November 2009. My friend Ahmad and I, both 11, were riding our bikes home from school when I saw furniture scattered across the length of our street in Sheikh Jarrah, a politically charged neighborhood of occupied Jerusalem. The street overflowed with soldiers. My neighbors were screaming and protesting. As I approached my home, I couldn’t tell who was shoving me or in what direction. Then I saw the police horses—simultaneously terrifying and ridiculous—blocking my doorway. Settlers had invaded our home and taken over half of it. They claimed the front part and left us the rest.
Now, more than a decade later, they’re coming to finish what they started.
This Saturday, November 21, Israeli settlers, backed by police and military, will likely force my family out of our home forever. This fate of dispossession looms over much of my neighborhood. Our lives are consumed by the anxiety of living on the brink of homelessness. As I study thousands of miles away in New York City, my hands feel tied, which traps my fury.
Last month, the Israeli magistrate court of Jerusalem ruled to evict 12 of the 24 Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. The Jaouni, Iskafi, al-Qasim families, and mine are slated for eviction on Saturday; the others, by August. The court also ruled that each family must pay 70,000 shekels (over $20,000) in fees to cover the settlers’ legal expenses. Not only are they arrogating our property; we’re also expected to pay them to do so. We were given 30 days to file an appeal.
The likelihood that our appeal will change the outcome is extremely low. Israeli land-grabbing has been rubber-coated with legislation, making it almost impossible to challenge. Even so, the battle over Sheikh Jarrah is not legal in its essence—it’s political. It is part of the larger systematic effort to Israelize the entirety of Jerusalem.
My family and our neighbors understand this. We know from firsthand experience that the Israeli judicial system is created by and for those who benefit endlessly from Israel’s settler-colonial regime. The Israeli courts have continually prevented us from presenting documents demonstrating ownership of our homes and land, which date back to the 1950s—decades earlier than the claims made by settler organizations.
My community, like most Palestinian communities, is no stranger to dispossession. My grandmother was expelled from Haifa in 1948 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced in the Nakba, the cataclysm of mass expulsion that accompanied Israel’s establishment. She resettled in Jerusalem in 1956 after the United Nations and Jordan built a housing project in Sheikh Jarrah, promising that the 28 refugee families would receive legal title to the property within three years. Those three years passed, then several more. The 1967 war erupted before those titles ever materialized.
Still my grandmother remained. She raised and buried her daughters in Sheikh Jarrah. My parents married in our house. We planted pomegranates, apples, oranges, figs.
Since 1967, several settler organizations, some of which are headquartered in the United States, have relentlessly attempted to take over the neighborhood. On that day in 2009, rifle-wielding settlers, protected by soldiers, took over the homes of the Ghawi and Hannoun families, as well as half of my family’s home. Since then, all that has separated us has been drywall and blankets on a clothesline. The blankets are there to block the settlers from harassing us. They often stand by windows exposing themselves or spitting harshly pronounced Arabic curse words at us. I’ve repeatedly witnessed them beat their dog before unleashing it after us.
One night, settlers threw a television at my grandmother, putting her in a coma. While the ambulance drove off, they made a pit fire out of my baby sister’s crib. My sister, 2 years old at the time, struggled with a panic disorder well into the following decade. Now she’s a sharp 13-year-old grappling with a sobering reality. On FaceTime, she said “thank God” it was her crib, not her, that smoldered in the flames. She was referring to the 2015 attack in Duma in which settlers firebombed a home, murdering 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh and his parents.
This hierarchical distinction between levels of catastrophe is common among Palestinians: if you’re not evicted from your home, it’s demolished; if you’re not imprisoned, you’re shot in the street; if you’re not shot in the street, there’s a drone in your sky in the Gaza Strip; if it’s not a bomb, it’s exile.
At a certain point in every Palestinian’s life, we realize that the Nakba is far from over. It continues every time Israel revokes Jerusalem residencies. It blares in street signs stripped of Arabic. It punctures us in constant campaigns of dehumanization. In a recent TV interview, my father said, “They aren’t evicting us from our homes; they’re evicting us from our humanity.” What we are witnessing in Sheikh Jarrah is Israel’s attempt to erase the Palestinian presence from our native city in real time.
From my room in New York, I’ve been frantically calling my 76-year-old father for updates, and obsessively checking Covid-19 travel restrictions to see if I can make it home. I’m anguished by the possibility of finally arriving in Jerusalem to find my parents trying to survive a global health crisis in a makeshift tent on the street.
I used to bike up that street with Ahmad. We’d sit on two big rocks and dream about the future. Today, Sheikh Jarrah reflects nothing of that future. If the home takeovers are permitted to proceed, we’ll both lose our homes. My neighbors’ kids will be prevented by armed colonizers from biking on their street. My future children may only know their home through perfunctory land acknowledgments, similar to those offered on the Lenape territory I am writing from. I don’t want my only portal to my homeland to be bitter reminiscing. My family, my entire neighborhood, is huddled, waiting for the settlers to knock down the doors.