Israeli police and barking dogs woke Abdallah and Fatima Abu Nab from inside of the couple’s bedroom shortly after daybreak Monday morning, and told them to immediately and permanently leave their house in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, bringing an end to a seven year legal battle with Israeli settlers.
“They did not allow me to put clothes on, I almost got shot trying. I told them to get out and let my wife dress, they refused and told us to leave now. I told them over my dead body would I allow my wife to leave the house,” said Abdallah Abu Nab the following afternoon from a cramped apartment across the street. The four-room flat was rented by relatives for the family of four—Abdallah, Fatima and twin nine-year old boys. Scattered across the linoleum floor sat cardboard boxes of crushed kitchenware, clothes, and broken furniture that Abdallah and his neighbors collected off of the street as Israeli police cleared out the home.
“At least 300 Israeli forces were on the street watching over us,” estimated Abu Nab, “My children’s piggy banks—their savings, laptops and electronics were stolen. They purposefully destroyed all our belongings,” he said.
As Abdallah detailed the family’s rushed exit, I could see Israeli workers arranging pipes on the roof of his former house through a window behind him. Abdallah anticipated in a matter of weeks settlers will move into the property. Israelis already control two more units on the same narrow street, barely wide enough for the armored private security vans (paid for by the municipality of Jerusalem) to transport settlers in and out Silwan, one of East Jerusalem’s most congested and underserved neighborhoods.
More than 55,000 Palestinians live in Silwan, stretching over two hilltops east of Jerusalem’s Old City walls. They are residents of Jerusalem, a special standing Israel gave to Jerusalemite Palestinians after the June 1967 war. East Jerusalem Palestinians do not hold Israeli citizenship.
Also residing in Silwan, 400 Israeli settlers live in 40 units that were either purchased from Palestinian families, or use was won through Israeli courts during the past decade. The settlers submitted documentation of Ottoman-era deeds that showed prior to the state of Israel’s establishment in 1948, Yemenite Jewish families owned homes in Silwan. Yet the Jewish families abandoned the properties in the heat of the 1929 Arab riots when over 200 were killed in political turmoil surrounding access to Jerusalem’s holy sites.
In the hearings the heirs of the Yemenite Jews, the Moshe Benvenisti family trust, argued Palestinians illegally took over the forefathers’ homes and one local synagogue, which until last week was the Abu Nab’s house.
Daniel Lauria, a spokesperson for the Israeli NGO Ateret Cohanim that seeks to “facilitate the return of Jewish life” in East Jerusalem neighborhoods, said the Abu Nab house is hekdesh, or consecrated property. According to Lauria, the status of a hekdesh is irrevocable; land sales and leases are not valid.
The Abu Nabs say their family started legally renting the home over a century ago. Abu Nab added, up until the eviction settlers offered him nearly $800,000 for the home, which he said validates his claim to the building.
Ateret Cohanim confirmed the Benvenisti endowment did buy out the Abu Nab’s neighbors for an undisclosed amount, but Abu Nab refused a similar proposal.
“They want to make us feel like they are strong and buy us out, but we did not sell,” Abu Nab said. “However, they still took our home by force and cheating the law. Netanyahu says this country has a legal system, but every one steals and cheats.”
Silwan under siege?
The Abu Nab’s house is in East Jerusalem and is considered occupied Palestinian territory under international law. The Palestinian government says Israeli-Jews have no right to claim 100-year old properties, and warn that the Israeli court ordered evictions in Silwan are part of a wider process to build a Jewish presence in East Jerusalem that undermines their ability to make it the capital of a future Palestinian state.
“Israeli policies and escalating practices in Silwan aim not only to alter the historic character of the area and to consolidate Israeli control over the Old City of Jerusalem, in particular al-Aqsa mosque compound, but also to contribute to the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem,” said the PLO in statement.
In the 1980s Israel annexed East Jerusalem through legislation, although no country recognizes territorial expansion during warfare.
Today, East Jerusalem is the center of bloody conflict where more than 40 Palestinians, and eight Israelis have been killed in shootings and attacks since the start of October. In an attempt to deter future attacks on Israeli citizens Israel erected over a dozen of checkpoints inside of East Jerusalem last week that Palestinian leaders and Palestinians in East Jerusalem say are a form of collective punishment.
In Silwan, there are three new checkpoints and last Friday Israeli police prevented Palestinians from leaving the neighborhood.
“It is not normal to see checkpoints inside of Silwan, it’s like a big jail,” Tala Serhan said, an office manager for the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan.
Serhan said the checkpoints have kept many in Silwan from reaching their places of work in other areas of Jerusalem. Serhan said last Thursday Israeli police denied Palestinians driving access out of the neighborhood. Serhan had to parked her car by the checkpoint and walked uphill to reach the Old City.
Back at the Abu Nab’s rental, the family drank tea from plastic cups—all of their china is smashed from the evictions—and pondered how they will assemble their bed frames. Israeli police hammered the hinges out of place during the eviction.
“They destroyed the house, and you call this a country with law?” Abu Nab scoffed. He sees his eviction and the curfews and closures across Jerusalem as part of a wider period of difficulties faced by Palestinians in East Jerusalem that ramped up when Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came into office in 2009, with Israel’s most right-wing parliament in tow.
Under the Netanyahu government settlements growth has increased at a near-unprecedented rate that critics say diminished the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.
Netanyahu is responsible for “opening of the settlement floodgates,” by approving the first settlements in a Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem since 1967, wrote Americans for Peace Now’s Lara Friedman and Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran.
“Netanyahu stole our home to make the settlers happy. Look at the trouble he has created in Jerusalem, it is a military base,” Abu Nab continued.