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Occupation magazine - Jerusalem

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`ANA ATLAB EL HAQ` - an in-depth article on what is going on in the Sheikh Jarrah Jerusalem neighborhood
By Marcey Gayer

On a hot afternoon in June a bearded ultra-orthodox Jew clad in black, the fringes of his ritual garment blowing in the wind makes haste down Abu Bakr Street in the populous Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on his way to pray at the Tomb of Shimon HaTzaddik, Simon the Righteous, who was the last High Priest of the Sanhedrin and whose great piety supposedly dissuaded Alexander the Great from conquering Jerusalem. On a promontory overlooking the tomb of this revered holy man sits another figure also traditionally clad in black. She is Fawzieh Al Kurd, 57, who is known throughout her community as Oum Kamel, an affectionate term designating her as the mother of her firstborn son, Kamel. She is tall and dignified in her traditional Muslim headscarf and long coat-dress, her voice radiating femininity and strong resolve. She sits in a makeshift tent which now protects her from the intense middle-eastern sun. She is there from early morning until late at night meditating calmly on the Quran or receiving visitors from the neighborhood and from around the world. Would it even concern the scurrying ultra-orthodox Jew to know why she is here – doesn`t she have a home?

In fact for 38 years she lived in a substantial home in the courtyard directly above the tomb of Simon the Righteous. The house, faced with cream-toned Jerusalem stone has an expansive tiled patio and garden surrounded by a wall. The neighborhood was constructed jointly by the Jordanian government and the UN in 1956 to provide temporary housing for 28 refugee families who were forced to evacuate their homes during the 1948 war. In return for these homes, the families agreed not to claim further food benefits from UNRWA, the UN relief agency. After paying a symbolic rent of five piasters to the Jordanian government for three years the houses were supposed to pass into the families` ownership. The residents have all the documents from that time. Oum Kamel says that in this house she and her husband Muhammad raised their five children and saw the birth of their sixteen grandchildren. She has wonderful memories of family celebrations that took place in her home over the course of decades. It was her intention to pass the house on to her descendants when she died. Then in one night, on November 9, 2008 it was all overturned. Without emotion, Oum Kamel relates, `My life was blackened. I lost my home, my husband, my furniture, my future.`

In the stealth of night a specially trained force of 500 police and border guards surrounded the neighborhood, blocking off all access and forcing any onlooker back into his home. At 3:30 AM they knocked brusquely on Oum Kamel`s door as she was changing the urine tube for her diabetic husband Muhammad. The urine tube went flying as four Israeli policewomen physically restrained her and forced her into the children`s playground outside the walls of her home. The semi-paralyzed Muhammad was dragged out of the house by two burly policemen and deposited unceremoniously in the entranceway of the home of the nearest neighbors, the Al Sabbagh family. The frightened man had a heart attack on the spot. The women of the Al Sabbagh family ministered to him to the best of their abilities, but without medical resources they could not prevent the deterioration of his condition. They did manage to call an ambulance. It however was not allowed to cross the police blockade. The men of the Al Sabbagh family then offered to carry the distressed man to the ambulance on their backs, but that too was not allowed. Thus Muhammad did not receive any responsible medical attention until 10 AM when his sons who live in a village north of Jerusalem were permitted to enter the neighborhood and transport him to the hospital in their own car. Meanwhile national religious Jews from the Simon the Righteous compound arrived in a minivan and quickly began packing up the Al Kurd household, depositing its contents into a waiting truck. With fervent singing and dancing, they rededicated the house as a Jewish household. An Israeli flag now flies from its roof.

How all this can transpire in a civilized country? Oum Kamel relates that the incident is part of a long history of dispossession, dating from 1972. When she first arrived in the neighborhood in 1970 as a young bride there was not one Jewish family in the neighborhood. The only Jewish-owned house, one that pre-dated the 1948 War when Jews and Arabs lived together in the same neighborhood remained unoccupied. Then Council of Sephardic Jewry using an Ottoman document from 1887 made claim to the area and pressured the residents to leave. While it is true that the Sephardic community has deep ties to the catacomb grave where many came to pray and ask blessings from the holy man prior to 1948, many contend that the document is irrelevant since it only states that the Sephardic community has temporary use of the property, not ownership. Moreover, the residents` current lawyer claims that no comparable document was found in the Turkish archives in Ankara when he went there expressly to check on the document`s authenticity, fortifying the assertion that the document itself is fraudulent. The Israeli Land Registry nevertheless certified the document as valid in 1972. It should be noted that this decision was taken within the framework of the 1951 Law of Absentee Property which revokes all claims of pre-1948 of absentee Arab property owners (current refugees), while reestablishing title to property owned by Jews prior to 1948. Ten years of acrimonious negotiation followed. Finally the court recognized the land claim of the Council of Sephardic Jewry with the residents of Sheikh Jarrah becoming its `protected tenants.` The Sheikh Jarrah residents repudiated this infringement of their rights of ownership granted by the Jordanian government which was signed by their by their former Jewish lawyer supposedly without their prior consent. They consequently refused to pay the rent demanded by the Council of Sephardic Jewry. Since1982 this document has become the subject of intense litigation, with the Palestinian side continually bringing up more and more evidence to prove that the basis for accepting the Sephardic Council`s claim of ownership is spurious. Saleh Abu Hussein, the residents` current lawyer has presented the courts with records from the Registry of Property Taxes dating from 1927 indicating that Suleiman Hijazzi, a Palestinian paid the property taxes on the land and hence is its rightful owner. These documents seem impeccable, yet the court has so far refused to acknowledge them.

In the intervening years the Council of Sephardic Jewry tried to buy some of the Sheikh Jarrah houses outright, offering the residents astronomical sums for their simple homes. A few families accepted the offers and the neighborhood became sprinkled with national religious settlers whose political agenda was to drive the remaining residents from their homes. To allay the fears of these new neighbors, the Jerusalem municipality hired a private security company to guard the Jewish homes. From a small observation post built on the crest of Nashashibi Street, a security guard armed with a submachine gun descends into the warrens and alleys of the neighborhood every half hour to check for signs of disturbance or suspicious objects. For this formerly peaceful Arab community the constant surveillance can only be an intrusion into their private lives.

The homes built for the refugee community, temporary in design became too small as the families grew. They all received permits from the Jordanian government, the ruling authority at the time, to enlarge them. The Al Kurd family built a cement block appendage perpendicular to their house. In 1999 wanting to use this portion of the house as the matrimonial quarters of their second son Raed, the Al Kurd family approached the Jerusalem municipality with a petition to resurface the extension with Jerusalem stone. At the time they were told by an inspector working in the office that no permit was necessary as the extension`s foundation already existed. When the improvement was completed, an inspector sent to reassess the value of the home for tax purposes delivered instead a court order requiring the Al Kurds to appear at a hearing that very day regarding a structure built illegally on Jewish land. Feeling deceived, the Al Kurds nevertheless appeared in court and were ordered by the judge to seek an out-of-court settlement with the Sephardic Council. The Sepharadim offered the Al Kurds several millions of dollars for their home, a price out of all proportion to its market value. Conscious of the implications for the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in particular and for the Palestinian people in general, the Al Kurds refused to sell. The judge then ruled that the Al Kurds had to seal the extension that they had formerly occupied and to pay fines of 28,000 shekels to the municipality and 120,000 shekels to the court, a sum that Oum Kamel is still paying off despite her forced eviction from the premises.

In 2001 when Muhammad Al Kurd was receiving treatment in Hadassah Hospital, religious settlers using a falsified warrant broke into the sealed portion of the house and began living there. The Al Kurds proceeded to sue the settler family and won; but at the time of the trial that settler family moved out and a new one moved in, thus invalidating the results of the court procedure but continuing the illegal occupation. In July 2008, the Al Kurds received a letter from Chevrat Nachlat Shimon (The Development Corporation for Rabbi Simon`s Patrimony) stating that they had purchased the deed to the neighborhood from the Council of Sephardic Jewry and demanded that the Al Kurds immediately vacate the house that three generations of the family had lived in for over fifty years. The Nachlat Shimon Corporation, financed by Irving Moskowitz, an American multimillionaire and backer of many controversial Jewish incursions into Arab East Jerusalem like the City of David in Silwan, Har Homa in South Jerusalem, and the tunnel in the Old City indicated its intention to expand the study and prayer complex located in the catacombs of the original Nachlat Shimon compound. Their plan was to bulldoze all the houses existing on the property and to build 200 housing units complete with a shopping center for ultra-orthodox Jewish families who would form the core of worshippers at the Tomb of Simon the Righteous.

At this point the Al Kurd family realized the enormity of the forces arrayed against them. Oum Kamel broadcast a radio appeal `to all the kind-hearted people of the world` for help. In a rebirth of civil society, many Palestinian NGO`s responded to her call. One of the most visible organizations was the Solidarity Movement (ISM), the group that sponsored Rachel Corrie`s fateful stay in Rafah in the Gaza Strip in 2002. They agreed to post international volunteers who would maintain a constant presence on the Al Kurd premises to help Oum Kamel non-violently defend her home. If police attempted to evict the Al Kurds the internationals intended to handcuff themselves to the door with heavy metal chains that they had coiled in huge circles on the patio. In the course of half a year over 200 people from all over the world camped out on the Al Kurd patio.

During the day many dignitaries like Kyler Kornweiller, the political attaché to the American consulate made visits of solidarity. In the evenings the Sheikh Jarrah Defense Committee organized cultural events on the Al Kurd patio. Sometimes as many as fifty people would be seated on the patio drinking sweet tea and bitter coffee, listening to presentations by local politicians or viewing performances of Palestinian dance staged by neighborhood youth. On every occasion Muhammad Al Kurd lead the evening prayers followed by Oum Kamel who spoke eloquently of her family`s long struggle. In this atmosphere thick with festivity and apprehension the Jewish family occupying the extension to the Al Kurd house rarely appeared, preferring to shutter themselves behind closed blinds and wait.

With the advent of winter only five ISM activists remained to defend the home of Oum Kamel. When border guards surrounded the neighborhood, no one shouted out to warn them. Quickly overwhelmed by the massive force, they did not have the time to shackle themselves to the door of the house as planned. So the elderly Al Kurd family made no resistance. One wonders at the design of the Israeli operation. Calling itself `the most moral fighting force in the world,` how could the commanders not have prepared adequate medical assistance for Mohammad Al Kurd? With his heart already weakened from the first cardiac episode, he died just two weeks later of a massive coronary. His body was laid in a flag-draped coffin in the empty field where Oum Kamel now has her tent. A solemn cortege proceeded on foot to Al Aksa Mosque in the Old City where thousands of mourners attended the funeral ceremony.

One wonders too at the role played by the members of the Nachlat Shimon enclave who instantly arrived to pack up the Al Kurd family`s belongings. According to legend, Simon the Righteous was the originator of the beloved Jewish aphorism: `On three things the world resides – on the Holy Law, on prayer, and the performance of good deeds`. In the tortuous Jewish reclamation of the land of Israel, the fate of the Al Kurd family might just be considered collateral damage; except that the statement of Simon the Righteous categorically precludes the very concept of collateral damage. For how could causing the death of a sick, old man be considered a good deed?

Yet Oum Kamel`s story does not end here. Six times the border patrol came and destroyed the protest tent she erected in the field alongside the Tomb of Simon the Righteous, fining her each time. Once they even came with bulldozers and pockmarked the field with huge craters to prevent a tent from being positioned there stably. Neighborhood youths began filling in the holes with shovels and within just two weeks another tent was erected – in time for the feast of Id El Adha. The entire neighborhood jubilantly participated in the celebration, providing generator-powered heaters to warm the tent on that cold December evening.

Having surrounded east Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods to prevent Arab expansion, the Israeli government is now creating Jewish wedges into Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods in order to preclude the division of the city as would be required by the two-state solution. The Nachlat Shimon Corporation`s plan to expand the religious complex continues, cherry picking families designated for eviction so that this neighborhood`s demise will fall below the radar of international scrutiny. Following Oum Kamel`s eviction, two other families, the Hanouns which consists of three brothers, their wives, and ten children and the Gawis, four generations under one roof, 38 people all tolled, are slated for eviction on this July 19. Their cases also have a long history of unsuccessful litigation in both the District and High Courts.

Maher Hanoun, the father, is well-versed in all the convoluted legal machinations of the struggle. He recalls his family`s sudden eviction in 2002 and the confiscation of all their furniture in a large-scale police operation similar to that undertaken against the Al Kurds, although the Hanouns and the Gawis had paid a sum equal to the disputed rent into an escrow account while awaiting a High Court decision on the ownership of the land. The families lived in rented dwellings for four years until the High Court ruled that the Ottoman document supporting the Council of Sephardic Jewry`s claim of ownership was without legal basis. However, the High Court refused to decree who the rightful owner was, maintaining that that determination should be made by the District court, whose legal purview it is to decide on these matters. In this legal limbo, a lower court ruled that since the original lawyer for the 28 families accepted the Sephardic Council as the owner of the property on which they reside, the 1982 document is still valid, in spite of the fact that the High Court had ruled that its basis was not. Consequently, in August, 2008 Maher Hanoun was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for failing to comply with an eviction order based on this outdated ruling. At the heart of the issue is whether the Israeli courts and the Nachlat Shimon Corp. can continue to treat the case as though it were just a civil issue of a tenant who refuses to pay rent to the landlord, when in reality the issue is political: why is the court refusing to recognize Hijazzi as the true owner of the land.

Meanwhile the lives of two families who have been innocently living in their homes for 53 years, raising their children and behaving like model citizens hang in the balance. Once again, on 17 May 2009 at the behest of the Sephardic Council and the Nachlat Shimon Corp. the court gave the two families until noon on this July 19th to voluntarily leave their homes or incur fines of $50,000 and 50,000 shekels and 5,000 shekels for court expenses plus 500 shekels for each day that they do not evacuate. In addition the male heads of the two families, Maher, 51, and Abed Al Fateh, age 87, face indefinite incarceration until their families leave. Knowing that neither of the families has access to these sums and that the long-term incarceration of the fathers, especially that of the elderly Abed Al Fateh Gawi would create intolerable hardship, the Israeli litigants presume that they could force the families into leaving voluntarily. Maher contends that he feels he is about to be taken hostage, and this in a modern society. He further emphasizes that his home was never even officially claimed by the Sephardic Council.

Following President Obama`s speech at the University of Cairo, international interest in this case has been mounting. In mid-June a 40-member delegation from the European Parliament visited the Hanoun family and promised to take up their issue during the very next session of parliament. The families still assert that under no circumstance will they voluntarily leave. Meanwhile, as recently as June 28 a notice from Hotza`ah Lepoal, the agency empowered to execute court orders was delivered to their homes informing them that at any time they are liable to be evicted.

Looking out at the troubled neighborhood from her tent, Oum Kamel avers, `victimization last but an hour, but truth goes on until the Day of Judgment. I am seeking Truth. Ana Atlab El Haq.` The subtle Arabic word Haq has multiple meanings. It connotes not only Justice, but is also one of the 99 names of God.

For what you can do see

[Marcey Gayer, an Israeli-American who resides in Tel-Aviv is an activist in the struggle to achieve a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.]

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