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.”

Even without imminent eviction notices, Palestinian inhabitants routinely face settler violence and harassment. Diab tells me his car has been vandalized on two occasions, and hateful graffiti is commonly sprayed over neighborhood murals. One time a settler waved his machine gun and threatened to massacre the entire neighborhood.

Diab, who has installed three cameras outside his neighbor’s home, has vast photographic evidence of settler violence, but all his reports to the police have been dismissed. This is common problem of the occupation; according to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, less than 9 percent of investigations into settler violence conducted by the Israeli police in the West Bank result in indictments. Meanwhile, in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israeli security forces frequently carry out unannounced night raids, ransacking Palestinian homes and arresting family members without cause. Diab himself has been arrested eight times. “Jail is like a second home to me,” he says. It’s hard not to see the harassment as part of a strategy to drive Palestinians off their land.

The neighborhood’s appeal for Israel’s Jewish population extends beyond the tomb of Simeon the Just. Located between the historic Old City and Mount Scopus, Sheikh Jarrah is also home to several consulates and headquarters of international organizations, serving both the municipal and the international interests of the community. A Jewish Sheikh Jarrah—or Shimon HaTzadik—would further cement the Judaization of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem itself as the undisputed capital of Israel.

“Sheikh Jarrah is the key to Jerusalem,” Diab says. “First it is Sheikh Jarrah. Then it is Wadi Joz, Issawiya, Al Sawana, A-Tur, Silwan…” he continues, naming the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem being encroached upon by Jewish settlements. “Finally, it’s the Old City and then lastly, Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

* * *

On the other side of the highly coveted “Holy Basin,” the traditionally Arab neighborhoods that cradle the Old City, lies Silwan, another battleground between Palestinian residents and Jewish settlers. Like Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan is the site of frequent settler violence against Palestinians.

“I used to be a photographer, running around taking pictures of the demonstrations in Silwan,” Ahmad Qara’een, a resident, tells me. However, in 2009, he was shot in both legs by a settler. Now he moves slowly, with two crutches and a prosthetic leg. Even though the settler was arrested after the assault—an attempted murder, in Qara’een’s eyes—he was held for only two hours and then released without charge.

The Israeli government has a $19.2 million budget (70 million shekels) for settler security in East Jerusalem alone. If Palestinians engage settlers in conversation, they risk arrest, but settlers—who freely walk the street with machine guns— almost always avoid prosecution if they open fire on Palestinians. This extreme legal impunity has been standard since the occupation began. “In Silwan, we call the settlers the militia,” Qara’een tells me.

Just south of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Silwan is the site of a major Jewish tourist attraction—the City of David—thought to be the archeological ruins of the oldest neighborhood of Jerusalem. It attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. The Palestinians of Silwan used to profit from the tourism, but in 1997 the Israel Land Administration signed an authorization contract with the private right-wing settler organization Elad, giving it complete control of the site, which had been a public park. Qara’een tells me that with this shift, many Palestinians lost their jobs, as their shops were closed and replaced with settler businesses. Many more Palestinians lost their homes, as the site expanded from a modest museum to an archeological park, complete with tunnels drilled beneath Palestinian homes, shaking their foundations and causing some to collapse.  

More recently, homes have been slated for demolition to make way for a multi-story Jewish cultural center that will be the last stop on the City of David tour. The plan is for the tour to start at the Visitors Center, continue through the tunnels drilled under Palestinian homes and end at the new Kedem Center—all the while oblivious to the story of the Palestinians just above them.

There are only 400 Jewish settlers now living in Silwan—compared to 30,000 Palestinians—but Elad has shaped the neighborhood to serve this tiny minority. While there are multiple educational options for settlers, there is only one Palestinian high school. Palestinian parents who can afford to send their kids away to private schools, but many are unable to attend any kind of school. According to Qara’een, when Palestinians throw stones at soldiers and settlers—a frequent occurrence in Silwan—anyone present, regardless of age or involvement, is liable to be arrested and interrogated, even children. Meanwhile, Qara’een says he frequently sees Israeli police encourage settler children to throw stones at Palestinians.

“We are optimistic that this occupation cannot last forever,” Qara’een tells me unexpectedly, cracking a smile for the first time after recounting the story of Silwan. “Palestine has gone through many occupations. First it was the Romans, then the Byzantines and Ottomans, then the British. Now it’s Israel—and they too will go.”

He sits back in his chair and lights a cigarette.  “No matter how bad it gets, we will not leave. It is our dream to die on our land.”