The World

“It’s Beautiful and Ugly at the Same Time”

A Palestinian human rights lawyer on what happened in the neighborhood where the current crisis began.

Israeli police stand around street barricades placed by a crane.
Israeli forces place cement blocks at the entrance of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem on Sunday. Reuters/Ammar Awad

Sheikh Jarrah used to be a quiet, affluent neighborhood, just outside the bustling Old City in east Jerusalem. Munir Nusseibeh’s family has lived there for generations, and he told me the family can trace its lineage in the region back centuries—he said one of his ancestors was entrusted as a neutral Muslim keeper of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity’s holiest shrines, where some believe Jesus was buried. In Sheikh Jarrah, Nusseibeh’s grandfather owned one of the first large buildings near the gate to the Old City. When we talked recently, Nusseibeh recalled how it was once a hotel. It was lost to the family when the building was destroyed by Israel in the 1948 war, and his grandfather’s land was confiscated by the Israeli government.

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Israel’s threat to remove longtime Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah helped precipitate the current crisis, which has left more than 225 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead. Nusseibeh is now a human rights lawyer and academic based in Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, where he leads the Community Action Center. He also heads an organization that provides legal aid and documents human rights violations in his neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. His legal work includes representing Palestinians before Israeli courts for a variety of residency disputes, which are typical in the area. He doesn’t directly represent his neighbors who are now facing forced removal from their homes, but he told me he regularly meets with their lawyers and produces fact sheets to help inform the international community of what’s happening on the ground there.

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Speaking by phone, we talked about the roots of the Sheikh Jarrah battle, whether he believes victory is possible in an Israeli court system, and what he’s seeing in his neighborhood and city right now. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Aymann Ismail: What does the legal battle for the East Jerusalem residents look like? How did they wind up facing eviction?

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Munir Nusseibeh: The people who live in this specific community are refugees who were displaced from the area that became Israel in 1948. During that war, Israel forcibly displaced 80 percent of the Palestinian population to create a Jewish majority in the newborn state. In 1956, the Jordanian government and the United Nations agreed to build 28 houses in Sheikh Jarrah to house some of these families. They have been living in these houses as tenants since 1956. First there was a contract with the Jordanian government that was to transfer ownership to the families after three years. However, time passed, and the ownership was not transferred to the families. Instead, the Jordanian government transferred jurisdiction of the land over to what’s called the “Custodian of Enemy Property” inside the Jordanian government that managed the properties. The residents continued to live in these houses, but in 1967, East Jerusalem became occupied by Israel, and during this period, settler groups claimed ownership of the land on which the houses were built. They then asked the Israeli government to evict the families that lived in these houses.

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Around this time, the Palestinian residents hired an Israeli lawyer to defend them. They learned only later that, at the time, the lawyer had conceded that this land was owned by the Jewish settler group—the plaintiffs—and the tenants were given a status of “protected tenant.” They became considered tenants who were expected to pay rent. They insist to me now that they were never approached by anyone since the ’70s to pay rent, never told how much the rent was or to whom they should pay it. Years later, the Israeli settler organization came back with new cases to evict these families using the law that regulates leasing real estate for not paying rent.

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Since then, a settler organization has been choosing families to sue, claiming that these families should be evicted. In 2009, there were already four families that were evicted from their houses as a result of these cases, and they have been replaced with Israeli Jewish settlers. Now there is a wave of more cases against more residents to evict them from their homes. The Israeli courts won’t hear some of the evidence, but they have authorized the plaintiff and defendant to find a settlement. The Israeli settler organization asked the families to recognize that this land is owned by them, and in return, they would allow the land to be leased to someone chosen in their family, and expire with that person’s death. The families rejected this offer. So that is where it is today. We are waiting for another session in less than a month, but we don’t know what will happen.

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Nahalat Shimon, the settler organization that’s helping drive this case, has a plan to build settler units in place of some of the Palestinian homes. Can you tell me why it is so interested in this particular parcel of land?

This organization is very extreme in its Zionism. And the whole idea behind Zionism is to create a Jewish state. So they are not interested in this land specifically, but they will be able to fulfill their national and religious causes by Judaizing this land. They were using the Israeli court system, which is part of the occupation itself, to transfer real estate from Palestinians to settlers. International law makes it very clear that it is illegal to transfer a population from this territory. However, these organizations do not care about international law, and neither does the Israeli court.

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Does Sheikh Jarrah hold any special significance to the Palestinians?

I live in Sheikh Jarrah. I have my piece of land that is not under threat of eviction, but my father, who lived with my aunt and uncle, had his land confiscated a long time ago. It was not related to this case. It was based on a different law—“confiscation for public use”—and they haven’t used it to this day, by the way. My father was a journalist, he could read Hebrew, and he read about another Jewish woman whose land was confiscated for public use as well. She went to court and got her land back. My father went to the same lawyer, but he lost the case, unfortunately.

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But Sheikh Jarrah is bigger than that. It’s one of the most important city centers in Jerusalem. It’s one of closest cities to the Old City. The wealthier Palestinian families at the end of the 1800s started building homes in Sheikh Jarrah to build more modern homes for an updated lifestyle. There were several beautiful neighborhoods outside of the Old City. One of them was called Talbiya, which was totally 100 percent Judaized in 1948 when they ejected all of the Palestinians who lived in West Jerusalem. If you tour Jerusalem, you will see wonderful houses that were built by wealthy Palestinians and were loved and decorated with art. They suddenly lost them. And now they are trying their best to also Judaize the closest neighborhoods to the Old City: in the north, Sheikh Jarrah, and in the south, Silwan. Similar claims and court cases are currently ongoing in Silwan. Today, we are discussing Sheikh Jarrah, and in the future, you will hear more about the families facing displacement in Silwan.

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I’ve seen some others say it’s wrong to simply call what’s happening “eviction.” Do you also see it that way?

Yes, of course. I would call it “forced displacement.” Eviction is when a tenant is being evicted from a home that is owned by someone else. This language is used currently in the Israeli court system because that is the way Israeli law is dealing with this situation. The truth is that those who are claiming ownership are unable to prove ownership. Still, the expected result is the forced removal of civilians from their homes to somewhere else in the occupied territory. In international law, this is known as forcible transfer. It is prohibited by Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and was prosecuted as a crime historically. It is widely considered as a war crime and a crime against humanity. We have called for a prosecutor from the International Criminal Court to investigate the situation, and it is my belief that if they actually investigate this, they will find that a war crime is being conducted, and if these families are evicted, then their war crime would be completed. This is the language that needs to be used to clarify that we are not talking about a normal situation in a normal city. An owner is not evicting a tenant. International law is being broken.

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Does international attention help your case in any way?

I am not sure how it will affect the court case. A few days ago, the Israeli Supreme Court postponed making a final decision on the case, based on a request from a state attorney who was asked to intervene in this case. The court acknowledged this case has several dimensions. So now they recognize that there are more dimensions to the case than how it was presented, as a simple tenant and owner dispute. So this is one indication of how the attention that this case has received has been helpful.

Do you believe it’s possible to actually win in Israeli court?

The Israeli court system is part of the occupation machine. You can win, but on their ground and by their rules. Maybe the residents back in the ’70s thought that they won the case, but in fact they did not win. Now after 20 to 30 years have passed, they are facing a new wave of displacement. Like in the case of the separation wall: The International Court of Justice said very clearly the wall is illegal. The Israeli court system said the wall is legal but it has to be proportionate. When it violates the rights of Palestinians, it has to violate them in a way that is proportionate to the security needs that it’s built for. We cannot seek justice in the Israeli Supreme Court and the Israeli court system. Even though we are forced to go there—after all, it is my job to go to these courts—we go because people have to defend themselves.

We have to use their language, their law, and their standards. Their standards are very far away from the standards of international law or human rights. However, people’s resilience requires that we deal with them. We have no other option but to interact with this discriminatory regime and its court system. And that is exactly what we saw in apartheid South Africa, or any country that persecuted certain populations based on their own justifications.

What are you seeing on the ground now?

It’s beautiful and ugly at the same time. It’s beautiful because Sheikh Jarrah now is at its height for peaceful, nonviolent resistance against the Israeli occupation as a whole. We have Palestinians coming every day to the Sheikh Jarrah community to show solidarity. Obviously the Israeli Police have been creating obstacles against us. They have closed the streets in Sheikh Jarrah that lead to the houses that face eviction, preventing people from accessing these areas. Today, there was a group of church representatives who managed to enter. So, there is a lot of people currently against oppression. Sheikh Jarrah is like a spring now, and it is producing thoughtful resistance against the occupation. And it has also pushed not only Palestinians but—as we call them here—“free people” from all faiths and nationalities to express solidarity with the victims of this occupation. This is the beautiful thing, but the ugly thing is police and army brutality. The violence they are using against protesters, not only in Sheikh Jarrah but in Al-Aqsa Mosque with no justification, is ugly. The police are very violent. Every night we hear their stun grenades and stun bombs. We smell gas. They spray the streets and the people with skunk water. That is our daily scene in this beautiful neighborhood. There is fear among the people living in this neighborhood, but I think we’ve seen this a lot in our lifetimes. And we know that this situation will continue as long as this apartheid regime continues to rule over Jerusalem. Until human rights and freedom are established in Palestine, this will continue. We have to expect it and survive, and be as resilient as we can.

Update May 20, 2021: This post has been updated to clarify that many scholars, including some Christians, believe that Jesus was buried at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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