For 50 years, Sheikh Jarrah (French Hill in Hebrew) in Jerusalem has been home to five Palestinian families.
Now, the Hebrew University is moving to evict them.
Amira Hass reports:
The letters were sent by Asher Rogel & Co. the law firm that represents the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A spectacular garden and colorful trees surround the seven houses where the families live.
Only three dunams (0.75 acres) now, the land plot represents the last remnant of the estate the families owned until 30 years ago.
On January 11, 1968, following a government decision, all the land belonging to the Halaf, Hamdan and Siam families, as well as the two Akal families, was expropriated.
Every structure on the property would be demolished. The land on which the families lived and raised children, the land they cultivated, had been allocated to the Hebrew University, to build student dormitories.
The families refused to vacate the premises, or to negotiate alternative housing arrangements. In the meantime, the Hebrew University began to build around the houses, and around the families who had been crowded into the remaining space.
The French Hill neighborhood expanded as well. Wide roads were built on expropriated land. Students moved in and out of the dorms.
The huge Hyatt hotel was built. Meanwhile, the Palestinian families were confined to the houses, which they were strictly forbidden to enlarge.
From 1968 to 1973, the Hebrew University, the Israel Land Administration and government lawyers tried Various tactics to force the families to leave.
A 1972 letter, sent to the Akal family by a lawyer in the Israel Land Administration, reads, "In light of the expropriation notice as per clauses 5 and 7 of the Land Ordinance of 1943 (requisition on behalf of public need) ...
As regards to compensation, you are entitled to present your claim as per the aforementioned ordinance, insofar as you can establish proof of your rights."
Eventually, the state did turn to the District Court, which ruled that the families had to vacate the property and receive suitable alternative housing. They refused. Perhaps they had learned their lesson in 1948.
They are all refugees from the village of Liftah, west of Jerusalem. Fifty years ago, under the diligent lashing of the Hagana, the Lehi and the National Military Organization, they fled their homes in Liftah and headed eastward to Mount Scopus.
Unlike other refugees, who lost everything, they were lucky enough to own other lands in Sheikh Jarrah. The pain of being exiled was somewhat alleviated by the families' ability to continue living honorably from agricultural and manual labor. The Halaf family learned later that Israel's parliament had been built on land that belonged to them.
Other government buildings were erected on land owned by the wealthy Akal family, which also lost orchards they owned in the area of Sarafend and a house in Deir Yassin (today Givat Shaul).
For nearly 25 years, the government left the five families alone. They assumed this would last. "We thought the Hebrew University decided it was important for the students to experience coexistence with Arabs," one of the family members recalled bitterly last week.
In the late 1960s, expropriations were based on the understanding that people could not be evicted from their homes unless there was a clear public need, like a road.
Back then, it would not have been deemed acceptable to evict people from their home just for the sake of building other housing units.
Why, then, is the Hebrew University suddenly determined to expel the five families who have been living there for 50 years?
Ossana Halabi, a lawyer who represents the families, thinks the move is linked to the imminent expiration of the legal 25-year period of validity set in the eviction court ruling. But the letter of the university's attorneys, Asher Rogel and Oded Bleustein, states another reason:
"The university has been authorized to expand. Therefore, my client requires that the expropriated land be vacated.
" The university, they stress, "is interested in reaching a settlement based on consent which will allow you to vacate the premises in exchange for alternative housing arrangements and/or payment of compensation.
" The families are asked to allow "an immediate review of the property existing on the premises, so as to assess the possibility of arranging for another place of residence..."
The authors of the letter express their regret that the families chose to ignore recent attempts to consult them on ways of reaching a solution.
They warn that if the families refuse to allow experts to assess their property and offer alternative housing within seven days, the only remaining option will be to enforce the eviction through a court order.
Image: pics/14.jpg "We are staying here," said Aisha Akal, 60. "We didn't choose to come here during the war. They kicked us out of Liftah. We were here before them, before the hill and before the French.
And then they started to build more and more, here and there, under us and above us.
You call this a government? A government should take care of people, not evict them."
Her son Nasser can not understand why the university insists on building an expansion to the dormitory complex and a parking lot in that precise location.
"Is a parking lot more important than people?" he asks. "There is a vacant plot near the Hyatt hotel, a three-minute walk from here.
It was expropriated in 1968. Why won't they build the dorms there? Why ruin some people's lives just so they can replace them with other people?"
The families have turned to MK Azmi Bishara (Hadash-Bilad), who immediately wrote to the trustees of the Hebrew University, and sent an urgent appeal to embassies and universities around the world.
"We are morally outraged by the fact that, as an institution which believes in ideals of equality, justice and learning, the Hebrew University has chosen to evict refugees from their homes, only to turn them into refugees for the second time," the letter says.
Last week, the family held a protest in front of the Hyatt hotel, along with Arab students, Jewish human rights activists and Palestinian officials, including Faisal al Husseini, the Palestinian Authority's point man in Jerusalem.
To every demonstrator, Aisha Akal showed the garden, the house where she and her children were raised and the trees she planted. "What?" she cried out in anger and pain. "We have been growing these trees for 50 years, and now the bulldozers will come and destroy our lives?.