House-to-house battle for the cultural memory of Jerusalem

By Jens Hanssen

Khalidi Library

Khalidiyya Library, Occupied Jerusalem, photo provided by author

02.07.2024, published in German in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, URL:

The displacement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem has been progressing for years. Now an Israeli court has ordered the eviction of a property occupied by settlers on the site of a world-renowned library of Islamic manuscripts.

On 27 June 2024 at 5pm, a group of militant Israeli settlers forcibly entered a house at 140 Bab al-Silsila Road (Chain Gate Street) in the Old City of Jerusalem, which has belonged to the Waqf (a religious foundation) of Muhammad Ali al-Khalidi since the nineteenth century and is part of the world-famous Khalidi library complex in the holy city. Founded in 1900, the library houses one of the oldest and largest collections of Islamic manuscripts in Palestinian possession. The last legal document proving the inviolable status of the library was issued by an Israeli court in 2020.

The house had been occupied for decades by a tenant from the Khalidi family. After she died in Amman in March of this year, it was temporarily empty. A group of unknown settlers took advantage of the temporary vacancy to claim ownership in an Israeli court using forged documents. Under the protection of Israeli security forces, they broke open the locks and eleven settlers occupied the house. Although the Waqf administrators and lawyers arrived on site and presented the property deeds to the police, the police refused to take action against the occupiers.

The next day, an Israeli court in Jerusalem called by the Waqf administrators issued a temporary injunction. It ordered that neither the owners nor the settler group were allowed to enter the house until the court heard the case on 30 June to examine the claims and clarify the ownership status. On the afternoon of 28 June, the squatters vacated the site to await the outcome of the court hearing.

Expulsion of Palestinians has a long history

In recent years, there has been an increasing number of settler marches, illegal occupations and evictions in the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. At the beginning of May 2021, for example, right-wing extremist settlers forced their way into a building belonging to the el-Kurdi family in Sheikh Jarrah. This occupation sparked peaceful protests in this East Jerusalem suburb and around the world. Bloody clashes between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis broke out in many towns with mixed populations. After Hamas intervened in the conflict over Jerusalem with a hail of rockets from the Gaza Strip, Israel responded by bombing the Gaza Strip before international diplomacy was able to restore calm on 21 May 2021.

One intention of Hamas’ escalation strategy is that the organisation draws all the attention to itself and accepts that many things will fall from view, including the creeping seizure of Palestinian property in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Old City. This is hardly recognised in Germany either. The settler break-in into the Khalidiyya building last week illustrates the defencelessness of the Palestinian population, which is now unfortunately becoming more and more “normalised” in the Gaza war.

The expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem has a long history: since the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980, more than 200,000 Israeli settlers have taken up illegal residence in East Jerusalem. Huge settlements have separated the West Bank from the city since the 1990s. Israeli authorities have built around

15,000 locals were deprived of their right of residence through flimsy administrative processes. More than 10,000 children of Jerusalemite parents were denied registration because they had stayed outside the city for too long. In addition, more than 90 percent of the city budget goes to Jewish taxpayers; Palestinians are prohibited from renovating, let alone building, on 87 percent of East Jerusalem’s urban area; and only 10 percent of building permits go to Palestinians on average.

Threat from settlers remains

According to international law, all of these measures come close to a forced population transfer. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, one thing is certain: “Jerusalem has only ever been the capital of the Jewish people.” The break-in at the Khalidi building took place in the same week that five settler outposts in the West Bank were legalised. Evictions and dispossessions of Palestinian families and communities had rapidly increased long before 7 October, including in the historic Old City.

This is not the first time that the Khalidi Library has been targeted by settlers. A part of the Muhammad-Ali-Khalidi complex, which overlooks the library, was occupied, expropriated and turned into a yeshiva shortly after the conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967, which Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of the Israeli military, ran until his death in 1994. The house itself is the last remaining privately owned Arab house that borders both the Haram al-Sharif and the plaza at the Wailing Wall.

On 30 June, the Waqf’s legal representatives appeared in court with the documents proving the foundation’s ownership of the property. After examining the settlers’ forged documents, the court recognised the validity of the Foundation’s ownership documents presented to the court. The court authorised the Waqf to repossess and enter the property. After repossessing the property, the Khalidi owners returned personal belongings to the police on site that had been left in the house by the settlers, including volumes of Tora. Two of the settlers involved were identified as Eli Attal and Erez Zakay, with the former linked to earlier seizures of Palestinian properties in the Old City. Neither they nor their legal representatives were present at the court hearing.

As a result, the court set a hearing date in a fortnight, at which the Waqf’s full proof of ownership should be presented for final confirmation. Then, the judge recommended, the foundation could sue the settlers for damages for forcible entry into the property.

Although this case was decided in favour of the Khalidi Library Custodians, the threat of legalized and illegal actions by settlers remains. Even after the judgement of 30 June, numerous settlers continue to stay in front of the house and on the roofs, filming and occasionally knocking on the doors and windows, so there is a risk of break-ins and further illegal actions. It is therefore to be expected that possible further proceedings will be accompanied by raids, intimidation or new attempts to confiscate the library’s property in this hotspot area of the old town.

Jens Hanssen is Director of the Orient Institute Beirut, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Khalidiyya Library, Occupied Jerusalem.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
khatibsami (July 4, 2024). House-to-house battle for the cultural memory of Jerusalem. OIB_upclose. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

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