It has been an agonizing few weeks for 70-year-old Mohammed Sabbagh and his family, who live in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
On January 12, Israeli authorities handed an eviction order to the Sabbagh family, who number 47 people living in five adjacent homes.
Mohammed Sabbagh, his four brothers, their wives, children, and grandchildren were given until January 23 to leave their homes, to make way for Israeli settlers who would be moving in.
Israeli authorities agreed to an appeal filed by the family’s lawyers to freeze the eviction until a final decision was reached within a month.
“It bought us some more time, but we still know that eviction is inevitable,” Sabbagh told Mondoweiss in the living room of his family home, where he has lived since 1956, when he was eight-years-old.
Sabbagh’s family is originally from the town of Jaffa, now in present day Israeli territory. They were forcibly expelled, like hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, during the Nakba in 1948.
When Jordan assumed control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Jordanian government partnered with UNRWA to provide apartments for 28 refugee families, including the Sabbaghs, in Sheikh Jarrah.
“We were forced out of our homes by the occupation when I was a boy, and now in my old age they are expelling me again,” Sabbagh said. “It’s another Nakba.”
Fighting the law
The Sabbagh family, like many others in Sheikh Jarrah and neighborhoods across East Jerusalem, have been embroiled in legal battles with Israeli settler organizations for decades.
After the Nakba and establishment of Israel in 1948, the state enacted the Absentee Property Law, which transferred Palestinian refugees’ property into the hands of the state.
Although their original homes in Haifa are still standing, the Sabbagh family cannot reclaim ownership of them.
The law, however, does not apply to small percentage of Jewish families that left their homes in 1948 for West Jerusalem and other Jewish-majority parts of Israel. Under Israeli law, those Jewish families could reclaim their properties, like the ones in Sheikh Jarrah.
Following the Israeli occupation of the city in 1967, parts of Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods where Jews once lived prior to 1948 were handed over to Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property.
Israeli settler groups began making claims to the land and homes, using the Israeli legal system to try and kick Palestinian families out of their homes in East Jerusalem. Given that they were refugees not originally from East Jerusalem, the Sabbagh family homes were among the easier prey for the settler groups.
In 1972, settlers quietly registered the land where the Sabbagh family homes are located under their names, and in 2003, those settlers sold the property to settler company Nahalat Shimon.
“That is when everyone’s troubles really began,” Sabbagh told Mondoweiss, adding that in 2009, the family was served with their first notice of an eviction lawsuit being filed against them.
“The settlement organization was claiming that they have been the owners of this land since 1885,” he said, “and they presented documents claiming they are the owners.”
But Sabbagh believes the documents were forged, telling Mondoweiss that the alleged Jewish owners of the land pre-1948 were actually renting the land from a Palestinian landowner.
“With those forged documents, and the discriminatory legal system in Israel,” the settlers have been trying to kick us out.”
“I am not optimistic”
Using those same documents, settler organizations were able to evict three Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah in 2009, the same year the Sabbaghs were given their first eviction notice.
Despite the family’s lawyers presenting proof to the courts that the settler documents were forged, Israel’s lower courts refused to rule on the family’s eviction, citing statute of limitations.
“They sent us to the High Court, and when we finally went in November 2018, the judges rejected our claims of ownership saying that we should have demanded ownership back in 2003 when the properties were sold to the settler company,” Sabbagh said.
After the High Court decision, the family was given their most recent eviction notice. Their only hope now, Sabbagh says, is the freese that their lawyers were able to secure.
“There are 11 other families in Sheikh Jarrah fighting eviction,” Sabbagh said. “If all of us file an appeal or motion with the Magistrate Court to open the ownership files of the families, we could buy more time and extend the freeze.”
But even when Sabbagh speaks of the chances the family has of remaining in their homes, he expresses little hope. “I am not very optimistic,” he said.
“One of the three judges who ruled on our case in the High Court is herself a settler,” he said. “So what do you honestly expect to happen? ”
The ‘Judaization’ of East Jerusalem
The story of the Sabbagh family and Sheikh Jarrah is a microcosm of the Israeli occupation and its decades-long efforts to “Judaize” East Jerusalem.
Rights groups and activists have long criticized the government for its housing and zoning policies that actively work to push Palestinians out of the city, which Israel has declared as its “undivided capital.”
“The Israeli occupation authorities and leaders have designed the laws in in accordance with their interests, which is making Jerusalem a demographically Jewish city,” local Palestinian activist Omar al-Shalabi, 48, told Mondoweiss.
“The racism of the Israeli government is blatantly obvious to anyone who looks at the double standards they have for Muslim and Christian Palestinians, versus Jews,” al-Shalabi said.
Pointing to absentee property laws, zoning laws that restrict Palestinian construction in the city, home demolitions, lack of municipal services for Palestinian areas, and the over-policing of Palestinian communities, al-Shalabi argued that the Israeli government actively searched for “a thousand pretexts” under which they can drive out Palestinians from Jerusalem.
Israel’s Jerusalem Municipality has zoned only 15% of the land in East Jerusalem for residential use, despite the fact that Palestinians make up 40% of the city’s population.
According to UN documentation, at least a third of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem lack an Israeli-issued building permit, placing over 100,000 Palestinians at risk of displacement.
“As Palestinians in Jerusalem, we face roadblocks at every turn,” al-Shalabi said. “But for the settlers, everything is allowed, and encouraged by the politicians and security forces who assist them in their takeover of the city.”