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It's hard to imagine what it's like to lose your home, but Palestinians know, says rights official

Zakariya Odeh, coordinator for the Civil Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem (CCPRJ)
Zakariya Odeh, coordinator for the Civil Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem (CCPRJ)

A stench hangs over Sheikh Jarrah today as its residents continue to be harassed by the occupation authorities. Palestinians in the tiny neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem are being beaten brutally and arrested by armed, combat-ready Israeli soldiers, some on horseback. Rubber-coated steel bullets have also been fired. The smell comes from the sewage sprayed by the Israelis over Palestinian homes, shops, restaurants, public spaces and cultural institutions.

"Israel soldiers are using the dirty water as one of the many ways to stop Palestinians from gathering to protest against the forced dispossession of several families in Sheikh Jarrah," explained Zakariya Odeh, the coordinator for the Civil Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem (CCPRJ). The foul-smelling liquid, known as skunk water, causes nausea, stomach pain and skin irritation. It was developed by an Israeli company to deter protesters from exercising their democratic rights.

Sheikh Jarrah was once a breezy orchard lying less than a kilometre north of the ancient walls of Jerusalem's Old City. The houses that the local Palestinians have lived in for 65 years are filled with hand-carved furniture, ornate rugs and traditional embroidery. Now the neighbourhood has been transformed into a military zone.

A total of eight families, some 78 people including 28 children, are now threatened with expulsion from their homes and land to make way for Israeli settlers. It's a move which is illegal under international law.

"The Israeli soldiers have put checkpoints at all the entrances to the neighbourhood," explained Odeh. "The neighbourhood is blockaded, barricaded with cement barriers. Anybody who is not a resident is banned from entering to stop Palestinians from showing their support."

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Not even the married daughters and sons of the families who came to visit during Ramadan were allowed to enter because the address on their IDs wasn't Sheikh Jarrah, he pointed out. The soldiers allow large groups of armed settlers to roam outside the houses at will, however. They provoke the Palestinian by stealing from local shops and beating residents.

The 28 families at the heart of the issue have lived in Sheikh Jarrah since the 1950s, after being forced to abandon or flee from their homes during the ethnic cleansing of the 1948 Nakba. They were rehoused in the neighbourhood by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). "Sheikh Jarrah is a neighbourhood established in 1956 by the Jordanian government and UNRWA," said Odeh. "They built houses for 28 families who became refugees in 1948."

East Jerusalem was administered at the time by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It governed the West Bank from 1948 to 1967. Part of the housing agreement between UNRWA and Jordan was that ownership of the homes would pass to the families if they renounced their refugee status. The official deeds to their homes are in their names.

Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and is still there. The Israeli government claims that what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is "a real estate dispute" This, said Odeh, is laughable.

In 1982, he noted, the residents of Sheikh Jarrah were deceived by an Israeli lawyer assigned to defend them when the settler organisations filed for an eviction order against 24 families. Following years of legal wrangling, the lawyer, Tosia Cohen, made a deal with the settlers without consulting the Palestinian families.

"The ownership of the land was said to have passed to the settler groups, and the residents of the neighbourhood became tenants in their own homes. The deal that Cohen made with the settlers has since become the legal basis for the expulsion of more Palestinian families."

The violence and forced expulsions in the neighbourhood has been ongoing for more than ten years. It is now on a much larger and more threatening scale.

LONDON, ENGLAND – MAY 22: A huge demonstration of tens of thousands of people marches from the Embankment to Hyde park in solidarity with the Palestinian people on May 22, 2021 in London, England. Rallies in support of the Palestinian people have taken place across the globe during the recent eleven days of conflict between Israel and Palestine. Egypt brokered a ceasefire between Israel and the two main Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. (Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

Painful memories are still fresh in Odeh's mind. In 2002, 43 Palestinians were evicted from the area and Israeli settlers took over their properties. He recalled that in 2009, the Ghawis, along with the Hanoun family — a total of 55 people — were forced out of their homes; their furniture and belongings were strewn across the lawn.

These expulsions have been criticised across the world, including at the UN, by the US and by the EU. However, mere words about Israel's occupation and routine aggression against the Palestinians are no longer enough. Since the creation of Israel in occupied Palestine in 1948, the state has repeatedly violated international law. Odeh believes that it must face sanctions for this.

"A delegation of 25 diplomats arrived from the EU, and it became heated as families from Sheikh Jarrah told them that statements condemning the Israeli attacks are not enough, because Israel just disregards them all," he told me. "We made it very clear to them that unless there is some serious action by the EU and the international community, Israel will continue to do what it has been doing throughout the occupation." In other words, the ethnic cleansing started in 1948 will continue.

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The CCPRJ coordinator insisted that the Jordanian government and UNRWA have a duty to protect refugees in the district whose status was rescinded in 1956 in exchange for a promise that was never fulfilled. He demanded that the Jordanian government should put pressure on the Israeli authorities to recognise that the residents are the legal owners of their homes, not the settlers.

"These governments and authorities can never imagine what it means to lose your home. They will never understand how it feels to be kicked out with their children and have nowhere to go; to have their basic rights abused and undermined. But Palestinians do."

The fate of their families and lands is uncertain. However, Zakariya Odeh said that he is hopeful because of the mobilisation of Palestinians and people around the world against the forced dispossession, which he believes was enough to make the Israeli Supreme Court to postpone a decision which could have seen some families thrown out of their homes by 6 May.

"Where are the families supposed to go? To the streets?" he asked. "The children are traumatised enough, they're scared to leave their houses because of the heavily-armed guards and settlers wandering around. Enough is enough." Indeed; enough certainly is enough.

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