We stood, struggling to keep our candles alight on this breezy, summer evening in Jerusalem. The lights of police cars flashed from all directions; there was a hub of voices offering sympathy to the homeless families; the flashes from cameras sparkled so as to capture the scene while journalists scribbled notes as a spokesperson relayed the story of the Hannoun and Ghawi families. The group occasionally burst into song; songs that spoke of peace, freedom and determination to withstand the current wave of oppression in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. It was a peaceful, good-natured gathering and the overwhelming police presence seemed to be very unnecessary – what were they expecting to happen?
This gathering had been called by Rabbis for Human Rights, a group of Israeli Rabbis who work for justice and parity before the law for both Israelis and Palestinians. The 32nd group of Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) joined the 150 person gathering of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals for a candle lit vigil on the sidewalk outside of the large home of the three Hannoun families whom were evicted on Sunday, 2nd of August by Israeli authorities.
Just before 5:00AM on that fateful Sunday morning, a large number of police officers in riot gear smashed their way into the Hannoun home, (three families live in a large house divided to accommodate all of the families) and forced everyone out of the house at gunpoint. Totally insensitive to cultural norms, the police even refused to allow the women to properly dress before being thrown out on the street. The families’ possessions were soon after loaded on a truck and dumped at a municipal site on the edge of Jerusalem.
Just one-hundred meters away, the Ghawi and Al-Kurd families were subjected to the same injustices. Within the span of one-hour, 53 people, including 19 children, were made homeless. The police arrested numerous Israeli and international peace activists who tried to intervene and stop the evictions. Within hours, both homes were given to Israeli settlers and security personnel were stationed outside to ensure that the homes’ owners will not erect tents within sight of the houses.
The right of the Hannoun, Ghawi and Al-Kurd families, as well as that of 25 other Palestinian families that received eviction notices in Sheikh Jarrah has been contested in court for many years. The houses were built by the Jordanian government in cooperation with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The housing project started in 1948 and was completed in 1956 to house 28 Palestinian refugee families who were forced to flee their homes in Israel. Shortly after the 1967 war, religious Jews claimed ownership of the land, referring to an old, questionable, Ottoman document, which resulted in a long legal battle. Although a lawyer representing the families claims to have new evidence proving that no Jews have ever owned the land, the court is unwilling to reopen the case.
There is a ‘legal’ double standard of how Israel administers ‘justice’ for Palestinians and Israelis. If, as the settlers argue in this case, the land on which these home were built, was owned by Jews before 1948, then what of the land and homes owned by Palestinians in Israel prior to 1948. Why are they not entitled to reclaim their property? As noted above, all of the families now living in Sheikh Jarrah whom are facing eviction once lived in what became the State of Israel. Many of the families have legal documentation to prove ownership of the homes and the land where they lived in West Jerusalem and other parts of Israel. Why is Israel unwilling to evict Israeli families or businesses from these homes and premises and hand them back to their Palestinian owners? Benjamin Netanyahu recently acknowledged that Palestinian refugees would need to be accommodated but “not within Israel.” Thus, clearly ruling out the right of return for the 700,000 refugees and their descendants to the homes and land from which they were forced out of.
The evictions have been widely condemned by the international community. Hilary Clinton said:
Well, I think these actions are deeply regrettable. I have said before that the eviction of families and demolition of homes in East Jerusalem is not in keeping with Israeli obligations, and I urge the Government of Israel and municipal officials to refrain from such provocative actions. Both sides have responsibilities to refrain from provocative actions that can block the path toward a comprehensive peace agreement. Unilateral actions taken by either party cannot be used to prejudge the outcome of negotiations, and they will not be recognized as changing the status quo.
The French Foreign Ministry, European Union Presidency and UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace, Mr. Robert Serry condemned the evictions as "illegal" and “unacceptable.” Yet, despite the condemnation of world leaders, Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality continue to defy world opinion, and the peaceful candle-light vigil ended in the arrest of the organizer, Rabi Arik Asherman.
Maher Hannoun’s1 open letter to the Israeli people deserves the final word.
When your government denied us our rights, many ordinary Israelis did not look away. Instead they stood with us. They showed us that Israelis are able to look past our differences and stand up for what is right.
I call on the Israeli people once again to help.
Early on Sunday, more than 500 armed police smashed our windows, barged into our house and threw us out. They say we live in the house illegally, but immediately after we were forced out, extremist settlers took over and occupied our home. They are still there now.
My wife, children and I have spent the past seven days and nights in the streets, and there is no end for us in sight. Overnight, we were made homeless. I hope you can help us seek the justice denied to us.
Israel calls itself a democracy. If so, the government is answerable to you, the Israeli people.
My family's situation is not an isolated case. Stories like ours are being played out all the time in Jerusalem and will continue. It is being perpetuated by the government of Israel in your name, in the name of the Israeli people, against UN resolutions and international law.
Please, stand with us again in our time of need, and help my family and I and those like us, to get our homes back.
We need your support. With each new day spent in the streets, our time is running out. Please stop them from abusing us in Sheikh Jarrah in your name.”
Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem
1 Maher Hannoun is a Palestinian who has been evicted with his family from East Jerusalem earlier this year.