In east Jerusalem, an Arab PR coup

In evicting two Palestinian families from their homes, Israel followed the law. But was it worth the backlash?

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 6, 2009
An extended Palestinian family camp out in front of their east Jerusalem house this week after being evicted

An extended Palestinian family camp out in front of their east Jerusalem house this week after being evicted

Two Palestinian families sitting on street corners in east Jerusalem in the sweltering August heat are at the centre of a media and diplomatic storm this week. The eviction from the homes they have lived in for 53 years has delivered the Palestinian cause a major PR coup.

Maher Hanoun, sitting among his children, nieces and nephews on plastic chairs and mattresses, is giving interview after interview to reporters from every conceivable international media outlet. On his baseball cap is a drawing of an olive tree with long roots and the Arab slogan “la-nahal” — “we will never leave”. Some of the children are wearing T-shirts emblazoned: “Stop Israeli ethnic cleansing”.

Three days earlier he was evicted, along with his brothers and their children, from the house in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah that their family has occupied since 1956.

It was the end of a protracted legal battle in which the courts upheld claims that the land was owned by Jews as far back as the late 19th century, and that the Palestinian tenants — who were settled in these houses by Jordan and the UN — had violated the terms of their lease. On the next road, the Rawwi family, also evicted on Sunday, have set up a similar stand.

In between interviews, the evicted families are visited by diplomats from the American and British consulates. Both governments have condemned the eviction.

Mr Hanoun is pleased with the support he is receiving.

“I want to thank all those from the media and the diplomats who came here to be with us,” he says. “They are presenting our case to the world against the ethnic cleansing.”

He is a little hazier about the legal details. “When my family came here in 1956 there were no houses and UNRWA helped us to build here.”

Before 1948, the Hanoun and Rawhi families lived in a village near Haifa. Mr Hanoun claims that the ownership papers produced by the Sephardi Community Committee are forged but that is not his main line of defence.

“Even if the papers are real,” he says, “if the Israelis want to come and take my home here, then let Palestinians claim their homes in west Jerusalem and Haifa.”

The seven Jewish families who moved into the two buildings following the eviction orders are refusing to speak to the media.

“This is simply hypocrisy and antisemitism,” said one of the new residents, who refused to be named.

“This was Jewish land already 130 years ago and even the courts have recognised it. What else do people want from us?”

While the Foreign Ministry has responded to the media and diplomatic onslaught by saying that it is simply “a legal matter”, Israeli diplomats were frustrated at having to deal with what one of them called “a losing case”.

“The question of the legality of the Sheikh Jarrah evictions is one aspect of the issue,” says a Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem. “Right now, when the whole diplomatic situation is so tense and everyone is looking at east Jerusalem as it is, someone should have intervened to postpone the eviction.

“None of this is going to make things any easier when we come to negotiate on issues such as the future of Jerusalem and the refugees.”

Last updated: 1:03pm, August 6 2009