In Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, longtime Palestinian residents are challenging expulsions by Israeli settlers in court and bearing a violent response, fearing the repeat of history

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In Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, longtime Palestinian residents are challenging expulsions by Israeli settlers in court and bearing a violent response, fearing the repeat of history
Samira Dajani holds a photo of her father, Fouad Moussa Dajani and his sons, taken in the same place in the courtyard of their home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem, Sunday, May 9, 2021. When Samira Dajani's family moved into their first real home in 1956 after years as refugees, her father planted trees in the garden, naming them for each of his six children.AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
  • A dozen Palestinian families face expulsions from the East Jerusalem area of Sheikh Jarrah.
  • Sit-ins in the neighborhood were met with a forceful response from Israeli security forces.
  • Insider spoke to Palestinian families fighting to save their neighborhood, and their identities.

Rasha Budeiri and her mother often reminisce about memories that span generations of their family's history in Sheikh Jarrah, a close-knit Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Her mother, Samira Dajani, remembers planting trees with her grandfather in the garden, and Rasha misses the summertime reunions with her cousins from across the diaspora, where they would play, fight, laugh and clamor for a spot on the swing. Budeiri distinctly remembers her grandmother's eyes, and the way they would light up at the sight of her grandchildren, a unified family, gathered in her garden.

The swing is still there, but like many other Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, and scattered throughout this area, the fate of their family and land is uncertain.

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A fraught history, and a chaotic present

Sheikh Jarrah has become the tense centerpoint of efforts by what the Israeli government has described as a group of Jewish settlers, according to The New York Times, to remove a handful of families from the neighborhood. Some Palestinian residents say they believe the Israeli government has sanctioned the move. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has called it "a real estate dispute between private parties."

Since 2020, eviction notices have been served to thirteen Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood that sits between East and West Jerusalem, a strategic location just north of the Damascus Gate and the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city.

The basis of the attempted dispossession in the neighborhood revolves around the use of a 1970 Israeli law that exclusively allows Jewish people to take back lands they claim to have lost before the state of Israel was established in 1948.

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The history of the neighborhood is, "a microcosm of the Nakba," Diana Buttu, the director of the Institute for Middle East Understanding told Insider.

"Because it's a result of the Nakba," Buttu added.

The Nakba, or the great catastrophe in Arabic, describes the mass expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their native land in 1948, as paramilitary Zionist forces raided villages and towns and established the state of Israel.

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May 15 marks the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba, during a week in which Palestinians have mobilized globally to save Sheikh Jarrah.

As regional tensions have escalated, both Hamas militants and Israeli forces have reacted with violence. Most of the death and destruction has unfurled in Gaza, The New York Times reported on Friday. Both Hamas and Israeli troops have each fired into their respective territories. Palestinian officials told The Times at least 120 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 were wounded. The newspaper said eight Israelis - among them, one soldier - have died.

A complex series of events followed Israel's establishment in 1948.

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Jordan resettled some Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah in the 1950s on land that Jewish settlers argue originally belonged to them. The dispute goes back to 1876, according to The New York Times, when the land was sold by Palestinian owners to two Jewish trusts. Jordan took control of the neighborhood in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and, after that, many Palestinian refugees were housed there. Then, when Israel gained control of the area following the 1967 war, Jewish settlers claim they bought the land from the trusts, and have since been moving in the courts to oust the Palestinian residents, according to Reuters.

According to Reuters, Palestinians cannot take steps to make their own claims to the land because "no such law entitles Palestinians to do the same in West Jerusalem or other parts of Israel." The UN Secretary-General has urged Israel to reconsider the use of Israeli law "that have been used as a basis to evict Palestinians from their properties in East Jerusalem."

Budeiri's maternal family was one of the expelled Palestinian families granted resettlement in Sheikh Jarrah, and who soon found themselves under what Budeiri describes as an "occupation."

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"You carry the weight of occupation wherever you go," Budeiri said, who grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in Ottawa. "It affects every aspect of your life, where to study, who to marry, whether you have freedom to move, or relocate and access to medical care."

Expulsions potentially amounting to "war crimes"

In a statement addressing the current expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah, the UN said Israel's actions, "may amount to war crimes," The Times of Israel reported on May 7.

One woman, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, but whose identity is known to Insider, is among the dozen Palestinian families served an eviction notice by Israeli courts after settler groups made their ownership claim and demanded rent payments from the residents.

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An Israeli court ordered the woman's family, as well as Budeiri's family, to leave their home by August 1.

"We would lose the air we breathe," she said. "My father said his life would be over without this home. He's been here for 60 years, since he was five years old."

She said her family, and others in Sheikh Jarrah, have encountered such claims made in Israeli courts, since 1972.

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An uphill battle

Many Palestinian families found themselves advocating to preserve their homes in Israeli court processes they say they believe were biased against them.

By 2002, 43 Palestinians had been evicted from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, the Middle East Eye reported.

A 2015 report from Haaretz found US registered nonprofit organizations funneled $200 million between 2009-2013 to settlements in Israel, with some of the money being used to cover the legal fees and building costs for expulsion and settlement. Buttu, the Institute for Middle East Understanding director, said groups like the Israel Land Fund benefit from political cover in their efforts to advance this process.

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"The Israeli government could have tried to block these expulsions, they could have taken a public interest position when it comes to the land. The government has not only allowed for the claims to go through, but they have supported them," Buttu said.

The Sheikh Jarrah resident said she is hopeful because of the mobilization of Palestinians, and people internationally, against the evictions, which she felt pressured the Israeli Supreme Court to delay a decision which could have evicted some families by May 6.

"I'm happy about the pressure we've seen, and it's not clear what the ruling will be. We're still not sure whether we will be evicted, or whether, god willing, we will stay in our homes," she added.

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Over the next few weeks, the Israeli attorney general Avichai Mandelblit will review the Sheikh Jarrah families' cases. The Israeli Supreme Court canceled the May 10 hearing at Mandelblit's request.

A glimmer of hope amid escalating violence over the land

After residents in Sheikh Jarrah held sit-in protests denouncing the looming evictions last week, Israeli police forces targeted protesters with rubber bullets, tear gas and sound bombs.

"The skunk water is even worse than the sound bombs and tear gas," the woman added, describing a sewage water cannon used by Israeli forces, "the smell stays on your skin for weeks, and my parents got sick from it."

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Hamas militants have fired barrages of rockets toward Israel. An Israeli defense agency that works in Gaza and the West Bank accused Hamas of using Gaza residents as a "human shield," The New York Times reported.

Last weekend, Israeli forces stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site, while worshippers were praying inside.

"Coupled with the other things that have happened just this month alone, the 'Death to Arab' campaigns that we've seen, the blocking of access to Al-Aqsa mosque, it's terrifying being Palestinian," Buttu said, adding she woke up to news that a Gaza City residential building where she used to live was leveled.

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"It's a process of what I call death by a thousand cuts. And the reason that it takes a long time is because Israel wants to drag it out so that we lose all momentum when it comes to protests, and one day, we all wake up and we see that there aren't any more Palestinians left in Sheikh Jarrah," Buttu added.

As the Israeli courts weigh in on what's next, Palestinian families in the neighborhood hope international pressure to stop their expulsions will persist.

Buttu told Insider it was a hopeful sign that Israeli organizations like B'Tselem, and Western organizations like Human Rights Watch have called the conditions to which Palestinians are subjected, "apartheid."

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Meanwhile, Budeiri is looking ahead: "I hope one day, it's my daughters who I can push on that swing," she said.

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