The story of the families in Sheikh Jarrah is the longest running court case in Israeli juridical history. The families have suffered 37 years of stress, worry, eviction and imprisonment and to this day, it continues.
It begins with the Nakba (or ‘catastrophe’) in 1948, when the state of Israel was created and thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee from their homes. In 1956, as part of a housing project for displaced Palestinians, 28 families were given homes in Sheikh Jarrah as part of an agreement with the Jordanian Government and UNRWA. It was agreed then that the ownership of the houses would be transferred to the families within three years in return for the food assistance the families received from UNRWA.
In 1964, many of the families were given building permission by the Jordanian Government to construct extensions onto the houses, thus making evident their legal status at the time.
Shortly after the six-day war in 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, two groups of Sephardic Jewish settlers known as the Oriental Jews Association and the Knesseth Yisrael Association used documents from the Ottoman period to successfully claim false ownership of the land. After the settler organisations claimed ownership, settlers made an incursion into Sheikh Jarrah and occupied a tomb which they declared was that of the Jewish sage Shimon Hatsedeek. They also occupied one of the houses in Sheikh Jarrah whilst a family was on vacation. 1972 the settler associations managed to register the land – 18 dunums – in their name with the Israeli Land registrar.
At this time the settlers took their claim to the land to the Israeli courts and to begin requested the eviction of four families in the neighbourhood. The court, however, ruled that the settlers’ organizations did not have enough evidence to prove their ownership of the land and warrant the eviction of the families. The organizations were charged 1,000 Lira, the currency of that time.
In 1982 the two associations filed suits, claiming their property rights, against 23 families. Due to Palestinian lawyers refusing to work in Israeli courts at that time, the families appointed an Israeli lawyer by the name Tosya Cohen due to represent them. This lawyer was expensive and all the families raised money in order to fund the legal fees. The lawyer, without prior consent or knowledge of the families, reached an agreement with the settlers associations where he recognised the settlers’ ownership of the land in return for granting the families the status of protected tenants according to the law. It was necessary for the settlers to make this deal after they previously lost at the court, thus forcing them to employ different tactics to claim the land.
Upon discovering this agreement, the families relieved Tosya Cohen from representing them and appointed a new lawyer, this time a Palestinian, Houssni Abu Hussein.
In 1992, the settlers’ association returned to the court, requesting rent from a different four families, using the previous agreement made with Tosya Cohen to legitimise their demand. The cases of two of these families, Al-Husseini and Hjaej, went to one judge while the cases of other two, Hannoun and Gawi, went to another. Regarding the case of the former two families, the judge decided to freeze the case until the ownership of the land was further clarified with the land registration department. However, at the hearing of the Hannoun and Gawi families, despite the fact the case was identical to the other two families, the judge ruled that the they pay rent to the the settlers organization, backdated from 1982 when the agreement was first made with Cohen.
In 1994, a Palestinian land-owner, Mr. Suleiman Darwish Hejazy, went to the court with documents certifying his ownership of the land, further casting doubt over the settlers’ claim. Also at this time, the families lawyer Mr Abu Hussein, had the Ottoman documents translated to Hebrew and Arabic and discovered that the document declared that land was merely leased to the Sephardic Jewish groups for three years. The document also failed to specify exactly where the land was situated â€” it did not mention Sheikh Jarrah.
Â Due to these new developments, and with now two claimants to the land, Mr Abu Hussein advised them not to pay rent to the settlers until the courts ruled decisively on the ownership of the land. The rent, 150,000 NIS (roughly $40,000), was instead paid into a holding account at the court until the decision was made.
The civilian court ruled, in 1999, that the Hannoun and Gawi families must evacuate their houses, or face eviction, due to their refusal to pay rent directly to the settlers organizations.
In 2002, Mr Abu Hussein, on the families behalf, appealed this ruling to the Israeli Supreme Court. This court ruled that the families were too late in paying the rent into the court account and therefore if they did not leave their houses by 19th April 2002, they would face eviction.Â On 22nd April 2002, over 500 police arrived on horse and with dogs, closed off the whole area, and evicted the Hannoun and Gawi families from their houses. The police used force against the family, including children, and also the International and Israeli volunteers staying with them at this time and removed the furniture from the house. The family were charged the cost of the police operation and also asked for money if they wished for their furniture to be returned to them.
The Hannoun family were forced to find rented accommodation to live, whilst the Gawi family lived in a tent for 6 months until the municipality arrived to demolish it.
Â In 2003, the lawyer, Mr Abu Hussein, asked for the chief of the department which processes land deeds to attend the court and explain his decision to grant ownership of the land to Sephardic Jewish groups based solely on the vague Ottoman document. The manager was hesitant to reply before declaring that he simply did not know why the ownership was granted.
Upon further investigations and legal proceedings that continued until 2006, it became clear that the Ottoman document was falsified and therefore the settlers’ associations had no valid claim to the land. The families lawyer, Mr Abu Hussein petitioned the land registration department to revoke the settlers’ registration of the land in 1972 and issue an order to state the rightful owner of the land.
The land registration department agreed on November 2006 to the first demand and revoked the ownership of the settlers’ associations but refused to issue an order to conduct the rezoning of the area necessary to declare the rightful ownership of the land.
The Israeli courts however did not admit to the new developments in the case and most importantly the decisions made by the land registry department. They continued to base their ruling solely on the agreement made by the settlers and Tosya Cohen in 1982. The Israeli courts deliberately neglected all new evidence brought forward that should automatically discredit that agreement. The families had no other choice but to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court, requesting them to issue an order compelling the land registry department to conduct the rezoning of the area and to annul all documents related to the settlers’ rights to the land.
At the 22nd June 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Palestinian claimant to the land, Mr Hizajy must provide more evidence to certify his claim to the land and that the settlers’ associations must attend a court specialising in land disputes where the land registration department must declare the rightful ownership of the land.
As a result of this decision, the families returned to their houses, under the advice of their lawyer, until the court ruled decisively on the ownership of the land.
It is important to note that the documents presented by the settlers’ associations only claim to own 75% of the land, which does not include the Hannoun family.
Later in 2006, the two settlers’ associations sold their claim to the land to a settlers’ investment company, Nahalat Shemoun. The company submitted a project to the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem in which it proposed to demolish the 28 houses in Sheikh Jarrah and build 250 settlement units to house Jewish immigrants, which includes a commercial centre.
In February 2008, the Nahalat Shemoun company requested that the Hannoun and Gawi family attend a court hearing under the charge of returning to their houses illegally. The company also demanded that the families evacuate their families immediately.
In a further court hearing, dated 28th July, at a further court hearing, the judge ruled that Maher Hannoun and Abdul Fatah Al-Gawi, the two fathers of the families, should be charged with contempt of court, and imprisoned. At the 7th of August, the police issued an arrest warrant for Maher Hannoun. Mr Hannoun presented himself to a police station in Jerusalem and was subsequently imprisoned for three months.
On 15th February 2009, the families lawyer, Mr Abu Hussein, presented to the civilian court 13 new documents, from Jordan, which proved that Mr Hizajy had a valid and legal claim to the land. He also told the judge that he was waiting on a letter from the Turkish government which certified that there was no original to the Ottoman documents that the settlers’ had presented, thus proving that they had been falsified.
On the 16th February 2009, the civilian court issued an order that stated the Hannoun and Gawi families must leave their houses by 15th of March, or else they would be evicted by force.
On the 24th of March, the families lawyer went to the Israeli District Court with the 13 documents which he previously presented to the civilian court. On the 28th of March the District Court ruled that he was too late in bringing these documents to the court’s attention and that the decision to evict the Hannouns’ and Gawis’ was valid.
On the 5th of April, the families attempted to appeal the eviction decision to the Israeli Supreme Court, based on the new evidence in the lawyers possession. On the 8th of April the Supreme Court refused to stop the eviction process of the Hannouns’ and Gawis’.
On the 14th April, the police arrived at the Hannoun and Gawi houses to assert that they can face forceful eviction at any time.
On the 4th of May, Hossa Laphoal, the public institute that executes court orders renewed the eviction order, valid for a period of 21 days. Later on the same day the families attended a hearing at the Israeli District court which decided to postpone for 10 days the cases of the Hannoun and Gawi families. These ten days were granted to the families to evacuate their homes voluntarily.
On the 17th May, the District court ruled that each family must put down a guarantee of $50,000 and 50,000 NIS which would be taken if they failed to evacuate their houses by the 19th of July. The court also ruled that if the families did not leave their house voluntarily by this date then the fathers of the families, Maher Hannoun and Abdul Fatah Al-Gawi, would be sent to jail as a ‘hostages’ until either the families were evicted by force or left by their own will.
On the 25th of May, Maher Hannoun was stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint and informed that he had further charges against him totalling 151,000 NIS. Mr Hannoun is now unable to pass checkpoints as he is in danger of immediate arrest.
On the 28th June, ‘Hossa Laphoal’ renewed the eviction order for a further 30 days, meaning that the families can be forcibly evicted at any time.
GPHRC Member report from Sheikh Jarrah in 2008