli courts.

Now Maysoun and Nasser Ghawi and their five children, the youngest 2 years old, spend their days in a protest tent on the sidewalk. The Palestinian Authority has rented them a small apartment in the northeast of the city, but Ms. Ghawi says they have been sleeping there only to escape the bitter cold.

“We have to be planted here,” Ms. Ghawi said one recent weekday, shortly after the protest tent had been confiscated by the Israeli police and rebuilt by neighbors and activists, as has happened several times. “I never thought we would be on the street,” she added. “We have been living here for 53 years.”

The Ghawis came to Jerusalem as refugees from the village of Sarafind, now Tzrifin, in central Israel. But they, like other Palestinians across the 1967 lines, cannot go to court to reclaim lost property because of what some describe as an asymmetry in the Israeli law.

In 1950, to protect the new Jewish state from the claims of the Palestinian refugees, Israel enacted the Absentees’ Property Law. It essentially strips Palestinians of any rights to property left behind in what is now Israel if they were in enemy territory, including East Jerusalem, between November 1947 and May 1948.

Yossi Sarid, a former Meretz leader and minister, recently wrote in the newspaper Haaretz that when Nasser Ghawi sits in his tent with his family, “Sarafind calls to them.”

The case of Sheikh Jarrah also presents a predicament for some mainstream Israelis.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a research institution in West Jerusalem, said he opposed a Jewish “right of return” to properties lost in the 1948 war. But he noted that more and more Arabs were buying apartments in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood where he lives.

“It cannot go one way in Jerusalem,” Mr. Klein Halevi said. “I am deeply torn.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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