Middle East

This Palestinian family is facing eviction after 65 years in their Jerusalem home

Samira Dajani and her husband Adel Budeiri in the garden of their Sheikh Jarrah home. Source: AP

Rasha Budeiri's family is one of several facing eviction from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah under an Israeli law that allows Jews to reclaim property they owned before the state of Israel was created.

This week, as the world learned the name of their hometown, Rasha Budeiri and her cousins have been exchanging photographs of their childhood.

Many were taken in the garden of their family home in Sheikh Jarrah - laughing, posing, and playing on a swing that still stands in the exact same spot all these years later.

“Every corner of that house, every corner of its garden brings back beautiful memories,” she tells SBS News from her home in Ottawa, Canada.

“That's where my family would meet with cousins, and still to this day, my mum hosts iftars, she runs Arabic classes for foreigners in that house. She loves spending time planting trees and especially flowers - these days, it's exactly the right time. 

“But it's a bittersweet feeling because we knew that this day might come.”

Rasha Budeiri's parents in the garden of their home, where her mother Samira Dajani has lived since childhood.
Rasha Budeiri's parents in the garden of their home, where her mother Samira Dajani has lived since childhood.
AP

Rasha’s parents, Samira Dajani and Adel Budeiri, have been ordered out of their home by an Israeli court. They have until 1 August to pack up and leave. 

“They will be thrown out on the street, and they will have to find an alternative. Finding one is not easy and is not guaranteed,” Rasha says.

“Being in that house, we always had the feeling that it could be taken away at any minute because we used to hear the adults talking about it.”

The reason why dates back more than 70 years.

A decades-old history 

Both Jews and Arabs - and their ancestors - have historically inhabited Jerusalem - with different majorities at different times.

In 1948, the state of Israel was created on what was then British-mandated Palestine. 

It sparked the first Arab-Israeli War, during which some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled in what’s known as al-Nakba - or, in English, ‘the catastrophe’.

The West Bank came under Jordanian mandate and, in 1956, Jordan and the UN’s Relief and Works Agency agreed to build houses for 28 displaced Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Rasha's mother Samira Dajani holds a photo showing her family in 1956 after they moved into their home in Sheikh Jarrah.
Rasha's mother Samira Dajani holds a photo showing her family in 1956 after they moved into their home in Sheikh Jarrah.
AP

Then, in the Six-Day War of 1967, Jordan lost its mandate and Israel captured East Jerusalem.

Three years later, Israel passed a law allowing Jews to reclaim property they owned in East Jerusalem before 1948. There is no comparable law for Palestinians.

Jewish settler organisations began laying claim to Sheikh Jarrah shortly after, saying it belonged to Jewish groups back in 1885.

Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah stage a demonstration in March.
Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah stage a demonstration in March.
Getty Images

The Israeli courts agreed and a long-running legal battle began to try to remove the Palestinians.

In 1991, the court recognised them as protected tenants, not as owners. But they could face eviction by the Jewish associations. The families say they never consented to this.

Now, eight families are facing imminent eviction; four next month and another four, including Rasha’s family, in August.

A 'legal matter'

Last week, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the government was not involved in the matter, accusing Palestinians of “presenting a real estate dispute between private parties as a nationalistic cause in order to incite violence in Jerusalem”.

Speaking to SBS News, Israeli ambassador to Australia Jonathan Paled said the dispute was not justification for violence.

“It's a serious issue, but it's being contended in the High Court of Israel,” he said.

“This is a legal matter. I'm not taking it lightly, but this is definitely not a reason, or cannot be used as an excuse, to escalate and to start firing thousands of rockets towards Israel.” 

The garden of Rasha Budeiri's family home in Sheikh Jarrah.
The garden of Rasha Budeiri's family home in Sheikh Jarrah.
Supplied

But Rasha believes the evictions are part of a broader scheme to reduce Palestinian presence in Jerusalem.

“The Israeli courts are no different to what the Jewish settlers are trying to do, which is empty Jerusalem of its Indigenous Palestinian people,” she said.

“It's actually a reminder of what's happened to Palestinians since 1948 - confiscating land and homes and kicking people out and building settlements on the rubble of Palestinian homes. It's not something new; it's the only constant that we're seeing as Palestinians.”

Mr Paled strongly rejected that claim.

“Never before has a government or sovereign power given free rights and free access to all its citizens of the city of Jerusalem,” he said.

“We had 80,000 Muslim worshippers on the Temple Mount [last week] celebrating Eid al-Fitr calmly, respectfully, as it should be. So I think we prove in the long run that with all the sensitivities we manage to leave Jerusalem open and free to all its citizens, even if we sometimes disagree on things.”

The broader conflict

UNSW international relations lecturer Dr Anthony Billingsley said disputes like the one in Sheikh Jarrah have been happening for decades.

But he says the timing of these particular disputes - coinciding with Ramadan, Jerusalem Day, and the 73rd anniversary of al-Nakba - has heightened tensions.

“The issue of the Palestinians has been off the agenda basically since the Obama administration, so people have assumed, I think, that nothing's happening there,” Dr Billingsley said.

“But of course, things were happening, there were settlements being built and Palestinians becoming more and more frustrated. So there's been this underlying upwelling of frustration as well.” 

People inspect the rubble of a building that was hit by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City.
People inspect the rubble of a building that was hit by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City.
AP

With the conflict now escalating into deadly airstrikes and rocket launches across the Gaza border, Dr Billingsley said the international attention has now shifted away from Sheikh Jarrah. 

“The important one is the US, and I think Hamas's involvement in the process now makes it almost impossible for [US President Joe] Biden to act because he can't come out in support of Hamas, which is officially in the US a terrorist organisation,” he said.

“Had they kept out of it, I suspect he would have been quite happy to put the hard word on [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and force him to back off.” 

On Monday, Mr Biden said he backed calls for a ceasefire.

For Rasha, she can't look away from her homeland and hopes there will be a resolution for her parents soon. 

"We're still anxious, we still know that a decision will be made very soon," she says of the evictions. 

"I'm full of anger [but] at the same time looking at the resilience of our Palestinian people ... I think this should not go unnoticed. It's a milestone in our history."

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