JERUSALEM – Israeli authorities evicted a Palestinian family from a contested apartment in Jerusalem's Old City on Tuesday, capping a decades-long legal battle that has come to symbolize the conflicting claims to the holy city.
Activists say the Ghaith-Sub Laban family's removal is part of a wider trend of Israeli settlers encroaching on Palestinian neighborhoods with the government's backing and cementing Israeli control by seizing property in contested east Jerusalem.
Israel describes the eviction as a simple battle over real estate, with settlers claiming the family was squatting in an apartment formerly owned by Jews.
Earlier this year, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down the family’s final appeal, ending a 45-year-long legal battle and clearing the way for the eviction.
Police officers came to Nora Ghaith-Sub Laban's apartment in Jerusalem’s Old City early Tuesday morning, forced open the door and removed the family. Her son, Ahmad Sub-Laban, said the family was barred from reentering the premises.
“When we got back in front of the house, we faced the new reality that our main entrance had been closed and we don’t have the right to use it anymore,” he said. “They took the key and changed the lock.”
Several dozen protesters gathered and chanted “Occupation no more” at passersby outside the block of apartments as police stood by. Jewish settlers also gathered outside, dancing and smiling as they stared at the distraught family. Other settlers poured water down on family members from windows above.
Nora Ghaith-Sub Laban, the family matriarch, said she was in the hospital when police arrived. She accused Israel of trying to “ethnically cleanse” the area of Palestinians and vowed to continue fighting the eviction.
“My tears and all my crying is just sadness for losing my home, I’m parting with my entire life and all my memories that are in this house. But I’m not weak,” she said.
But Arieh King, a settler leader and deputy mayor of Jerusalem, said it was a day to celebrate.
“At last after 40 years,” he said. "They should be ashamed for using the property that does not belong to them.”
The family says it moved into the property in the early 1950s and rented it from a “general custodian” for abandoned properties, first under Jordanian authorities and then under Israel after the 1967 Mideast war. The case dragged on for decades, as the Israeli custodian and then the Kollel Galicia trust, the original property owner, contested the family’s “protected” status.
Among the trust's claims was that the family did not use the property for extended periods. The family has said its members moved out for periods due to illness or attempts to repair the property.
Jerusalem's Old City, home to holy sites of three monotheistic faiths, was captured by Israel along with the rest of east Jerusalem during the 1967 war and later annexed in a move unrecognized by most of the international community.
Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinian seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.
Today, more than 220,000 Jews live in east Jerusalem, largely in built-up settlements that Israel regards as neighborhoods of its capital. Most of east Jerusalem’s 350,000 Palestinian residents are crammed into overcrowded neighborhoods where there is little room to build.
The Ghaith-Sub Laban family said authorities did not let them back into the house to recover furniture or medicine for the mother and another son, Rafat. They were only able to grab one item as the authorities forced them out — a plant that has been in the family for 17 years.
“We decided to take it to remember that we lived here, our children grew up here and that we are looking forward to returning to the house,” Ahmad Sub Laban said.
Ahmad and his siblings were evicted from the house in 2016. For now, Nora and her husband, Mustafa, plan to stay with their children until they can find a permanent place to live, Rafat Sub Laban said.
Across the city’s eastern half, particularly in and around the Old City, settler organizations and Jewish trusts are pursuing other court battles against Palestinian families to clear the way for settlers.
An Israeli law passed after the annexation of east Jerusalem allows Jews to reclaim properties that were Jewish before the formation of the Israeli state in 1948. Jordan controlled the area between 1948 and the 1967 war.
There is no equivalent right in Israel for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948.
During British rule over historic Palestine, before the war over Israel’s creation, the Ghaith-Sub Laban apartment was owned by a trust for Kollel Galicia, a group that collected funds in Eastern Europe for Jewish families in Jerusalem. A spokesman for Kollel Galicia declined comment.
A similar dispute that could lead to evictions of Palestinian families in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood stirred tensions that built up to a 2021 war between Israel and the Hamas militant group in Gaza that killed over 250 people.
Nearly 1,000 Palestinians, including 424 children, currently face eviction in east Jerusalem, according to the United Nations humanitarian office.
“I will not stay quiet,” Nora Ghaith-Sub Laban said. “If I find any loophole in the law, I will use it and I will sue them, because this is my right, and this is my home, and this is my land, and this is my country.”
AP correspondent Malak Harb contributed reporting.