JERUSALEM -- Israeli police evicted Palestinian families from two homes in East Jerusalem on Wednesday, clearing the way for Jewish residents to take over and creating a potential new flash point in the city's long-running battle for control over disputed neighborhoods.
The evictions of about 13 Palestinians, who last month lost their court case to retain the property, gives Jewish settlement groups their first foothold in the vast neighborhood of Beit Hanina, one of the holy city’s largest Arab communities.
The takeover is reminiscent of nearby Sheikh Jarrah, another East Jerusalem neighborhood where a handful of heavily protected Jewish families now live in the predominantly Palestinian community. Critics accuse the Jewish groups of seeking to “Judaize” East Jerusalem in order to make it more difficult for Palestinians to one day claim the area for the state they seek to establish.
The new Jewish owners of the Beit Hanina homes said they planned to eventually demolish the structures -- along with several adjacent buildings they claim to have purchased -- and build a Jewish community with more than 100 apartments.
“These people were squatting illegally on property that did not belong to them," said Arieh King, director of Israel Land Fund, which helps facilitate Jewish development and expansion in East Jerusalem. He said he represents the owner, whose identity has not been disclosed.
“Arabs can live everywhere they want in Jerusalem and I believe they will let us live anywhere, too,” King said Wednesday as he waited for new Jewish occupants to move in. “I don’t expect there will be any conflict.”
He said some Arab neighbors expressed happiness at the arrival of Jewish residents, believing they will bring improved security and infrastructure. But former occupant Khaled Natche, 48, said his family purchased the property in 1955, when Beit Hanina was under Jordanian control. He accused King’s client of forging purchase documents.
After a legal battle that began in 2005, an Israeli court rejected the family’s claim and ordered Natche to pay penalties of more than $35,000 to King’s client.
“They are killing us and then forcing us to pay for it, too," Natche said. “The courts are racist and we knew what the decision would be from the start.”
Palestinians complain that Israeli law permits Jewish claimants to sue for the return of East Jerusalem property they lost after the 1948 war, but prevents Arabs from pressing similar claims for homes they lost in West Jerusalem.
Natche said police arrived Wednesday morning while he was at his attorney’s office and forced his wife and children into the street. Police confiscated the family’s furnishings, clothing and other belongings. When he returned to the home, police arrested Natche and held him briefly.
His attorney said the family plans to appeal the eviction and hopes to block any attempts to develop the land.
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: Protected by Israeli police and soldiers, Israeli Jewish settlers move into the East Jerusalem home of Khaled Natche, a Palestinian whose family was forced to hand it over to the settlers after a court battle. Credit: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP/Getty Images