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East Jerusalem evictions: The Sub Laban family's story

These Zionist organisations place their activities in a religious frame, with a vision of returning the Old City to the Jewish people
Currently, there are about 16 eviction cases against Palestinian families in Jerusalem

For the Sub Laban family, Jerusalem’s Old City has been a much-loved home for many years. In a side street near al-Aqsa Mosque and close to where tourists wander, their house looks like many others: a small door set into Jerusalem’s ancient stone, where Nora and Mustafa live with their sons and grandchildren.

But the family may not have their home for much longer. As Israeli organisations move forward with attempts to move Jewish families into the Old City, the Sub Labans have been served an eviction order. It’s the latest – and perhaps most serious – development in a decades-long struggle.

“My grandmother rented this house from the Jordanian government in 1953, and my mother has lived here since she was born,” Ahmad Sub Laban, who also works as a field researcher for Jerusalem NGO, Ir Amim, told Middle East Eye. The threat of eviction, he says, has hung over the home since 1978, but the family received their latest eviction order last October. An appeal against it is pending in the courts, but that hasn’t stopped local authorities arriving to evict the family three times in the last six months.

The last time police arrived to tell them they had to leave was 15 March. Since then, activists, NGOs and even international delegations have been rallying at the house, and emergency legal proceedings have held off the eviction for the time being. But it’s clear that the family’s future is far from certain. Since the 1980s, five lawsuits have been filed against them, disputing their right to protected tenancy by arguing, for example, that they hadn’t been living continuously in the house. It’s meant decades of stress and uncertainty that’s dominated the children’s childhoods and doesn’t look like it will end soon.

Years fighting eviction

“Imagine a family where the parents are all the time going to the Israeli court, where they’re putting all their money to a lawyer just to protect their property,” Ahmad told MEE. “I remember when I was young, my parents would always be going to the court. It was awful, all the time. And now, I am doing the same.”

The problem of evictions is not uncommon around the Old City of Jerusalem. Several Israeli organisations, often supported by numerous American donors, work to acquire Palestinian-occupied properties in the Old City for Jewish Israeli use, bringing proceedings against their inhabitants to evict them.

“It’s a problem across the city. There are about 16 pending eviction cases in Jerusalem, but five in the Old City,” Betty Herschmann, director of International Relations & Advocacy at Ir Amim, told MEE. “Organisations work with authorities to identify homes at risk and advance proceedings to have Palestinians evicted from their homes.”  

These groups, Herschmann explained, tend to work through legal channels to challenge Palestinians’ residency in their homes. The main accusation against the Sub Laban family is that they have not lived in the house continuously, but similar challenges to protected residency status can be founded on several bases: in Sheikh Jarrar – a neighbourhood north of the Old City highly coveted by settler organisations – numerous families have been evicted on the grounds that they made illegal renovations to their homes, or had failed to keep up with rent payments.

Cases of eviction are often legally complex. Now, Palestinians vulnerable to eviction are generally renting their homes under protected tenancies that guarantee they won’t be thrown out, but which also place restrictions on the changes they can make to the buildings, and their landlords have changed depending on the political status of Jerusalem. After 1948, homes that belonged to Jews were transferred to the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property, then when Israel took over Jerusalem in 1967 they were transferred to Israel's General Custodian. In some high-profile eviction cases, the lease for the building has been transferred again by settler organisations such as Ateret Cohanim or Nahalat Shimon.

Recent and ancient claims in Old City

The leaders of these groups place their activities in a religious frame, with a vision of returning the Old City to the Jewish people.

“We happen to be a non-profit organisation. Part of our work is strengthening Jewish roots in the Old City and the area around,” Daniel Luria, the spokesperson and director of Ateret Cohanim, told MEE. The organisation, he stressed, was uninvolved in the current case, although activists have said that it's been heavily involved in attempts to evict the family.

“In 1967 the Israeli government effectively took an old piece of British law called the Protected Tenancy Law that says an Arab living in an old Jewish place, he’s a protected tenant,” Luria said. The law, he explained, is based on the “ethical and moral” reason that a current resident shouldn’t be evicted from his home, but also places the ownership of the house with Jewish families who he says have a claim to them in both recent and ancient history.

In his argument for a historic claim and religious-nationalist right to possession, Luria echoes the sentiments of many similar organisations. Before 1948 many Jews did live in Jerusalem, but when the state of Israel was created and the city was taken under Jordanian control, they were forced to leave. After Israeli forces re-took the Old City and its eastern neighbourhoods in 1967, Jewish groups sought to return to the properties they vacated decades before, often as part of the broader goal of making Jerusalem the unified Jewish capital of millennia ago.

“We’re really a microcosm of Zionism in general. When we talk about coming back to the whole of Israel we don’t just mean coming back to Haifa and Tel Aviv. We’re also thinking about coming back to the Old City, the Yemenite Village, Simon the Just neighbourhoods. This is all part of the redemption process, of the Zionist dream being realised,” Luria told MEE, referring to the East Jerusalem neighbourhoods more usually called Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah.

“Jewish people want to fulfil a dream. This is the heart of Jerusalem, this is not just any piece of real estate. I may be Australian, I came here 40 years ago, but this is my land and I belong to this land,” he continued.

Opening Pandora's box

In the city today, however, the narrative of return is not so simple. Families like the Sub Labans, of course, now live in these properties and call them home. As Jewish families once lived in East Jerusalem, Palestinians have also been expelled from the west of the city and elsewhere in Israel, with little hope of return. And for all the grand rhetoric of organisations like Ateret Cohanim, they don’t speak for all Israelis, many of whom regard their work as seriously damaging.

“My criticism is that this type of activity is actually against the interests of the state of Israel,” Yitzhar Reiter, a professor of Middle East studies at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, told MEE. “Once you allow these extremist Jewish groups to claim restitution, you open something of a Pandora’s Box, of Palestinians claiming similar restitution in West Jerusalem, or in other places in Israel, and so on.” 

The practical implications for the state of Israel follow too, Reiter said, from the ethical problem of displacing refugees and families and bypassing peace negotiations by creating a “Judaised” reality in areas that Palestinians consider part of a future state.

“It refuses to discuss a solution that will compromise on East Jerusalem, If you analyse the facts on the ground you see there’s process of ‘Israelising’ East Jerusalem, without providing full citizenship to its inhabitants,” he continued. “And if that situation continues we will see the Palestinians of East Jerusalem develop more to the Israeli system, and as more facts are created on the ground we’ll find ourselves one day with a situation that’s irreversible.”

The Sub Laban family and their supporters also see home takeovers like the one they’re battling against as symptomatic of broader injustices against Palestinians in Jerusalem and within Israel. Many Palestinian residents, most of whom lack the ability to compete with the political and financial power of such organisations, view takeovers as threatening and an assertion of Jewish over Arab rights.  

“The whole point here, even if it was owned by Jews, is that they are taking it when there are Palestinian properties in the west of the city that are registered under the Absentee Property Law, that were once owned by Palestinians, but which Palestinians can’t even dream of owning,” Mohammed Dahleh, the family’s lawyer, told MEE. The Absentee Property Law is a piece of Israeli legislation that allows authorities to control property that Palestinians were forced to leave in 1948. “It’s hypocrisy,” he said.

Government role in evictions

Among those gathered at the Sub Laban house, there’s a strong belief that Israeli government policies make life easier for settlers that want to take over properties in the Old City, if they don’t actively enable them. It’s a suggestion that Luria strongly denies, implying that the government in fact makes his idea of Jewish return more difficult. But government control of the property, not to mention the security and protection it provides to East Jerusalem settlers, raises serious questions about its involvement in evictions like these.

“I see that the government is not preventing private associations of settlers from restitution or repurchasing or claiming of assets that were previously owned by Jews. The government position is to call it a private claim between private parties, Arabs and Jews, as if the issue is not pertaining to government policy.” Reiter said. 

“The government role is to give security and protection to the Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem,” he added, arguing that “some elements of the government” support the process of Judaising East Jerusalem even if authorities aren't actively involved in the transfer of homes.

For the Sub Laban family, the past month has been another chapter in a seemingly endless struggle of repeated court cases, appeals and eviction notices. Given the past decades of attempts, the party behind the eviction measure do not seem likely to give up on their case. But the family are still hopeful that they will be able to stay in their home, and are determined to keep fighting to do so.

“This house we consider like our ID,” Ahmad Sub Laban said. “It’s in the middle of Jerusalem, it gives us our identity as Jerusalemites. It’s close to the holy places. I work in Jerusalem. I study in Jerusalem. It’s the place we’ve lived since we were born.”