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Evicted Palestinians stand their ground – on thin mattresses

Forced out of their Sheikh Jarrah homes after losing a property-rights case to Jewish families, their situation has drawn international censure.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 2009

Israeli border police officers stand guard Sunday as Palestinians, Israelis, and foreign activists demonstrate outside an evicted house earlier in Sheikh Jarrah. Israeli police evicted two Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood on Sunday, drawing condemnations from Palestinians and the United Nations.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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It was 13-year-old Diala who was awoken first, just after 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, by the commotion outside. She rushed to the window, saw special riot police in black uniforms, and ran to wake her parents.

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By the time she did, the Israeli police were already breaking in through doors and windows, forcing the 17-member Hanoun family – three brothers, their wives, and children – to leave the home their relatives acquired a half-century ago. In all, 58 Palestinians were evicted in this predominantly Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah.

Though they had received – and refused to obey – a court order in May to leave after losing a longstanding dispute over property rights, it was still a shock.

"I had one shoe on and one off, and the policeman who was ordering me out tried to move aside the glass they broke to make sure that I didn't cut my feet," says Diala's mother, Nadia Hanoun. A few hours later, they stood across the street and watched as the police escorted a few families of Jewish settlers into their homes.

"He was concerned about my feet bleeding, but he doesn't see the bleeding in my heart. It's so difficult for us to see them move in people who are not from here, into our house, into the home my husband was born in, while we're on the street," says Mrs. Hanoun, sitting in the shade of a tree about 50 feet from their front door, now blocked off by a line of security barriers and several police vans with flashing lights. The family has for two nights slept on the thin mattresses piled behind her; she says they have no other place to go.

The events in Sheikh Jarrah garnered international censure from the European Union, the United Nations (UN) and from Britain, which said it was "appalled" at the move. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday night called the Israeli evictions "deeply regrettable" and "provocative." Such a move "is not in keeping with Israeli obligations and I urge the government of Israel and municipal officials to refrain from such provocative actions," she said.

Who is responsible?

Neither the Jerusalem municipality nor any government office is taking responsibility for the incident, pointing instead to the courts. There, a decades-long battle over the houses has ensued, in which a group of Jewish families say they can show that their forbearers owned the houses here as far back as the late 19th century, when the area was administered by the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish families say they were forced to abandon the houses during a spate of Arab attacks in the area in the 1920s and 30s. In the war for Israel's establishment in 1948, the territory became part of Jordan.

In 1956, 28 Palestinian families who were refugees from Israel after 1948 were resettled in Sheikh Jarrah as part of an UN project to assist people made homeless in the war. The Hanoun family, who say they are originally from Haifa, was one of the recipients – and Maher Hanoun, Nadia's husband, was born in the house.

The story gets more tangled from there. Both the Israelis and Palestinians involved in the dispute say that they have Ottoman-era property ownership documents called tabu which proves that they are the rightful owners. Palestinians say that the Hijazi family – who now live elsewhere in Jerusalem – can show they own the land. But the Jewish families, represented legally by a real estate group called Nahalat Shimon International also have Turkish tabu papers they say prove the land is theirs.