Batan al-Hawa, Occupied East Jerusalem – Over the years, Israeli settlers have repeatedly offered Zuheir Rajabi and his neighbours millions of dollars for their modest homes stacked on a steep slope in Silwan’s Batan al-Hawa area in the occupied East Jerusalem.
The strategic location of these homes in what is known as the Historic Basin, and in proximity to the holy Al Aqsa Mosque located in the Old City makes them them prized possessions.
A Jewish settler once offered Rajabi a blank cheque and asked him to write any figure from three million to 30 million shekels ($800,000 to $8m) for his house.
But the 700 residents facing eviction in the neighbourhood say no amount of money will make them part with their homes.
“They thought that in 30 days the people would give up their houses,” Rajabi said, standing on the roof patio of the neighbourhood’s community centre, overlooking the valley.
“The people here are very simple. They have only one thing which is honour. We don’t mind living in poverty or in bad conditions, but we just can’t handle losing our honour,” said Rajabi, who is also the spokesperson for the Batan al-Hawa Committee.
Many of Batan al-Hawa residents have been living there for over 70 years. A large number of them were expelled from their homes, now located in Israel proper, in 1948 and 1967.
The residents now face another expulsion with a Jewish settler organisation, Ateret Cohanim, trying to wage what Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO, calls the single-largest takeover of a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem since Israel occupied it in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Ateret Cohanim, which aims to Judaise East Jerusalem, claims the homes in Batan al-Hawa were built on land owned by the Jewish Benvenisti Trust in the 19th century when it settled Yemeni Jews in the area.
In 2002, Israel transferred the ownership of the land – about 5.5 dunams (1.4 acres) in size – to Ateret Cohanim without notifying the residents.
The transfer came a year after three members of Ateret Cohanim were appointed as trustees to the Benvenisti Trust.
In June this year, over a hundred Palestinian residents filed a petition, arguing that Benvenisti Trust owned just the buildings and not the land on which they stood.
Since the original buildings are now destroyed, the trust cannot claim the land, the residents argued.
The same month the Israeli government admitted that the Justice Ministry failed to investigate the Benvenisti Trust before issuing the title deed.
Yet, the Israeli High Court of Justice last month rejected the residents’ appeal to overturn the 2002 decision, effectively allowing Ateret Cohanim to pursue the takeover of Batan al-Hawa.
Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem said that the court’s ruling has paved the way for the cleansing of Palestinians from Silwan.
“The judgment proves, yet again, that the Israeli High Court gives its seal of approval to almost any infringement of Palestinians’ rights by the Israeli authorities.”
The ‘octopus’ in East Jerusalem
So far, Ateret Cohanim has evicted 17 families and now owns six buildings in the area. In 2015, the group filed a lawsuit demanding eviction of seven families from the Rajabi house.
According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, of all Palestinian families facing eviction in East Jerusalem, 45 percent of them live in Batan al-Hawa.
B’Tselem called it “the most extensive expulsion process” in recent years in the city.
Rajabi said his father bought their plot of land in 1966 after they were expelled from the Old City’s Jewish Quarters without any compensation.
“I was born here, I grew up here, I got married here, I have lived here all my life,” he said.
Disappointed over the court’s ruling, he said the Israeli society is heading to the “extreme right”.
Rajabi compares Ateret Cohanim to an octopus, whose tentacles have gripped the Old City and Silwan.
“Ateret Cohanim is a powerful organisation, not just politically. It has money too,” Rajabi said.
Among its tactics used for seizing properties include offering sex services to Palestinian men and then threatening to publicise the negotiations which could endanger the Palestinian home owner’s life if he refuses to sell, according to Israeli daily Haaretz.
Ir Amim says the Israeli government has been directly involved in facilitating illegal private settlement in the Old City and surrounding Palestinian neighbourhoods.
“The government acted through the General Custodian and the Registrar of Trusts (both under the Ministry of Justice) to facilitate settlers’ seizure of Batan al-Hawa, as well as increasing its security budget by 119 percent from 2009-16 to ensure the protection of radical Jews settling in the hearts of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem,” the NGO said.
Consolidating Jewish control
According to a report by Ir Amim, the political objective of groups such as Ateret Cohanim is to consolidate Jewish control in East Jerusalem and thwart the two state solution.
Yacoub al-Rajabi, a member of the Batan al-Hawa Committee, said that the settlers have been trying to buy their house since 2003.
A year and a half ago, Ateret Cohanim offered $2m for his home so that they would drop the court case, but to no avail.
“If they evict us from our homes, we will build tents next to our homes. We will not go anywhere. We refuse to go anywhere. We refuse to be transferred [for the third time],” Yacoub said.
He described their neighbourhood as a prison where residents feel trapped and are regularly harassed by settlers, police, army and Israeli governmental institutions who pressure them to leave.
Whenever there is a Jewish holiday, he says the residents feel imprisoned since they cannot leave their homes and the children can’t go to school under military order.
“We do not have anything but our steadfastness. [We will] try to defend ourselves and our rights … We have the ownership of this land and it is ours by law,” he said.
Rajabi’s office is located in the community centre built for children – the only place in the neighbourhood where the kids can play safely. In one corner of his office, a screen displays CCTV footage from the cameras installed outside.
Across the street, a dozen more cameras surround his home. He had them set up to document attacks by settlers or Israeli authorities after his father died from inhaling tear gas fired by the police.
Rajabi says his cameras have been extremely useful in dismissing false claims by the settlers and the Israeli authorities.
The fate of their homes is now with the magistrate’s court in Jerusalem, which has to decide whether the Benvenisti Trust owns just the buildings, or the land too.
But Yacoub said there is little hope that justice can be delivered from Israeli courts.
“Even during the hearing the judge herself mentioned that there are some legal dilemmas in the court’s verdict,” Yacoub said adding that residents will try all possible means to stay such as taking the case to the International Criminal Court.
“This [court decision] will never break us. We will keep fighting for our rights, we will keep fighting for our ownership over our land and houses,” he said.