Israel land grab, one home at a time

The Abu Sneineh household is the only Palestinian family left in the building, as Jewish settlers consolidate another strategic advance in their effort to lay claims to Batin Al Hawa.

Nur Abu Sneineh sits outside her home squeezing at the entrance of her family's home on September 27, 2015, in the impoverished overpopulated lower income Batin Al Hawa section of East Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood, as Jewish settlers take over the rest of the building she lives in. Heidi Levine for The National
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JERUSALEM // As Eid Al Adha drew to a close, three-year-old Nur Abu Sneineh sat outside her East Jerusalem home in Silwan, squeezing a toy sheep that made loud bleating sounds.

It was a scene that could have taken place anywhere in the Muslim world, except that here in the lower income neighbourhood of Batin Al Hawa, the noise of the toy was drowned out by the sound of drilling.

Jewish settlers are renovating one of the ten flats in a large concrete building they moved into late last month. They say they purchased the residences legitimately but Palestinians dispute that.

Whatever the case, the Abu Sneineh household is the only Palestinian family left in the building, as Jewish settlers consolidate another strategic advance in their effort to lay claims to Batin Al Hawa.

In the narrow, alley-like street where houses are adorned with drawings of Mecca’s grand mosque and messages welcoming the return of Haj pilgrims, Palestinians look flustered as two Ethiopian Israeli guards order them to move their children out of the way so that settlers can pass.

“When I see what is happening in my neighbourhood, the place where my children play, and I see that the settlers are taking everything, it makes me feel like I am being choked, like I am under house arrest,” said Zuheir Rajabi, a community activist.

As the settlers refurbish the homes, their lawyers are busy reshaping the neighbourhood, which lies in the shadow of Al Aqsa mosque — known to the Jews as Temple Mount.

Nine families in Batin Al Hawa are being sued at the impetus of Ateret Cohanim, an organisation that encourages Jewish settlement in Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem.

They have been accused of having built their homes illegally on land belonging to a Jewish religious trust – the Benvenesti Trust, which dates back to the late 19th century, said Mr Rajabi, who is among those being sued.

Two families that have lived in these homes since 1948 have eviction orders against them for living in the area Ateret Cohanim says once housed the synagogue of the religious trust. They must move out by October 25.

This adds up to “the first significant new incursion into the fabric of a Palestinian neighbourhood” since the 1990s, says Daniel Seidemann, director of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem.

Eyal Raz, responsible for monitoring settlements for the dovish Peace Now organisation, says what is at stake in Batin Al Hawa is the possibility of a two-state peace compromise in the future.

“At this moment Batin Al Hawa is the front line in the settlers’ battle to make sure there isn’t a political solution,” he said. The legal actions are enabled by a 1970 Knesset law that allows Israeli Jews to retrieve East Jerusalem properties that had come under Jordanian jurisdiction as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. However, East Jerusalem Palestinians are barred from recovering their property in West Jerusalem that came under Israeli rule during the same war.

Based on the law, a Jerusalem district court ruled in February that land parcels totalling 5.2 dunams (5,200 square metres) in Batin Al Hawa that were owned at the turn of the 20th century by the religious trust on behalf of a community of Yemenite Jewish immigrants should revert to the trust, which is now controlled by Ateret Cohanim.

The ruling potentially paves the way for the eviction of 88 Palestinian families living there, Mr Raz said. Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim, concedes that “tens of families may be affected” by the court’s ruling in favour of the religious trust.

“If the court deemed these were illegal squatters then it doesn’t make a difference if it’s a synagogue or another type of public building of the Yemenite Jews. Each particular building and particular Arab family would be a case in itself.”

He expects that in many cases, the Arab families would agree to reach a financial arrangement in exchange for leaving. Offering this, he insisted, is “going beyond the letter of the law”.

The settlers often use psychological pressure on Palestinians to persuade them to leave, Mr Rajabi said. In one case, a settler representative threatened a Palestinian living in a home targeted by the settlers who had only a temporary permit to be in Jerusalem that “you are here illegally, I can throw you to Hebron”, said Mr Rajabi.

The same settler representative telephoned Mr Rajabi and told him he knew that he had served jail time after being convicted of forging documents, according to Mr Rajabi.

“Your situation is difficult. It would be worth your while to sell,” he quoted the representative as saying. Mr Luria denied that Ateret Cohanim personnel pressure Palestinians to leave or harass them.

One Palestinian who says he will not budge no matter how much money he is offered is Abdullah Abu Nab, 58, a building contractor.

He has remained in his two-room flat although settlers have moved into most of his building and even though his nephews, who lived in three other apartments in the same building, agreed to leave after reaching a financial settlement with Ateret Cohani.

Mr Abu Nab, whose family has lived in the same building since renting it from another Palestinian in 1948, now faces eviction.

“I didn’t take their money and won’t take it,” said Mr Abu Nab, a father of eight-year-old twins.

“I was born here. Before I came into the world I was in my mother’s womb in this house.”

Mr Abu Nab does not venture out of his home anymore, not even to go to work, for fear settlers will move in while he is away.

His flat is modest — the paint is peeling and his sons sleep on a bunk bed in the same room as he and his wife. On the wall of the other room are calligraphic verses from the Quran and a chart with the 99 names of God.

“My whole life has been here,” he said.

Defending the eviction orders, Mr Luria says they are simply applying the law. He says restoring such property is part of the “redemption process’’ he believes will culminate in divine restoration of the ancient Jewish temple on the site of Haram Al Sharif.

“Jerusalem is the blood that runs through the veins of every Jew in the world and we are helping that blood flow by realising Jewish life in the Jewish neighbourhoods,” Mr Luria says.