lthough Maher Hannoun was born in his house in Sheikh Jarrah, over the past two and a half months he has had to get used to living there all over again. Hannoun's family, along with two other families from the neighborhood were evicted from their houses by court order in April 2002 and for the past four years they have observed their property from afar, hoping that one day they would be able to return. They did return recently, but no one knows how long they will stay. The dispute over the land in Sheikh Jarrah has engaged activists and the courts for more than 20 years now, and it seems that with each year and with each further judicial appeal, the issue becomes more and more complex. Prior to 1948, Jews and Arabs lived in the region, but the Jews were forced to flee when the Jordanians took over the area during the War of Independence. Then, according to attorney Husni Abu-Hussein, "After the war of 1948 the [Arab] refugees from Jerusalem came to live there. The Jordanian government and the UNRWA worked out a rent agreement for the people, according to which they paid a symbolic rent for the land and built their houses here." The area was under Jordanian sovereignty and until 1967, the arrangement continued. But in 1967, Israel took over east Jerusalem, and the first questions of ownership began to appear. In accordance with Israeli law regarding abandoned property, the area was placed under the guardianship of the state. It was subsequently released to its assumed owners, two religious trusts, the Sephardi Ethnic Committee and the General Committee of the Jewish People, in September 1972. An addition, some 15 years ago, after years of debate, the Supreme Court awarded the 28 Arab families that had been housed there by the Jordanian government the status of "protected residents," although their request for ownership of the land was rejected. The neighborhood, with its stunning views to the Old City and the east, is best-known to most Israelis because it was the site of the infamous massacre of a medical convoy to Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus in 1948, in which 78 Jews were killed. Yet like most areas of Jerusalem, the now densely-populated Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood has been built atop ancient relics and ruins dating back more than 2000 years. Particularly significant is an ancient cave, believed by many historians to be the grave site of Shimon Hatzadik, one of the earliest and most famous high priests of the Second Temple. Since 1967, the Shimon Hatzadik Association, dedicated to reclaiming Jewish land and property in east Jerusalem, has established a strong presence in what they refer to as the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood. Activists have taken over some seven buildings housing some 40 people, in addition to establishing a yeshiva with approximately 50 young yeshiva students. The association also claims ownership of a complex of four or five buildings across from one of their compounds, and these buildings are the subject of the legal proceedings. According to the association, 17 dunams in the neighborhood were purchased by an American company, known as Nahalat Shimon International, which has prepared plans for the construction of some 160 housing units. But the Sephardi Ethnic Council and the General Committee of the Jewish People have also been trying to prove their ownership on this land for over 20 years. The area is strategically and symbolically important. Strategically, some Jewish groups see this as an important area for Jewish settlement in order to prevent the creation of Arab contiguity in east Jerusalem. Symbolically, this is an ancient Jewish place of residence and worship. "There are ancient Jewish caves in this neighborhood and the Jews lived there for hundreds of years. We have papers and proof for this, says Israel Zakai, director of the Sephardi Ethnic Committee. "Shimon Hatzadik is buried there, so the territory definitely does not belong to Islam." But according to attorney Abu-Hussein, the land in fact belongs to Hijazi family from Shuafat, who, he says, owned this land before the Jordanian rule in Jerusalem. In July 2006 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is impossible to decide who in fact owns the disputed land in Sheikh Jarrah. The matter has now been referred back to the district court, which is expected to give its ruling by the end of the calendar year. Says Abu-Hussein, "When the issue is this complicated and the ownership on the land is impossible to be ascertain for sure, it is the duty of a clerk appointed by the court to find out all details as all the parties who claim ownership present their case to him. But since the court hasn't decided that the land belongs to tbe Sephardi Ethnic Committee or the General Committee of the Jewish People, and since these two associations have already sold their properties to another party, apparently related to Irwin Moskowitz [an American Jewish businessman well-known for buying up properties in east Jerusalem for settler groups], the home owners, such as the Maher Hannoun family, have returned to their homes." Zakai, a former MK from the Labor party, says that he has no problem "if the people of the neighborhood come back to their houses legally. But if this decision of theirs is not supported by the courts, then they will be evicted by the police again. The legal issues are very complicated, and we do have evidence that other parties have forged some documents in the process. We are waiting for the court's final ruling." Says a source close to Nahalat Shimon International, who spoke to In Jerusalem on condition of anonymity, "Our legal case is solid. But this is not merely a legal matter. Jews have always lived here, and we are now redeeming this area. We are rebuilding the synagogues and institutions that Jews maintained here. We will hear Hebrew and listen to Jewish children play here again. The courts must understand this." As for Maher Hannoun, caught in the middle of a generation-old legal battle, he says that for now, he is just happy to be in his own home. "I was born in this house and all my children were born in this house," he says. "And then we had to leave the property and go to live with our relatives nearby. Today I feel like a fish that has come back into the water." Hannoun says that he remembers that when he was a small child, Jews would come to pray at the grave of Shimon Hatzadik and that they were never harassed or disturbed. "The Jews say that this particular grave is the grave or a saint or a holy man. We don't have any problem with that - let them come to pray as their hearts desire. Jerusalem is the city of three monotheistic religions, and we should all know better how to get by with one another." He points out that in Tel Aviv, Muslims are free to pray in the Hassen Bak mosque, which is close to the hotels and the seashore promenade. "The Muslims come, they pray and they leave - it doesn't mean that this land belongs to them. The same is true with the Shimon Hatzadik grave. Let the Jews come and pray, but don't let them take the land we live in and the houses we were born in!" He expresses hope that in any case, whether the court will determine that the Hijazi family or the Sephardi Ethnic Committee have rights to the land, he and other families of Sheikh Jarrah will be permitted to stay in their houses. "During the Jordanian times we used to pay a symbolic fee for the rental of the land - five grushim. I hope that we can work out an agreement with whatever party wins this case and come back to the normal life we all cherish."

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