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Palestinian families in East Jerusalem evicted amid rising tensions

Israeli police involvement in evictions could be a sign of escalating conflict in East Jerusalem, advocates say

Israeli police on Monday helped settlers carry out the eviction of a Palestinian extended family in East Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since the war of June 1967. The involvement of the police was seen by local organizations as signaling an escalation of evictions and a potential flashpoint.

“A large police force was deployed [Monday] morning to evict the Abu Nab family. Street was put under curfew,” Betty Herschman, the international relations and advocacy director for Ir Amin, a nonprofit advocacy group in Jerusalem that monitors settlement activity, told Al Jazeera.

The Abu Nab family’s eviction was the result of a law that allows Jewish citizens — but not Palestinians — to reclaim properties lost during the 1948 war. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled April 16, 2015, in favor of the Abu Nabs’ eviction and said Jewish settlers could reclaim property that had been owned by a Yemenite Jewish community in the 19th century.

“My family has been renting this house since 1948,” Abdullah Abu Nab told Al Jazeera after the court decision, noting that his family had been expelled from present-day West Jerusalem, which fell under Israeli control after the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s creation. 

It was the first time since 2009 that Israel’s police forces assisted settlers in such an eviction, according to Peace Now, a liberal Israeli advocacy group. The move may portend an increase in such activity in Silwan, where hundreds of other Palestinians are at risk of being evicted, according to Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlement activity for Peace Now. Although Israel claims to have annexed East Jerusalem, its Palestinian residents don’t enjoy the rights of citizenship granted to Palestinian citizens of Israel.

“The important thing in this case is the dimension of the police, because this is where the [Israeli] government can intervene,” Ofran told Al Jazeera. “If the government decides not to help them, then the eviction won’t happen.” Recently, planned evictions had to be canceled because of lack of security, or they were negotiated individually with the Palestinian residents, she added.

“But it is in the hands of the government to decide whether to allow them or not. This took place in the heart of Silwan, 300 meters from Al-Aqsa Mosque. There’s no way that the police would take a decision to do it without the prime minister’s approval,” she said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev and police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld did not responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment by the time of publication. 

In September, Israel put entry restrictions on Palestinians wanting to attend prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque. A spate of protests, clashes and stabbings have ensued, leaving at least 44 Palestinians and eight Israelis dead.

Palestinians accuse far-right Israeli groups of attempting to reassert control over Al-Aqsa as part of efforts to shift the demographic balance in East Jerusalem in favor of Israelis. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, although neither its territorial claims on the city nor Jerusalem’s status as the capital are internationally recognized. The Palestinian national movement has historically claimed East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. About 39 percent of Jerusalem’s population is Palestinian, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Monday’s eviction of the Abu Nab family was one of dozens of such cases against Palestinian families in the Silwan neighborhood. A 1970 Israeli law allows Israelis to claim restoration of properties in East Jerusalem but does not give the same right to Palestinians to make similar claims in West Jerusalem. 

Ateret Cohanim, a nonprofit organization based in Jerusalemhas represented the Jewish heirs of properties where Palestinian families are living in many of these cases. Daniel Luria, the executive director of Ateret Cohanim, told Al Jazeera the group wants to strengthen the Jewish presence in the Old City of Jerusalem by resettling Jews in properties such as synagogues abandoned during the 1948 war.

Settlers associated with Ateret Cohanim have doubled their presence in Bata al-Hawa, the area of Silwan where the Abu Nabs lived, Peace Now said. Still, the Israelis remain a minority there — accounting for only about 3.5 percent of the population in Silwan. 

The Jerusalem District Court appointed three people represented by Ateret Cohanim as owners of the Abu Nab family’s home in 2001. The next year, Israel’s general custodian awarded the plots, including the Abu Nabs’ property, to Ateret Cohanim.

The family’s home sat on the site of a 19th century Yemenite Jewish community synagogue, Luria said. The family received several eviction notices informing them of the upcoming action, the most recent of which was sent earlier this month.

“More important than a home to the Abu Nab family are the two facts, ratified by all courts in Israel, including the Supreme Court: Firstly, the premises was a holy synagogue belonging to the old Yemenite community that existed in the area from 1882 until 1938,” he said in an email. “Secondly, the families living in the synagogue were illegal squatters.”

Although such actions are approved by Israel’s Supreme Court, the U.N. Security Council has ruled that all Israeli settlement of civilians in territories occupied in the war of 1967 violates international law. 

A Yemenite Jewish community of about 150 families lived in Silwan until violence and riots in the 1920s and 1930s forced many to leave, Luria said, adding that they were promised that they would be able to return.

Palestinian families who during the 1948 war fled homes in what is now Israel have no similar path to reclaim those homes.  

The Abu Nab family have no legal recourse to get their property back and plan to move to another house near the Old City, Ofran said. 

“What we need to emphasize now is the absolute imperative of preventing any further evictions in the neighborhood,” Herschman said. “We have East Jerusalem on lockdown while security forces personally escort settlers in waging a takeover of 88 units in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood.”

With reporting by Ylenia Gostoli in Silwan.

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