JERUSALEM -- Israelis and Palestinians may someday find themselves living in two states. But for now, the conflict between them takes place on the same land, which both claim as their own. And sometimes, it’s under the same roof.
That’s what’s happening in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, known in Hebrew as Shimon Ha Tzadik, where Palestinian Nabil Al-Kurd and his family share a house with a Jewish family originally from Brooklyn, New York.
It's not a happy coexistence.
Nabil’s mother, now in her 90s, moved into the house shortly after she had to flee her hometown of Haifa, at the outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli war, in 1948.
The Jewish family moved into the house in 2009, and today lives in three rooms of the house. Al-Kurd, a 68-year-old business owner, and 11 other members of his family live in the other four rooms, in the back.
This bizarre story of real estate and conflict began when Al-Kurd, according to his retelling, decided to do some work on the house.
“Over 10 years ago I expanded my house, in order to live more comfortably with my wife and sons. But I did it without a building permit, as it had been difficult to get one,” he said.
“So, as soon as work was finished, an Israeli court fined me, stating also that I hadn’t paid the rent for 30 years. So the judge confiscated the new construction and later entrusted it to the settlers,” Al-Kurd explained.
Even though his family had been living in the house for almost 60 years, the Israeli court acknowledged the claims of the Jewish plaintiffs, who had sued claiming to be the original owners, before 1948, of the land the house was built on.
What resulted was an uneasy cohabitation between two families that hate each other. The Al Kurds, ranging in age from the patriarch Nabil to his youngest daughter Maha, 4, are sandwiched in a small space, and two sons sleep in the open outside. They enter and exit through a door on the rear of the house. The Jewish family – who refused to be interviewed for this story – has the rest of the house, and enters through the front door.
Often the father is the only occupant of the Jewish side of the house; his two teenaged sons sometimes visit occasionally, said Nabil Al-Kurd. Sometimes the Jewish side of the house seems to be used as a kind of meeting place or social club for settlers, with dozens of people coming and going, Al-Kurd added.
The only shared space is the alley outside the house, and meetings are awkward. Insults fly; confrontations result in frequent calls to police, who – according to the Palestinian side – often haul away the Palestinians even if they were the ones that called to complain. Settlers from the neighboring house often yell obscenities at the Al-Kurds, which can be especially offensive to modest Muslim women, said the nonagenarian grandmother.
This drama is played out at a demarcation, the Green Line, that divides the territories belonging to Israel and those of its Arab neighbors at the time of the armistice that ended the 1948 war. The Green Line cuts through Jerusalem, dividing East Jerusalem, held at the time by the Jordanians, from Israeli West Jerusalem.
“When the Jordanians took over the properties abandoned by Jews in Sheikh Jarrah, they rented them out to the Palestinian refugees. And Israeli authorities let them stay there after they occupied East Jerusalem in the next war, in 1967,” said Hagit Ofran, the director of the Settlement Watch project for Peace Now, an Israeli organization supporting the peace process. “But Israeli law allows the original owner of a property and [their] heirs to reclaim it back at any time.”
Today, 28 families in Sheikh Jarrah face the risk of being evicted based on that law.
The ongoing legal battle has embittered Nabil Al-Kurd and his Palestinian neighbors, who feel that they have been cheated twice. first by the Jordanian authorities, who did not keep their promise to transfer the ownership of the houses and lands to the Palestinian tenants after three years’ leasing; and later, in 1982, by their own lawyers, who made them sign an agreement according to which they would pay rent, thereby implicitly forfeiting any claim to ownership.
That 1982 agreement is still the subject of litigation and, so far, the court has not set the amount of rent to be paid, nor has it ruled on who holds the title to the house and land.
While both sides wait for the next hearing to be scheduled, clear signs of an uneasy coexistence are everywhere.
Past the front gate of the house in Sheikh Jarrah, a Jewish menorah stands against a closed door and scaffolding, on which “Free Palestine” is written in spray paint. Another hand added “from Arabs and leftist scum,” a reference to the Israeli peace activists who used to come here every Friday to support the Al-Kurds.
“Until few months ago, the settlers gave us problems every day,” said Al-Kurd, showing pictures to illustrate his claims. “They used to shout horrible things at us, to throw foul liquids on the kids. One night they even tried to set fire to a tent we set up in the alley to host some international activists.”
His claims could not be verified, as on two different occasions in recent months, it was not possible to meet or talk with the Jewish residents of the property.
The same stakes on the table in Sheikh Jarrah – land, heritage, a sense of belonging – are replicated in several other neighborhoods around Jerusalem’s Old City, where settlers’ organizations have employed top lawyers and large funds to uphold what they say are their lawful claims against Palestinian owners.
“The local laws and judiciary give Jews the right of return, while denying it at the same time to Palestinians who want to get back to the properties left behind in ’48,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, another Israeli human-rights organization.
“This is a major source of injustice and inequality, in addition to the fact that transferring the occupying power’s population to an occupied territory is illegal under international law,” she added.
According to several estimates, around half a million Israeli citizens live in 250 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Last month, a report issued by United Nations Human Rights Council asking Israel to withdraw all settlers -- because they “prevent the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian State" -- was criticized as “biased” and “counterproductive” by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Very few Israelis believe that Jerusalem should be included in any future peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Yishai Fleisher, who hosts a popular radio show, maintains that the right to “Judaize” East Jerusalem is perfectly legitimate.
“I think that dividing this city in two states will not move us forward. We have to talk about one state and this is Israel, which is Jewish,” he said, speaking in his house in the settlement of Ma'aleh Hazaytim in East Jerusalem.“The Arabs, as all minorities here, would have every right to housing, education and health assistance.”
Both Al-Kurd and Fleisher repeated several times that Arabs and Jews are not against each other and that they can live in peace, though the situation on the ground belies their words.
But now, as the legal battles and the neighbor-to-neighbor grudges continue on the ground, the ball is again in the politicians’ court.
All eyes are on the sitting Israeli premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is likely to form a new coalition government with a moderate party, Yesh Atid, which surprised everybody with its performance in last month’s Israeli elections. Yesh Atid's leader, Yair Lapid, has expressed openness to restarting negotations with the Palestinians.
In March, Netanyahu will meet with American President Barack Obama during the latter's official visit to Israel. Expectations are high that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate will try to restart the peace process. And even then, Nabil Al-Kurd and his Jewish neighbors may have to wait for the courts to catch up.