After years of fighting to save their homes, Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood were hit with a devastating loss last week: the Israeli High Court denied their petition against claims on their homes by an Israeli settler organization, paving the way for the eviction of 700 residents of the Batn al-Hawa area of Silwan.
The residents have been fighting against efforts by Ateret Cohanim to evict them from homes, under the pretext that they live on land previously owned by Jews.
Despite owning the deeds to their homes, which they have lived in for more than 50 years, the Palestinian residents of Batn al-Hawa were told by the High Court that they would have to continue their battle with Ateret Cohanim in Jerusalem District Courts, which have historically ruled in favor of Israeli policies aimed at “Judaizing” East Jerusalem.
“We were surprised by the decision,” Zuhair al-Rajabi, the spokesperson of Batn al-Hawa’s local council, told Mondoweiss.
“We filed the appeal in the high court hoping that they would help save the people who are under threat of demolition,” he said.
Al-Rajabi and his fellow community members see their neighborhood as the frontline in the fight against settler organizations like Ateret Cohanim, which seek to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem using dubious tactics in order to replace them with Jewish settlers.
“If Batn al-Hawa falls into the hands of the settlers, it will only be a matter of time before they take the rest of Silwan,” al-Rajabi said. “And we cannot let that happen.”
The battle for Batn al-Hawa
While the residents of Batn al-Hawa say they have been consistently handed eviction notices since 2015, their problems with the Ateret Cohanim date all the way back to the early 2000’s.
Up until 1938, Batn al-Hawa was a Jewish neighborhood managed by the Benvenisti Trust — a Jewish organization established in the late 1800s for the purpose of building homes for Yemenite Jews . The Jewish residents eventually sold their homes to Palestinians in Silwan, and moved to West Jerusalem and other areas of the city.
In 2001, the Jerusalem District court quietly approved a decision to appoint three members of Ateret Cohanim to run the Benvenisti Trust.
In 2002, the Justice Ministry’s Custodian General released the Batan al-Hawa plots to the trust, effectively giving Ateret Cohanim control over the homes of around 81 families — 700 people — in the center of Batn al-Hawa.
The Israeli legal system allows Jews, through a series of three different laws passed since 1948, to claim property through that was owned by Jews prior to 1948. Meanwhile, the state does not allow Palestinians to demand restoration of property they owned in West Jerusalem prior to 1948.
As of 2016, according to B’Tselem, Ateret Cohanim had control over nine of 50 “parcels” in Batan al-Hawa, five of which are already in use by settlers.
“Ateret Cohanim already has possession of six buildings in the neighborhood, containing 27 housing units, most of which had been home to Palestinian families,” the group said.
The petition that was denied by the High Court last week, was filed by 104 residents of Silwan to overturn the 2002 decision.
The families argued that the 2002 ruling that released their plots to the trust should be reversed citing Ottoman era law that classified the land in question as “Miri land” – a classification that would have enabled the original trust to own only the buildings, not the land.
Since the original buildings belonging to the Yemenite Jews were destroyed long ago, and have since been replaced with the current Palestinian-owned homes, the residents of Batn al-Hawa say Ateret Cohanim’s claims to the land are invalid.
Last year, the Israeli government admitted that the Ministry of Justice failed to properly investigate the trust and the Ottoman-era law before issuing title deeds to the Benvenisti Trust in 2002.
Despite this, the High Court ruled last week that Ateret Cohanim could continue legal proceedings to evict the residents of Batn al-Hawa.
Little hope in lower courts
Though the high court left the door open for the Palestinians to continue their legal battle in Jerusalem district courts — which the high court said must rule on the Miri land question before ordering evictions — residents have been left with little hope for justice.
B’Tselem has said that “Israel’s courts have given the seal of approval to every aspect” of the process of dispossessing Palestinians from Batn al-Hawa.
“By pushing us back down to the lower courts, the high court has put us at even greater risk,” al-Rajabi told Mondoweiss, saying he believed the chances of winning in the district courts were significantly lower.
“Ateret Cohanim is an immoral organization,” he continued. “They do not care about what happens to us or where we will go, as long as they replace us with Jews.”
Yaqoub al-Rajabi, 43, a local business owner and father of five expressed similar sentiments.
“There was some kind of hope that the High Court would rule in our favor because it is obvious that the law is, or should be on our side,” he said.
“We have the papers to prove that we have a right to be here,” he continued.
For Yaqoub, who was handed an eviction notice in 2015, the legal system in Israel boils down to one thing: racism.
“I know the district courts are racist against Palestinians,” he said, noting the countless times district courts have ruled in favor of the settlers.
“But i didn’t expect the High Court to be this racist as well, and cave to the pressure of the right wing government and settler organizations,” he said.
When asked if they believed the district courts would offer any form of justice to the Palestinians of Silwan, both Yaqoub and Zuheir responded in the negative.
“I don’t think so. If the highest court in Israel ruled against us, what do you think the district courts will do?,” Yaqoub said.
“The courts cannot give a fair decision because they are all part of the system of the Israeli occupation,” Zuheir said. “The same settlers that are trying to kick us out of our homes are also lawyers, judges, and parliamentarians.”
Coercion, threats, and assault
While Israeli law gives organizations like Ateret Cohanim legal avenues to pursue the eviction of Palestinians from their homes, the tactics by which the groups and their settlers attempt to dispossess Palestinians often lie outside the boundaries of the law.
Residents of Silwan and other neighborhoods in East Jerusalem where settlers have moved in complain of daily harassment by settlers, and the use of blackmail, coercion, and outright threats in order to get them to leave their homes.
B’Tselem says “the pressure on families who live in a property the settlers want for themselves often puts them in a cruel dilemma – agree to leave in return for significant sums of money, or refuse and still risk losing the property (a very real possibility given the expulsion of other families in the neighborhood), accruing serious debt and suffering harassment.”
In some cases, according to Haaretz, Ateret Cohanim employees have offered sex services to Palestinian residents in exchange for selling their properties, and have threatened to release recordings of such conversations if the homeowner refuses to sell — putting him and his family’s reputation in the community, and their lives, at risk.
Residents told Mondoweiss that they suffer from daily verbal and physical abuse from settlers, as well as the Israeli police and border police who maintain a constant presence in the area to protect Israelis.
“The settlers often throw rocks at our home,” Yaqoub al-Rajabi, told Mondoweiss.
Yaqoub lives just a short distance from the homes in Batn al-Hawa that were taken over by settlers.
“They don’t only cause material damage that costs us money to fix broken windows, but it is also emotionally damaging,” he added, saying that his kids live in fear of attacks from settlers, who are legally allowed to carry guns on them at all times.
Two years ago, after settlers began attacking Palestinian residents in the neighborhood, clashes broke out with Israeli border police, who began firing tear gas into the area.
“The tear gas got filled up our home and my wife, who was four months pregnant at the time, got very sick and had to be taken to the hospital,” Yaqoub said.
His wife eventually miscarried the baby. “I lost a child because of the settlers. And maybe I will lose my home as well.”
‘We will remain steadfast’
The fight for Silwan has been a long, tiresome, and expensive one for residents, and it doesn’t seem like it will end any time soon.
Despite years of relentless attempts by Israel to kick them out of their homes, residents insist that they won’t give up.
In Palestine, sumud, or “steadfastness” in Arabic, is a common theme in politics, activism, and everyday life.
From Khan al-Ahmar to Susiya, the word is a common response given by Palestinians when asked what they plan to do to resist the Israeli occupation. Silwan is no different.
“The situation in East Jerusalem, specifically Silwan, is really tough,” Zuheir told Mondoweiss. “But all we can do is remain steadfast against the attempts to erase us from this land. We will prove that we have a right to exist.”
“When we say that we will remain steadfast in Silwan, it’s not just about staying in our homes,” he continued, “it’s about protecting all of Jerusalem, protecting Al-Aqsa, and protecting the future of Palestine.”
When asked what his message to the world is, Yaqoub also spoke of steadfastness.
“Our message to the Israelis is: we know you came here and wanted to kick us out, but we won’t leave,” he said.
“The only thing we can do at this point is to remain on our land, remain strong, and remain steadfast.”