Residents of the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem say the intensified Israeli police and settler presence in the area come to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian family’s imminent forced displacement next month.
For the fifth day in a row, Israeli police have blocked off and set up checkpoints on all sides of the western area of Sheikh Jarrah – where the threatened Salem family home lies – heavily restricting exit and entry.
“What is happening now is that they are creating facts on the ground. They [Israeli forces] are trying to get people used to the presence of checkpoints, so when they come to evict the family, they are already in control of the area,” resident Raeda Haj Mahmoud, 50, told Al Jazeera.
The Salems, a family of 11 including four children, are due to be forced out next month, after Israeli courts approved settler ownership claims over the home they’ve lived in since 1951. The family, who moved to Sheikh Jarrah after becoming refugees during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias, told Al Jazeera that they intend to appeal the decision.
Matters escalated on Sunday, when Israeli far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, known for his provocative actions against Palestinians, set up a makeshift office next to the Salem home.
Ben-Gvir claimed he set up his office in response to an alleged firebombing of a settler’s home in the neighbourhood last week. Israeli forces arrested two Palestinian men in their 20s, claiming them as suspects, while locals said it was a short circuit that caused it.
Head of the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem Municipality, Moshe Lion, said he instructed a significant increase of police forces in the area on Monday “to increase sense of security”. For the Palestinian residents, however, the heavy police presence and simultaneous increase in settler raids have only meant more violence.
Confrontations broke out on Sunday afternoon, and continued throughout the week, between Palestinian residents on one hand and Israeli police and settlers on the other.
Israeli forces, including mounted police, fired rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, and chemically enhanced sewage water at the residents staging a sit-in in front of their homes. More than 30 Palestinians were injured, including at least six transferred to hospital, and at least two arrested.
Dozens of families in Sheikh Jarrah are facing displacement from their homes in coordinated efforts by the Israeli government and Jewish settler groups.
In May 2021, attempts by Israeli forces to displace six families from their homes captured international attention, and the subsequent escalation of tensions resulted in unprecedented protests across historical Palestine. Their cases have remained on hold since November 2021, when the six families unanimously rejected an Israeli Supreme Court proposal that would have required them to recognise settler ownership claims of their homes.
Kareem Dkeidek’s home lies metres away from the Salem family home, in the area cordoned off by Israeli police. He described the closure of the neighbourhood – where residents must show identification cards to get to their homes – as “collective punishment”.
“The recent developments are all part of plans to cleanse this entire neighbourhood of its Palestinian residents,” Dkeidek, 48, told Al Jazeera.
Forced displacement and the transfer of civilians into occupied territory is a violation of international law and a war crime. According to a 2020 survey by the UN, at least 218 Palestinian households in occupied East Jerusalem, including the families in Sheikh Jarrah, have legal eviction cases filed against them in Israeli courts.
The majority have been initiated by settler groups using discriminatory Israeli laws to file ownership claims of Palestinian homes, placing 970 Palestinians, including 424 children, at risk of displacement.
Local NGOs and rights groups have long pointed out that such lawsuits are part and parcel of efforts by the Israeli government to displace Palestinians from the city, and are aimed at altering the demographic ratio in favour of Jews, a goal laid out as “maintaining a solid Jewish majority in the city” in the municipality’s 2000 masterplan.
Unlawful settlement expansion, Palestinian home demolitions, and restrictions on urban development are some of the main ways being used to realise this goal, according to rights groups.
Groups of settlers have raided Sheikh Jarrah during the past week, whether to greet Ben-Gvir, or to attack Palestinian residents and their property. Such attacks included physical and verbal assault, spraying pepper spray from close distances, smashing car windows and slashing tyres.
Nerves have frayed among residents, who said they are besieged and cannot leave their homes for fear of settlers taking over their properties.
Raeda Haj Mahmoud’s home stands directly opposite one of the checkpoints set up around the area of the Salem residence. During the past week, neighbours and other Palestinians unable to reach the Salem family have gathered in front of her home to hold sit-ins.
The 50-year-old mother-of-three, who is also dealing with a continuing legal case to displace her and her family, spends mornings preparing food and drink for those coming to support them.
She said she has been unable to leave her home, fearing settler attacks.
“We don’t leave the house. Yesterday, my aunt passed away in the neighbourhood of Sur Baher – I didn’t go to the funeral because I’m afraid to leave my home – that settlers will come into my house,” she told Al Jazeera.
“They took our homes and our lands, and now, they are attacking us. There’s no safety here – no sleep, no calm – neither day nor night,” she said, adding that parents in the neighbourhood now have to escort their children to school.
Dkeidek, a father of three, said he too is fearful for his family, who are also facing a case to displace them.
“My children can’t focus on their studies at all. I have a 12-year-old son whom I worry about a lot. Every time he hears sounds outside he wants to go out – I try to keep him indoors to protect him but there’s only so much I can do – I can’t trap him,” said Dkeidek.
“I sleep in my clothes out of anxiety in case something happens like settlers attacking our house or setting it on fire – so that I can rescue my children, my family and my 80-year-old mother who lives with us,” he continued.
Local Palestinian activist Mohammed Abu al-Hommos set up a simple office of his own overlooking the hill opposite the blocked off area. “The residents of Sheikh Jarrah are besieged, while settlers and visitors of Ben-Gvir are allowed to come and go,” he told Al Jazeera.
“What is required from us as Palestinians and Jerusalemites today is to gather in Sheikh Jarrah in larger numbers so that we can preserve what remains of the area that hasn’t been Judaized,” Abu al-Hommos added.
Palestinians in the northern town of Umm al-Fahm, some 100 kilometres (62 miles) away, announced they will be arriving in busses to attend Friday prayers in Sheikh Jarrah and to stand with the neighbourhood.
Dkeidek said residents need immediate intervention and help.
“We demand protection – I don’t know whether that’s international protection or what, but we are afraid for ourselves and our families.”