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East Jerusalem house is a home divided

An Israeli court has let Jewish settlers live in the front of a house Palestinians have lived in for half a century. The close quarters make for constant tensions and frequent police intervention.

March 29, 2010|By Edmund Sanders
  • Nabil Kurd stands in front of the house in Sheik Jarrah where his family has lived since 1956. Now, after a court ruling they must share the house with Israelis, who live in the front half. They fear they will be evicted soon, as were other Palestinian families in the area.
Nabil Kurd stands in front of the house in Sheik Jarrah where his family has… (Edmund Sanders / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Jerusalem — A tiny brick house. A disputed neighborhood. And a Solomon-style court ruling that has placed two sets of strangers -- with nothing in common but hatred -- under the same flat roof.

Since December, Israelis have resided in the front part of a house where Palestinians have long lived. All that separates them is a bedroom wall, a sealed door and, lately, the police, who visit regularly to break up the fights.

The Jewish occupants accuse the Palestinians of throwing rocks through the windows and wielding sticks. The Palestinians say the Israelis brandish rifles and pepper spray when the police aren't around.

Even in a city like Jerusalem, where people of different faiths have lived side by side, often uncomfortably, for millenniums, the battle of wills and square footage at House No. 13 Othman Ibn Afan frames the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in almost unbearable close-up.

"We can never relax," said Nabil Kurd, 65, head of the Palestinian family that has lived in the home since it was built in 1956. "Every time I pass them, I just want to cry."

No comment, say the Jewish settlers, who were recently given the key to the front rooms by a Jerusalem district court.

Since then, decades of bad blood have played out daily on the front lawn of the run-down house, where the feuding inhabitants are so close to each other that they can hear sneezes on the other side of the wall, smell what's cooking and brush shoulders at the front gate.

Several times, the tensions have exploded into fistfights and brawls. But most days the residents try to keep enough distance to stay out of spitting range. Cursing is so commonplace that one of the first words the Kurds' 2-year-old learned was the Hebrew word for "trash," something both sides shout at each other.

Even when there's no physical confrontation, the residents, like rival siblings, have mastered the little ways to needle and provoke. Blue-and-white Israeli flags have been hoisted on the roof of the Jewish side. The new inhabitants make obscene gestures at the Palestinian women, calling to them as though they were dogs, and taunt the children with laser pointers, the Kurds say. "They call my 87-year-old mother a whore," Kurd said.

The Palestinians give as good as they get. They cut off the water supply to the front part of the house, and Kurd's boys beat on pots and pans to disturb their sleeping Israeli housemates, the parents acknowledge.

Palestinian women line chairs along the front walkway, forcing the Israelis to pass through a gantlet of cold stares and curses to reach their door.

Police, who respond to complaints from the street on average every other day, say it's a miracle no one has been killed or seriously hurt. "The close proximity between the two is causing friction and tension on a daily basis," said Jerusalem police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

The fighting is equally intense in the courts, where lawsuits over who owns the land have wended their way to Israel's Supreme Court more than once. The litigation centers on Jewish claims that the Palestinians are illegal squatters and Palestinian allegations that Jewish deeds to the land were falsified.

For centuries, the property in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem contained nothing but olive trees and the ancient Jewish tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, a high priest who is said to have persuaded Alexander the Great not to destroy the Second Temple.

In the late 1800s, a couple of dozen Jewish immigrant families settled into temporary homes built by a Jewish group whose leaders say their organization bought the property around 1875. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Jewish residents fled when the area came under Jordanian control.

The Kurds were among 28 Palestinian refugee families relocated to the neighborhood in 1956 by the United Nations and the Jordanian government. In exchange for turning in their U.N. ration cards, the Kurds, who had fled their home and business in Haifa, say they were promised title to the newly built home. But before any titles were given, Israel took control of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War.

Jewish groups, asserting previous ownership of the land, moved to evict the Palestinians. The Jewish title has been transferred to a company that says it wants to build 250 Jewish homes on the site. An attorney for the firm, Nahalat Shimon Ltd., declined to comment.

To date, Israeli courts have upheld the Jewish claims and granted eviction orders against several Palestinian families who, during the last two years, have been forcibly removed from their homes. The Kurd family appears to be next, their attorney said.

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