Palestinian family threatens to self-immolate during Jerusalem eviction

The two homes, one owned by Mahmoud Salhia and the other by his sister Amal, are part of two separate lawsuits before The Jerusalem District Court.

 Palestinians with gas cylinders stand on a rooftop of a house being evacuated by Israeli special forces in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. January 17, 2022. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Palestinians with gas cylinders stand on a rooftop of a house being evacuated by Israeli special forces in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. January 17, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Members of the Salhia family threatened to set themselves on fire to prevent police from forcibly evicting them from their east Jerusalem home. A daylong stand-off with security forces ended without the razing of the building.

The Jerusalem Municipality on Monday destroyed the plant nursery the family had run as well as two storage structures on the property that the city held to have been illegally constructed. Once the police left, the family climbed down from the roof.

The family is in the midst of a protracted legal battle with the Jerusalem Municipality over the fate of two homes on property the city has appropriated for the construction of a school in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

The dramatic events captured the attention of the international community and the Palestinian Authority, which believes that Israel’s crackdown on illegal Palestinian structures is part of a larger policy of evicting Palestinian residents of the city in favor of Jewish ones.

The family had initially climbed onto the roof out of the understanding that their home itself was in danger.

 Israeli special forces at the evacuation of the home of a Palestinian family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where young Palestinians are standing with gas cylinders on the rooftop. January 17, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Israeli special forces at the evacuation of the home of a Palestinian family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where young Palestinians are standing with gas cylinders on the rooftop. January 17, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“I will burn the house and everything in it, I will not leave here, from here to the grave, because there is no life, no dignity,” Mahmoud Salhiah said in the morning as he stood on the roof of the building surrounded by gas canisters.

“I’ve been in battle with them for 25 years. They sent me settlers who offered to buy the house and I did not agree.”

A delegation of European officials, led by European Union representative Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, visited the scene and called for a restoration of calm.

“[It is] imperative to deescalate the situation and seek a peaceful resolution. Evictions/demolitions are illegal under international law and significantly undermine the prospects for peace as well as fuel tensions on the ground,” the European Union Representative’s Office tweeted.

Dutch Ambassador to Israel Hans Docter tweeted, “Ongoing attempt to evict a Palestinian family from their East Jerusalem home is contrary to international law and risks further escalation.”

He called on “the Israeli authorities to stop the eviction immediately.”

Ireland’s Representative Office to the Palestinians said, “Such evictions and demolitions are illegal under international humanitarian law and threaten to escalate tensions and conflict in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

The British Consulate in Jerusalem, which is near the disputed site, tweeted, “Evictions in Occupied Territory are against international humanitarian law in all but the most exceptional circumstances. The UK urges the Government of Israel to cease such practices which only serve to increase tensions on the ground.”

A senior Foreign Ministry official said the property would be used for an Arab school and that European diplomats have a “Pavlovian instinct to attack Israel without knowing the facts. Europe calls on Israel to do things to help Arabs in east Jerusalem, and then attacks Israel when it tries to build schools for Arab residents,” the official lamented.

“The Foreign Ministry sees their reactions as detached from reality and showing a lack of understanding,” the official said. “The ambassadors that attacked Israel today were confused. Instead of protecting the residents, they’re protecting criminals.”

PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s office called on the Biden administration to intervene.

The PA said the decision to “evict” the Salhia family from their home in Sheikh Jarrah “falls within the framework of forced displacement that contravenes international and humanitarian law.”

The PA called for “immediate and urgent international intervention to provide international protection for the Palestinian people and restrain” Israel.

The PA warned that Israel’s measures in Sheikh Jarrah might be “a prelude to a process of forced displacement that affects dozens of Palestinian families in east Jerusalem. It also warned that these measures would push matters toward escalation and held the Israeli government solely responsible.

“The Palestinian presidency calls on the international community, especially the US, to take immediate and urgent action to stop the Israeli escalation and implement the resolutions of international legitimacy, foremost of which is the criminalization and prevention of the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homes,” read a statement issued by the PA on Monday evening.

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev (Labor) tweeted that he was closely “following the situation in Sheikh Jarrah” and that the court had ruled that the family of Mahmoud Salhia had no legal right to the property.

“The court ruled that this was an illegal invasion,” Bar Lev said.

“The area is intended for the establishment of classrooms and kindergartens for special education that are for the benefit of the neighborhood’s Arab children.

“It is impossible to hold the stick at both ends – both to demand that the municipality act for the welfare of the Arab residents, and also to oppose the construction of educational institutions for their welfare,” Bar Lev said.

His representative provided The Jerusalem Post with a plan for the school. He added that police had come to demolish the plant nursery that the family runs, and not the home itself.

Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum tweeted that "this is a municipal dispute between the city and a family that built on public land zoned for a special needs school for the Arab residents of the city.  This dispute has been in court for a number of years and the courts have adjudicated that the house was built illegally.

"The illegal commandeering of public spaces harms first of all the residents of the neighborhood. In this area we will be building, 6 kindergartens and a school with 18 classrooms all designed for children with special needs and are intended to serve East Jerusalem residents," Hassan-Nahoum wrote.

"The municipality tried to prevent this situation and time and again agreed to extensions, met with the family  and tried to reach a peaceful resolution. Like in any city, building and planning laws have to be enforced as any jurisdiction would in the same circumstances," she added.

The municipality said that the school was centrally located to service Arab students from area neighborhoods to allow for the "maximum convenience for parents and students."

"The family's illegal takeover of public space prevents hundreds of children with special needs from the area from receiving a basic educational service that the municipality seeks to provide," the municipality said.

"The family members have been given countless opportunities to hand over the land with consent, but they refused to do so, even after extensions, meetings and repeated attempts by the Jerusalem municipality," it added.

The left-wing NGO Ir Amim said the issue was still in court.

The two homes, one where Mahmoud resides and the other where his sister Amal lives, are part of two separate lawsuits before the Jerusalem District Court, which rejected the suit of Mahmoud’s family while still adjudicating Amal’s case, according to the left-wing NGO Ir Amim.

Mahmoud’s family has appealed the ruling and has asked to link both cases. The court has told the municipality to respond to the appeal by January 19 and has set a court hearing for January 23, according to Ir Amim.

The eviction order against Mahmoud’s home, however, has remained in place even as the legal proceedings are ongoing, the NGO said.

It argued that the municipality planned to allow the property to be used for the construction of a Jewish religious seminary.

Hagit Ofran of Peace Now said there was enough space on the property for both the homes and a school. The presence of the homes has not interfered with construction plans for the school, she explained.

MK Ofer Cassif (Joint List) said the issue had nothing to do with the construction of a school.

“This is about a policy of ethnic cleansing... This is what occupation and apartheid looks like.”

The Salhia family fled the west Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem during the 1948 War of Independence and settled in Sheikh Jarrah in the eastern part of the city, which was under Jordanian rule for 19 years. Israel annexed the eastern part of the city from Jordan after the Six-Day War of 1967.

Reuters contributed to this report.