Half a century in Sheikh Jarrah: my friendship with a Palestinian facing expulsion

Mohammed al-Sabbagh in Sheikh Jarrah (WCC-EAPPI)

Tom Rogers

Mondoweiss  /  July 12, 2021

Meet Mohammed al-Sabbagh, a sprightly Palestinian plumber in his early 70s who has lived in Sheikh Jarrah since 1956. Today he has become an unofficial spokesperson for one of the most contentious flashpoints in Palestine.

According to Mohammed al-Sabbagh, a sprightly 72-year-old Palestinian plumber who has become an unofficial spokesperson for one of the most contentious neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. His block used to be one of the quietest streets in the city. Not so much anymore. 

Sheikh Jarrah, where Mohammed, has lived since 1956, is today a flashpoint for protests over Palestinians expelled by Israeli settlers. Four families will have their last appeal in Israel’s high court in August. While tensions have flared for a decade, in the spring a series of court decisions to remove families reignited frustrations that date back to Israel’s founding years.

In February I joined the demonstrations and Mohammed and I became friends. You could say we clicked. I also live in Jerusalem and am a caregiver for older people, allowing us to especially bond. The fact that he needs help to save his home strongly resonated with me. 

The neighborhood has for some years been heavily patrolled by the Israeli police. A stench of “skunk” (a putrid-smelling liquid sprayed from a police water cannon during protests) is everywhere. The residents have to breathe in this foulness, a mimic of horse manure and old socks. The last two months it was a prison with checkpoints blocking visitors from entering the area. The barriers were removed at the end of June and less than a week later, re-erected inside the neighborhood. This further restricted the amount of space Palestinians have to move around.  

I have seen police use violence on residents during demonstrations. When driving, I have seen harassment on the sidewalks. I worry so much about my friend. In one of our later conversations, he spoke to me with such determination. I have seen this expression so often in the face of so many of the oldest residents who know they have reached the end of this road. Sometimes, I feel as though I am documenting the end of a life and the end of a neighborhood. 

The toll on Mohammed’s body is obvious. Since the start of the year, he has lost weight. Indeed, many people in the neighborhood are older. Most of the residents under threat of removal moved in during the 1950s. 

The story of how they ended up here begins on the coast of the Mediterranean in 1948. Mohammed spoke with a fondness for his family’s old property in the seaside city of Jaffa. Like many Palestinians from that region, the family was quite wealthy until they lost their orange orchards.  He laughed when I once remarked that my U.S. Army mess hall in Germany served Jaffa oranges. 

His family’s dispossession happened when they fled to Jerusalem during the 1948 war that surrounded Israel’s independence, or what Palestinians called the Nakba. At the end of hostilities, they found themselves on the Jordanian side of the ceasefire line, refugees, and barred from re-entry by the newly formed state of Israel. Their home, their groves, all confiscated by the young state. 

Mohammed told me he used to visit the old homestead yearly in Jaffa. But that had to stop when a militarized fence was erected in April 2020. Now he can only get about 50 feet from the front door of his old family house. 

In 1956, the then homeless Al-Sabbagh family and 27 others in East Jerusalem reached a housing agreement with the Jordanian government and the United Nations. He said the deal entailed the Palestinians would give up their refugee status, in exchange the UN would provide funds to construct houses on land owned by the Jordanian government. When extensions were later added to the homes, permitting fees went to Jordan. The Jordanian government was supposed to turn over deeds to the houses to the Palestinian families in 1959, but that never happened.  

Then the borders changed on the Al-Sabbagh family once again. 

In 1967 Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. A few years late in 1970, Israel passed a law that said Israeli who held deeds for lands the Jordanian government took ownership over between 1948 and 1967, could file petitions to get that land back. Palestinians, like the Al-Sabbagh family who had land in Jaffa, were not granted the same privileges and his family estate was officially lost for good. 

According to Mohammed, the current issue of displacement started in 1972 when the Sephardic Committee and then the Settlements Association (a block of the original Jewish property associations in the neighborhood before 1948), represented now by Ateret Cohanim, sought the land where his house was built. They said it was purchased by Jewish owners in 1885, during the Ottoman Empire. 

Ateret Cohanim, the plaintiff Mohammed’s current legal case to stay in his house, is an organization that seeks to demographically shift East Jerusalem from a Palestinian area to a Jewish area. Predominantly funded by American donors, they have a messianic vision to take ownership of land and homes in Palestinian regions. They began this process in the late 1970s in the Muslim Quarter in the Old City. Over the decades, they have been entangled in allegations of fraudulent documents to hasten the removal of Palestinians. 

Complicating matters, when the Al-Sabbaghs and the other families in Sheikh Jarrah asked the Jordanian government to turn over the deeds, the Jordanians said they gave the original paperwork to the Palestinian Authority. Yet the PA said they do not have the originals. What’s more, in 2010 a Palestinian cartographer found the Israeli government determined in 1968 that it should uphold the agreement between Jordan and the UN. Yet, Israeli courts have not upheld that decision or looked into disputed records about the original Ottoman-era deeds. 

Mohammed was brought to court for the first time in 1982. Settlers filed a case against 24 families in the neighborhood, of whom 17 were assigned representation to a defense attorney named Tosia Cohen. In 1991 Cohen signed an agreement with the setter group classifying the Palestinian families as tenets, the settlers as owners. He also negotiated a rental payment. Mohammed and the other families say Cohen signed the deal without consulting them and acted outside of their interest. They would have never agreed to be tenets in homes they built. 

Mohammed fought the contract in court and lost. His first eviction order was for January 3, 2019. Then on November 3, 2020, an Israeli judge froze the eviction order. In total, his family has already paid out 100,000 NIS in court.

Mohammed and his neighbors tell me they call this process an “ongoing Nakba.”

Mohammed told me a few weeks ago he is living on borrowed time. He fears another expulsion date is around the corner. His case has not been bumped up to Israel’s high court, like other families in the neighborhood. This means he has a little more time before a final decision comes. I asked Mohammed what he would do if there was another order to remove him and his family? He said that they were going nowhere. He would live on the street in front of his house.  This is truly a bitter fruit to swallow.

Tom Rogers is a former community college adjunct professor, U.S. Army intelligence analyst and officer, and a caregiver; he currently lives in Jerusalem