EAST JERUSALEM 8212; The night is quiet, with only a light breeze blowing through the trees lining a street in the Sheikh Jarrah area of Jerusalem. Inside a home, two young boys are fast asleep. At the kitchen table, Manar El Ghawe, 20, and his uncle, Fouad El Ghawe, discuss the day’s events while, in the background, an Egyptian soap opera playing on the television provides the soundtrack. It’s a regular evening at home, in a tent on the sidewalk, yards away from the house from which they were evicted three months ago.
Inside that house the Ghawes inhabited for 50 years are its new residents, a family of Orthodox Jews. Any information about the new tenants, like their names, ages and occupations is hard to find; they and groups representing them try to avoid reporters or anybody else with questions. While the Jewish family may remain under a shroud of mystery, the 10 metres separating the two families seems to have become a microcosm of the religious tensions tearing apart the city of Jerusalem.
The newcomers live in relative isolation, under permanent armed protection and intense media pressure.
Ten meters away, the Ghawes revel in attention. International volunteers work in shifts, accompanying the family and their Arab neighbours 24 hours a day; journalists and diplomats visit constantly.
From time to time, small groups of Orthodox Jews gather outside the home to pray. To chase away the devout, the Ghawes and their Arab neighbours usually improvise a noisy symphony of clangs with pots, pans, horns and anything else they get their hands on. Police usually interfere before too long.
But on the morning of Oct. 28, police officers visited the Ghawes without reason. Several dozen officers and armed soldiers dismantled the family’s tent, then loaded the pieces into a pick-up truck.
The ordeal took less than 30 minutes, said Mayssoun El Ghawe. “I was cutting tomatoes, and I barely had the time to save a few belongings.”
Though the family rebuilt their abode within an hour, it was almost immediately ripped down as journalists, diplomats and activists watched on.
As is often the case in Jerusalem, one must revisit thousands of years of history in order to gain any sort of understanding of what is happening.
It is said that over 2,000 years ago Simeon the Just, a Jewish High Priest met and won the respect of Alexander the Great as the Greek king invaded Jerusalem.
Hundreds of years later, in the 16th century, Jewish tradition states that the tomb of Simeon the Just and his students was discovered in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
Eventually, in the late 1800s, the Jewish community purchased the land on which the tomb sits, and the surrounding areas.
Whether legend or fact, these points in history are generally accepted. What came after, however, is a story drowned in semantics and legal blurs8212;attempts to determine whether the area was predominantly Jewish or Arab prior to 1948, the year Israel declared independence.
In the wake of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, Jerusalem was divided, with Jordan taking control of the predominantly Arab eastern portion, and Israel taking over the predominantly Jewish western portion.
In 1956, the Ghawes and 27 other families seeking refuge from Jaffa, a town just south of Tel Aviv, took advantage of a UN program to find a safe place to live.
The UN Relief and Works Agency offered the families homes, supplied by the Jordanian government, in exchange for their refugee status. Though the 28 families were given a roof over their heads, none was given a property title.
With the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel took control of East Jerusalem. Half a decade later, two Israeli groups obtained a court order to reclaim their property in Sheikh Jarrah. Those groups, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Yisrael Committee, began asking residents for rent in 1982. In 2008, the decades of legal battles reached an apex with the first evictions.
Israel’s former Minister of Tourism Benny Elon has said he has no doubt the property and, therefore, the buildings on it rightfully belong to the Jews. “The properties were bought more than 100 years ago,” he told a daily newspaper, Arutz Sheva, last May. “Arab claims were found to be groundless by all the courts who studied the case.”
Last March, however, the Haaretz daily newspaper published a story claiming certain Turkish documents held proof the land and some of the buildings in the disputed area belong to the Palestinians.
With the legal battle sure to go on for some time, the only certain facts are that at least four families have been evicted from their homes.
One man who was evicted, a block away from where the Ghawes lived until Aug. 2, said there is some hypocrisy in the current situation. “I’m fine with the Jews going back to Jerusalem,” Najim Hanoun said. “But then let me go back to Jaffa.”
The now-homeless man’s words have been echoed by an editorialist with Haaretz. In August, Gideon Levy wrote that Israel’s laws are “racist and applying a double-standard, with separate legal systems for Jews and Arabs.”
But for others, such as the Jerusalem Post’s Larry Defner, the evictions should serve as a reminder that “the issue isn’t houses and zoning, it’s justice and decency.”
In Jerusalem, decency is proving difficult to come by. When Mayssoun El Ghawe asked the Palestinian Authority for help, he said the administrative organization only provided blankets and a paid hotel room for a few weeks.
The municipal government in Jerusalem has thrown up its hands in the conflict, stating it should be worked out among the private groups involved. “We offered some basic help just after the evictions,” a spokesperson for the municipality, Yossi Gottesman, said before adding that one family had refused any help. “But now, the families need to find a new place to live.”
Valerian Mazataud, born in France, is a Montreal-based freelance photojournalist. He is currently volunteering as a photography teacher in the NGO Project Hope, in Nablus, West Bank.