As a lengthy legal battle ends, a Palestinian family braces for eviction from Jerusalem home
Jun 27, 2023, 10:44 PM | Updated: Jun 28, 2023, 8:48 am
(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
JERUSALEM (AP) — Few places in Jerusalem speak of the larger conflict being waged over the city more than the apartment of 68-year-old Nora Ghaith-Sub Laban.
As the last remaining Palestinians in a building filled with Israeli settlers, the Ghaith-Sub Labans have battled Israeli attempts to evict them from their Old City home for over 45 years.
That labyrinthine legal battle ended earlier this year, when the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the family’s final motion for an appeal. Now, Israeli authorities have ordered the eviction of Nora and her husband Mustafa to take place by July 13. That includes one of the biggest holidays of the Islamic calendar, Eid al-Adha, which began Tuesday night.
“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat,” Nora said from the apartment where she was born in 1955. From the outside, with its rough-hewed stones flattered by brilliant sunlight and its windows overlooking the golden Dome of the Rock, the 200-year-old home in the heart of the Muslim Quarter is a Jerusalem postcard. Inside, the paint has chipped and walls have peeled due to court orders barring the family from doing repairs.
In what she described as a campaign to make life so unbearable that she would simply leave, Nora said her Jewish neighbors spit and hurl stones and bottles at her. Israeli police turn up at her door, asking for IDs and demanding to know everyone who has passed in and out of her home.
“This is psychological war,” she said.
The Israeli police said the check-ins were “not meant to intimidate or harass but to gather the necessary information” ahead of the eviction.
The Ghaith-Sub Laban case is not a dispute over a single property, advocates say, but part of a wider effort by Israeli settlers, with government backing, to cement Jewish control over the contested city, especially the Old City, home to Jerusalem’s most important holy sites.
A similar dispute that could lead to evictions of Palestinian families in the killed over 250 people.
The family’s struggle has sparked numerous protest rallies by Israeli left-wing activists, some of which have spiraled into scuffles with Israeli police who have arrested those waving Palestinian national flags.
“It’s more than just, ‘Oh, I have this problem with my neighbor downstairs.’ You are talking about a political and national conflict,” said Yonatan Mizrahi, the settlement watch director at Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that opposes settlements. “What happens in the Old City does not stay in the Old City.”
Captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed in a move not internationally recognized, east Jerusalem has long been a crucible in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Today, more than 220,000 Jews live in east Jerusalem, largely in built-up settlements that Israel considers neighborhoods of its capital. Most of east Jerusalem’s 350,000 Palestinian residents are crammed into overcrowded neighborhoods where there is little room to build.
Across the city’s eastern half, settler organizations and Jewish trusts are pursuing court battles against Palestinian families to clear the way for settlers.
An Israeli law passed after the annexation of east Jerusalem allows Jews to reclaim properties that were Jewish before the formation of the Israeli state in 1948. Jordan controlled the area between 1948 and the 1967 war.
Nearly 1,000 Palestinians, including 424 children, currently face eviction in east Jerusalem, the United Nations humanitarian office said.
During British rule over historic Palestine, before the war over Israel’s creation, the Ghaith-Sub Laban apartment was owned by a trust for Kollel Galicia, a group that collected funds in Eastern Europe for Jewish families in Jerusalem. Its legal representative, Eli Attal, declined to comment on the case, sending only an emoji with its mouth taped shut.
Arieh King, a settler leader and deputy mayor of Jerusalem, described the Ghaith-Sub Laban family as “squatters” and the case as a straightforward real estate dispute.
“It’s Jewish property and they want it back,” he said. “(The Ghaith-Sub Labans) don’t have any right to this property.”
There is no equivalent right in Israel for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment to return to lost properties.
Nora’s case reflects the city’s volatile history. Hailing from the southern Palestinian city of Hebron, her parents moved to west Jerusalem in 1945, then to the Old City when the capital was divided in the 1948 war.
As residents of the same Muslim Quarter apartment for seven decades, Nora’s family gained the status of protected tenants, putting Israeli law on their side.
Nora shared with The Associated Press her Jordanian rental contract from 1953 that showed that she and Mustafa paid rent to a “General Custodian” for abandoned properties, first under Jordanian authorities and then under Israel after the 1967 war. She now pays rent — 200 Jordanian dinars, or $282 each year — to the lawyers of the Jewish trust.
The case has dragged on for decades, as the Israeli custodian and then the Kollel Galicia trust contested the family’s protected tenancy. Most recently, the Kollel Galicia endowment argued in 2019 that Nora’s absence from her house that year could clear the way for their eviction.
Nora said the house was empty at times in 2019 because she was hospitalized with a back injury and later recovered in the houses of her adult children, whom Israeli authorities had previously expelled from the Old City apartment.
Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the eviction order in late February, ending the saga that has subsumed almost her entire life and the lives of her five children. Two of her sons — Ahmad, a human rights researcher, and Rafat, a lawyer — have become full-time advocates for the case.
“The Jewish settlers tried and failed time and time again but this time, they’ve succeeded,” said Aviv Tatarsky, of Ir Amim, an anti-settlement advocacy group. ”Palestinians have to keep on defending themselves and the battles never end.”
The Israeli police said that authorities “understand the emotions involved” but are “dedicated to upholding the rule of law” and enforcing the eviction.
Now in limbo, Nora feels her house has become a prison cell. Worried the settlers will seize on even a momentary absence to move in, she said she hasn’t stepped outside since May. Her windows — and their breath-taking view of the golden shrine — are covered with wire mesh to protect against her neighbors’ stones.
Last week, supporters and artists helped the family prepare their home for its future guests. They painted an olive tree in the living room with the words “We will remain,” written in its wild roots. There is a portrait of Nora, too, with her wire-rimmed glasses and careful smile.
“They don’t want peace, they want surrender,” she said.