A view of the Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon HaTzadik neighborhood in East Jerusalem. (David Shankbone, Wikimedia CC 2.0)
Jerusalem— At first glance, the sign on the Jerusalem Light Rail system appears to be in Hebrew, Arabic and English. However, on closer examination the Hebrew name is transliterated—but not translated—into English and Arabic.
To get to Sheikh Jarrah—a traditionally Arab and Arabic-speaking neighborhood in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem—you will have to know its Hebrew name, Shimon HaTzadik. The Jewish settler community that has sprouted in Sheikh Jarrah cites the historically significant tomb there of Simeon the Just as a reason to reclaim the area as Jewish land.
As far as Jerusalem Light Rail is concerned, there is no such place as Sheikh Jarrah.
“It’s hard living here,” Saleh Diab, a Palestinian resident, tells me. Diab lives in the heart of Sheikh Jarrah, just down the street from the ruins of the tomb. Across the street from his home, a Palestinian home is now decorated with Israeli flags, signifying its takeover by settlers, who now enjoy the lemon tree the Palestinian family before them was forced to leave behind. Next door to Diab, the front half of another house is occupied by settlers; the back half remains Palestinian. On the hill behind us, a watchtower manned by Israeli security forces surveys the neighborhood, protecting the settler minority from any violence that may occur—but doing little for the Palestinians.
“They’re trying to kick us out,” Diab tells me, pointing to the Jewish settlements that surround his home.
Through the building of settlements and other measures, the Jerusalem municipality has radically changed the demographic makeup of East Jerusalem from being nearly 100 percent Palestinian in 1967, when the occupation began, to only a slight, 58 percent Palestinian majority today.
The struggle for Sheikh Jarrah has been long, bitter and embroiled in unfulfilled promises and shady legal dealings. The neighborhood as it is known today was formed in 1956 by the Jordanian government (which at that time controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees who had fled their homes in 1948. The twenty-eight Palestinian families who moved in say that they were promised the legal title to their homes after three years, but that promise was never fulfilled. Following the Six-Day War of 1967, and further Israeli expansion, Jewish Israelis began eyeing Sheikh Jarrah, citing its proximity to the tomb of Simeon the Just. In 1972 Israel’s Custodian General re-registered the properties to two Jewish trusts, forcing the Palestinian refugees who had been promised ownership to instead pay rent to Israeli landlords.
Since then, four of the original twenty-eight families have been forcibly evicted from their homes. A fifth, the Shamasneh family, has recently faced two eviction orders, both of which have been delayed due to community pressure from Palestinian, Israeli and international activists alike.
“We stand in solidarity with the Shamasneh family, but also with all of Sheikh Jarrah,” Diab says. “We know from experience that at any minute it could be our family.”