The Israeli Supreme Court is considering a major case in which Palestinians will lose their homes in the Jerusalem area where they have lived for decades.
The fate of some families in the Sheikh Zarra area – and the threat of expulsion of others in East Jerusalem – has provoked weeks of struggle and conflict.
What is the dispute about?
Sheikh Zarra The Palestinian area of East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel, is close to the old city and its holy sites.
There has long been controversy over who owns land in the area, which prompted Jewish immigration groups to file eviction proceedings against Palestinians who went there as refugees.
The geography of this small district in Jerusalem is central to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel considers the entire city as its capital – which is not recognized by most of the international community.
The Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of the future Palestinian state.
What is happening in Sheikh Zarra?
In 1876 Jewish societies bought land near the Shimon Hatsadic Cemetery, a Jewish monument in Sheikh Zarra, where a community lived for decades.
But after the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli war, Jerusalem, where Arabs and Jews lived side by side, was divided between the state of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan.
Jews living in the east of the city and Palestinians living in the west had to leave their homes.
Jordan took control of East Jerusalem and took responsibility for the Palestinian refugees who went there.
With the help of the United Nations (UN), Jordanian authorities have built 28 houses for some of these refugees, who were previously occupied by Jewish associations in Sheikh Zarra land but captured by Jordan.
The ownership of the land was guaranteed to these families – but they did not receive it.
According to a recent UN Special Rapporteur document, “The original families selected by the UN Palestinian Refugee Agency (UNRWA) have now become more than 60 families of three generations of Palestinians living in Sheikh Zarra.”
But after the June 1967 war, Israel occupied East Jerusalem and enforced its own laws – the UN says is illegal.
In 1970, a law was introduced to address disputed property claims in places such as Sheikh Zarra.
Between 1948 and 1967 the land classified by Jordanian authorities as “enemy property” was transferred to an Israeli company, which returned the land to its original owners before 1948 or to their heirs.
The Palestinians, however, have no power to recover lost property in West Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel, which was abandoned under the 1950 law and transferred to state control – they can claim compensation.
Many Jewish associations, sometimes presenting documents of the Ottoman era, granted rights to lands in Sheikh Zarra where houses for Palestinian refugees were built.
They then sold the land to the settler group Nahalad Shimon, who led the expulsion operations and wanted to expand the Jewish presence in the main Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem.
Some Palestinians were granted “protected tenant status”, particularly by an agreement involving 17 families from Sheikh Zarra in 1982.
But it effectively secured 19th-century property bonds issued by Jewish groups and required families to rent to new owners and expand homes.
The families later rejected the deal. And it is doubtful whether the Palestinians know what they are entering into.
“It appears that at no time did the families approve or consult on the agreement negotiated by the lawyer, who does not represent all Palestinian families living in Sheikh Zarra,” the UN Special Rapporteur said.
In the early 1990s, families stopped paying rent and Jews sued them.
In 2020, a court in Jerusalem ruled in favor of Nahalad Shimon and issued eviction orders for several families, affecting dozens of people.
The Supreme Court sought to mediate between the two groups – and a proposal would require families to pay rent – but negotiations failed.
Immigrants want to fully recognize property rights – but families refuse to accept it.
The Supreme Court will also have to decide whether to allow or deny the appeal filed by lawyers representing Palestinian families in Sheikh Zarra.
They have “lived in these homes for almost 70 years,” says Anrwa.
“Now they are in danger of leaving their homes for the second time.”
The UN says property laws in Jerusalem are “used inherently discriminatory only on the basis of nationality or the origin of the owner”.
But the Israeli government says it has the right to build in the city it considers its capital – and the evictions are private property issues to be resolved by the landlord and tenant.
Notable examples highlight competing demands.
The Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Zarra, for example, was declared “non-existent property” under Israeli law, and the title was transferred to an Israeli company, which was later bought by an American millionaire, who later demolished the building for a settlement.
Palestinians claim the building was illegally acquired.
According to the Israeli NGO Peace Now, there are about 3,000 Palestinian settlers in East Jerusalem, in the old city and surrounding areas, such as Sheikh Zarra.
Also, since the beginning of 2020, a local court has ordered the eviction of 36 families from Badan al-Hawa and Sheikh Zarra, which is currently on appeal.
Across the city, the UN It is estimated that at least 970 Palestinians are at risk of being forcibly evicted by actions presented in Israeli courts.
Palestinians are being forced to expand their homes by local restrictions.
Between 1991 and 2018, 9,536 houses were approved for construction in the Palestinian territories in East Jerusalem, compared to 21,834 in Israeli neighborhoods, according to Peace Now.
Due to bureaucratic sanctions, many missions are being carried out illegally, which led to the demolition by Israeli authorities.
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