Sheikh Jarrah: Palestinian family faces forced displacement

Salem family lives in fear as they await forced expulsion at any moment from the home they have lived in since 1951.

Salem family Sheikh Jarah
Fatima Salem, centre, looks on as Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, head of the European Union's mission to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, right, speaks to media during his visit to the Salem home in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, on December 20, 2021, after Israeli orders for eviction were issued [File: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP]

Sheikh Jarrah, Occupied East Jerusalem – Living in fear and apprehension, the Salem family awaits imminent forced displacement from the house they have lived in since 1951 – currently home to three generations.

After Israeli settler NGOs lodged a claim to the property, an Israeli court ruled last year that the family of 11, including four children, in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, occupied East Jerusalem, had to be forcibly expelled by December 29, 2021.

The forced expulsion was temporarily halted by an Israeli court on December 23 after a police request following protests and confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli forces.

But it is now set to take place at an unspecified date this month, with the family unable to make further appeals.

The eviction notice was delivered to the matriarch of the family, 74-year-old Fatima Salem, by a right-wing Israeli activist and Jerusalem city council member Yonatan Yosef on December 9.

He, along with deputy Jerusalem mayor, Arieh King, claimed to have bought the house from its Jewish owners who had possession of the property before 1948.

The Salem family became refugees in 1948, when some 700,000 Palestinians were forcefully expelled from their homes and land when Israel was founded.

In 1951, the family leased the house under a protected tenancy agreement from the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property, which had been established to handle property taken from Jews in areas controlled by Jordan after the 1948 Arab–Israeli war. Israel later seized control of East Jerusalem during the 1967 war.

“My parents have lived here since 1951. I was born here, I got married here and I gave birth to all my children here. My three sons, their wives and children all live here now,” Fatima told Al Jazeera.

“We have no other place to go and we can’t afford to rent a new place. We could end up in the street in the cold and rainy winter weather.

“The stress is unbearable. We all struggle to sleep at night and this makes my health problems worse.”

The Palestinian residents have also questioned the authenticity of documents the settlers provided to prove ownership of the Salem family home.

Fatima Salem Sheikh Jarrah
Fatima Salem, 74, was born in the home the settlers are attempting to take over [Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, while Israel applies laws that allow Jewish settlers to take over land and property in East Jerusalem they claim to have lived on before the 1948 war, the same laws do not apply to Palestinians who suffered forced expulsion from their homes to establish the state of Israel.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 970 Palestinians, including 424 children, are at risk of forced expulsion in East Jerusalem due to cases brought before Israeli courts, primarily by Jewish settler groups, with support from the Israeli government.

Forcible displacement and settlements are violations of international law.

Hemmed in 

Media interest in the Salem family case was heightened by 22 European diplomats who visited the Salem family home site and have been following a spike in evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes last year.

In 2021, at least 317 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes in East Jerusalem, according to OCHA (PDF), while 161 structures were demolished under the pretext of lacking a building permit which the Israeli authorities make difficult to obtain.

The head of the EU’s mission to the occupied Palestinian territories, Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, said he was shocked by the Salem family’s pending eviction, and urged Israel to halt it.

“Eleven people living in the Salem family’s house are being threatened with eviction in the next few days, during Christmas and in the middle of the winter,” von Burgsdorff had told media at the site when he visited on December 23.

“For me, as a Christian, this is hard to conceive. This is occupied territory. People have a full right to live here. They were evacuated in 1948 from West Jerusalem and found shelter here. And after 70 years the authorities want to evict them again and turn them into refugees once more.

“This is inhuman and unfair.”

Ibrahim Salem, Fatima’s son, said the settlers are making their lives miserable, especially on the weekends when they are practically living under siege, hemmed in by Israeli settlers on both sides.

The neighbourhood is also blocked off by Israeli forces to prevent supporters and friends from joining the family in solidarity, he added.

“Groups of settlers move in under the protection of police and hurl abuse and stones at the family and our home, demanding we leave and telling us the house and land belong to them,” Ibrahim told Al Jazeera.

“The police just watch and do nothing. But if any Palestinians respond either verbally or with stones, they are beaten up and arrested.”

Settler cars Sheikh Jarrah
Several cars belonging to Israeli settlers in the neighbourhood were torched by Palestinians [Al Jazeera]

Last Friday, Ibrahim and Fatima were assaulted by settlers and the police, with Fatima taken away to a hospital in an ambulance.

Israeli forces shot tear gas canisters, sound grenades and physically assaulted residents, activists and journalists, according to OCHA.

At least one journalist and one Israeli border policeman were injured in the scuffle.

‘Expecting more violence’

Last year, the pending evictions of other Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah sparked a military confrontation between Palestinian armed groups in the besieged Gaza Strip and the Israeli army, unleashing an 11-day war.

On November 2, four Palestinian families facing forced displacement in Sheikh Jarrah unanimously rejected an Israeli court’s proposal, which required them to accept settler ownership of the land in East Jerusalem upon which their homes sit.

The case of Sheikh Jarrah, according to a UN special rapporteur report, “has become emblematic of the threats of forced displacement facing many Palestinian families in East Jerusalem with the aim of establishing a Jewish majority in the city and creating irreversible demographic facts on the ground”.

Ibrahim Salem Sheikh Jarrah
Ibrahim Salem and his daughter Fatima [Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, the Salem family fears for its future.

Ibrahim’s wife, Sabreen, said she is worried about surviving the winter conditions if her family are made homeless and forced to sleep outside. She said her eight-year-old daughter Fatima experiences nightmares given the uncertainty around their future.

“Every time she hears the confrontations outside, or the settlers shouting, she gets very afraid and starts shaking,” Sabreen told Al Jazeera.

“We are expecting more violence this Friday when the settlers come into our neighbourhood again.”

Source: Al Jazeera