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Palestinian family threatened of eviction because their property used to belong to Jewish owners 140 years ago

To them, our house is number 65 and we just don’t exist. But we’re not numbers, we’re real people, with real history. I can name back to five of my ancestors in Silwan. The so-called custodian can’t name even one”.

Jerusalem (QNN)- For two weeks now, the Abu Rumouz family of the Palestinian town of Silwan in east Jerusalem, have been living with a new anguish. They could be evicted from their home at any moment. Earlier in January, the family learned about a 2016 Israeli court order of eviction from their house in Batan Al Hawa neighborhood in Silwan. The family discovered the court order by accident, when one of its members, 39-year-old Nizam Abu Rumouz went to the Israeli court to check some legal paperwork. He then received the order letter, issued 5 years ago.

According to the court, the property upon which the Abu Rumouz family’s house stands today, used to belong to Yemenite Jews in 1881, reason for which, according to the Israel law, any Jew, with an acceptance of the descendants of the former Jewish owners, can claim the property at any time. The claimer in this case is the Ateret Cohanim organization. An Israeli settler organization, dedicated to conquer Palestinian neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, one house at the time, using Israeli law.

A generalized threat

Nizam’s older sister, Suaad Abu Rumouz, who is in her fifties, explains that “We consulted the lawyer, who told us that during these five years the court had made its decision in our absence, and that it might be too late. He told us not to blame him if he’s not able to save our home, because the time that has passed leaves little hope”, she says in an angry tone, “but it’s not our fault, the court didn’t let us know about the decision. It’s so unfair”.

Suad Abu Rmouz holding a written summons by Israeli forces. December 28, 2018. [Wadi Hilweh Information Center]

Altogether, 87 Palestinian families are threatened of eviction in the Batan Al Hawa neighborhood of Silwan. Another one of them is the family of 27-year-old Qutaibah Odeh, who points out: “our family includes 21 people, and we have 3 houses in Silwan that are threatened. One is in Wadi Yasul neighborhood, threatened of demolition, another one in the Al Bustan neighborhood, threatened also of demolition, to make way for the ‘city of David’ Israeli tourism project, and our house at Batan Al Hawa”.

In fact, Palestinian families face similar conditions in all parts of Silwan. In the neighborhood of Al Bustan, which the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem has been for years planning to turn into a Toratic theme park, hundreds of families are threatened of losing their homes.

Qutaibah Odeh and the town of Silwan in the background. [Credit: Ali Dawani]

Racist laws

The Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, explains that “In recent years, various government ministries and the Jerusalem municipality have mobilized to help the settler organization Ateret Cohanim dispossess Palestinian families living in the neighborhood of Batan al-Hawa, and hand over their homes to Jewish settlers”. According to B’Tselem, the settlers’ organization’s action is based “on manipulating a combination of three laws passed by Israel since 1948, which allow Jews, and Jews only, to demand that the Custodian of Absentee Property hand over ownership rights to property in the annexed area that had been owned by Jews prior to 1948”.

Palestinian jurist and legal advisor to the Palestinian president, Dr. Ahmed Rweidi, points out that the “two most important laws, in terms of dispossessing Palestinians in east Jerusalem, are the 1950 Israeli law on the property of absentees, and the Israeli law on the so-called ‘recuperation’ of pre-1948 Jewish property. Both of which are racist and discriminatory laws”.

In fact, the law on absentee’s property, which was passed right after the Palestinian mass exodus of 1948, allowed the Israeli government to confiscate the properties of Palestinians who had just been made refugees, and it has ever since been used to expropriate Palestinian lands. The law puts these properties under the charge of a ‘custodian of absentee’s property’, whose job is to administer them.

Rweidi explains that “settlers spot a property that had belonged any time in the past to Jews, and make their case at the Israeli court. Once the court recognizes it as pre-1948 Jewish property, its management is transferred to the custodian. Then settler organizations like Ateret Cohanim contact the custodian and buy the property from him”.

Settler violence

All this happens while Palestinians, like the Abu Rumouz family are actually living in the property. “It feels like we don’t count”, exclaims Suaad Abu Rumouz, “They make decisions on our houses like we don’t exist. The press knew about it before us, we didn’t even have the chance to appeal”.

Qutaibah Odeh shares the same feeling: “The Israeli authorities treat us like numbers. To them, our house is number 65 and we just don’t exist”, he affirms, “But we’re not numbers, we’re real people, with real history. I can name back to five of my ancestors in Silwan. The so-called custodian can’t name even one”.

This reality is exacerbated by everyday-life tensions between inhabitants and the settlers who move in. “When settlers move into a property, they start to behave as if the whole area around belongs to them”, describes Suaad, “We have to stay indoors when their children come out to school, or when they want to take a walk, always accompanied by armed guards. Our children play in the street because we have no playgrounds in Silwan, and they come in the way of settlers which puts them in risk”.

A real risk, as Qutaibah Odeh clarifies: “Settlers attack inhabitants on a daily basis. Three of my friends were killed by settlers and no justice was made for any of them”, says Qutaibah. “One of them, Samer Sirhan, was shot by a settler who was arrested and released three days later, without charges”.

The children of Palestinian Samer Sirhan, from Silwan, killed by settlers in 2010, holding his picture. [Credit: Wadi Hilweh Information Center]

In fact, 32-year–old Samer Sirhan, was married and father of five when he received a deadly shot in 2010 by a settler guard, who told the Israeli police that he felt threatened because Palestinian youngsters threw stones at him. He was released after three days in interrogation. “The same law that allows settlers to take our houses allows them to attack and kill us. It’s their law”, stresses Qutaibah.

More than a legal issue

But for Dr. Rweidi, “ this is not a legal issue. Law is only one instrument for a larger Israeli goal, which is to change the demographics of Jerusalem, and create a Jewish majority”. This goal was made explicit in the early 1990s, when the Israeli government announced its vision to turn the surroundings of al Aqsa esplanade, including Silwan, into Israel’s ‘holy basin’ without Palestinian inhabitants.

This was made even clearer in the Israeli ‘Jerusalem 2020’ plan, which aimed explicitly at changing the demographics of the city in favor of Jewish majority. “Since then, Israel has used 26 different laws to expropriate Palestinians and replace them with settlers”, points out Rweidi, “but the only law that matters here is the international humanitarian law because east Jerusalem is occupied territory. Especially the Geneva conventions that forbid changing the character of an occupied territory or transferring civilians out or into it”, Rweidi underlines.

A violation of international law, as described constantly by the international community. For Suaad Abu Rumouz, “this is a silent displacement targeting us, the Palestinian inhabitants of Silwan and all of east Jerusalem.” However, Suaad is clear on her stand: “We are not moving out no matter what the price is. It’s our home, our land. We were born here and we will die here.

From his side, Qutaibah Odeh insists that: “international law might be on our side, but it’s our presence here on the ground that will make the difference. The battle for Jerusalem will not be fought in the future”, he exclaims, as he stares at the entrance of his family’s house, threatened of expropriation; “it has already begun. It is being fought right now, right here”.

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