Demolishing Sheikh Jarrah

Picture the scene: it’s Sheikh Jarrah on a Monday morning. People are driving to work, kids are on their way to school. It’s icy cold but the sun is shining. It would be a nice winter’s morning, if it weren’t for the fact that round the corner from us, the Israeli forces have turned up to evict a Palestinian family from their home and they are intent on demolishing the house and the garden centre business which the family runs.

What happens next is not part of the usual script for how these things normally play out. The owner of the house climbs on to the roof of his property with huge gas canisters and lots of petrol and threatens to light the place up if the house is demolished. His children and family are with him and quickly others start to gather and offer their support. What ensues is a long stand-off with the riot police over the course of the day.

More than 12 hours later, the police have gone home for the day, but Mahmoud Salahiya is still up there on the roof with a group of friends and supporters. Welcome to Sheikh Jarrah where these utterly ludicrous events happen with such devastating frequency that people almost can’t process the injustice and sense of loss.

The Salahiya family claim that they purchased the land during the 1950s (and certainly before Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967), but the Jerusalem municipality disputes this and announced five years ago their intentions to build a new Jewish school on the land.

This case is separate from the Sheikh Jarrah eviction cases which brought the country to the brink of war in May of last year. Those homes are only several hundred metres away however, and the issues there are still unresolved and all too familiar.

Even if the Salahiya family can successfully prove that they own the property, Israeli courts still have the power to rule against them and to clear the site and make the family, consisting of 15 people homeless. That is the colour of justice here.

Mahmoud Salahiya made an impassioned speech from his rooftop this morning saying he would rather burn the place down than face the indignity of being evicted from his own land.

Over the course of the day, media flooded into the area to report on events and the international community spoke out against the action and attended the site to act as observers. The result: the garden centre and area beside it was torn down by bulldozers but the family home remains intact for now.

Tonight, the temperature is due to fall to -2 (unusually cold for Jerusalem). If the police think that will be enough to bring the roof group down, they know little about the strength of Palestinian resistance. Food has already been delivered, and the community are rallying blankets and sleeping bags to help them through the night.

Anything could happen and the story is still live and unfolding. Already today though, another piece of Sheikh Jarrah has been lost forever, never to be returned to its Palestinian owners.

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