The contours of Palestine and Israel’s conflict are etched into the lines of Rifka Al-Kurd’s face and each moment of her daily existence. She lives in a microcosm of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Or rather, she lives in half of a microcosm. The other half has been taken over by Israeli settlers. Her bizarre but emblematic situation was explained to an MCC Ontario learning tour group as it sat in her courtyard during a visit earlier this year led by MCC partner the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).
Two years ago, Israeli settlers took over the front rooms of Rifka’s house. Her family now “shares” it with them in a tense standoff. Though her family has lived there for decades, the settlers claim that they are the original owners of the entire neighborhood. They have succeeded in evicting other families from their houses, but Rifka and her family have managed to cling to their home, even if only part of it.
Should the Al-Kurd family be displaced, it would not be for the first time. They became refugees in the Nakba of 1948 when they were forced from their homes in western Jerusalem as the State of Israel was being established. Years later, the United Nations gave them homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. After the 1967 war when Israel annexed East Jerusalem, an Israeli settler group claimed ownership of the area and sought to evict the Palestinian residents. [Click here for a detailed legal history of the neighborhood.] Though complicated, the case reveals a clear Israeli legal double standard, as Jews are able to claim property lost in 1948, but Palestinians who lost land during the same war are not permitted to reclaim them due to Israel’s Absentee Property Law.
Initially, the part of the house now occupied by settlers was declared “illegal” because it had been built without Israeli permission—permission the State of Israel almost never grants to Palestinians, especially in East Jerusalem. Frequently, such structures are demolished by the Israeli authorities. In this case, the court gave it to the settlers.
For almost two years now, Israeli solidarity activists, including ICAHD staff, have been staging weekly nonviolent demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah. “We at ICAHD have been members in the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah because it captures the essence of institutional racism that exists in Israel,” says staff member Michael Salisbury. “When Palestinians who’ve been living in their homes for 50 years after being removed from their original homes in Palestine can be evicted once again and their homes given to Jews, it is a prime example of the foundations of the legal framework of the State of Israel.”
Rabbi Arik Asherman of MCC partner Rabbis for Human Rights is also a frequent participant, and last year led a prayer asking forgiveness for Israeli injustices on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, also known as the Day of Atonement. According to Salisbury, these weekly demonstrations have been “a beautiful testimony of the power of Jews and Palestinians to overcome barriers and fight together for justice.”
Typically, each event begins with a rally at a park in the heart of the neighborhood, followed by marching and chanting slogans in front of the homes taken over by settlers. Because of the significant presence of Israelis and international activists, Israeli authorities have been much more restrained in their behavior compared to their violent response to protests in the West Bank.
In contrast to the nonviolent spirit of these demonstrations, the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah operate under a siege mentality, and threatened violence in anticipation of rallies coinciding with the recent UN statehood bid:
“The minute they enter our homes, we will shoot at their legs, and if that doesn’t work then we will not be afraid to shoot at the center of the group,” said Yonatan Yosef, spokesman for the neighborhood …. “Most of the [Jewish] residents here have weapons,” Yosef said. “According to the scenarios that the police gave us, 200 to 300 people could march from the mosque and be joined by 800 more. If they come to our houses, what will they do? They will try to enter.”
No such events took place, but this spokesperson’s attitude toward the invasion of his home contrasts sharply with that of Palestinians who live in fear of their homes being invaded, but have neither weapons nor police support.
A week before these anticipated events, a tent outside the Al-Kurd home occupied by solidarity activists to prevent further invasions by settlers was burned to the ground. The settlers invading these houses are not harassed and helpless refugees in search of a safe place to live. The occupiers of the Al-Kurd house are a frequently rotating cast of defiant young men making obscene gestures and hiding behind Israeli flags when confronted by solidarity activists. Graffiti on a nearby wall combines anti-Palestine profanity with a Star of David.
These settlers represent their Jewish faith about as well as Hamas represents Islam. Indeed, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz cites Israeli intelligence services’ description of “terror cells” operating within the settler movement. As usual, civilians suffer when people with violent ideologies twist religion to justify their actions. Yet in the face of such opposition, nonviolent strategies are showing some success in Sheikh Jarrah.
“Unfortunately, we did not stop the first wave of evictions,” says ICAHD’s Salisbury. “But since the beginning of the movement, we’ve managed to stop any further evictions that have been attempted.” In July of this year, two other Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah won a rare victory in Israeli courts preventing their eviction. That case, in which the evidence was no different than in previous trials won by settlers, “has everything to do with the fact that we are protesting there,” according to Salisbury.
The leadership of the weekly demonstrations has transitioned from Israeli activists to local residents, representing a new phase in the movement that plans expanded activities such as tours to educate Israelis, political and cultural events, and a permanent information center run by local Palestinians. As this movement grows and continues to struggle nonviolently in the streets and in the courts, perhaps one day Rifka Al-Kurd and her family will be able to live without the fear of becoming refugees once again.