JERUSALEM — Israeli police evicted two Palestinian families from their homes on Wednesday to make way for a new school in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem where previous attempts to evict other Palestinians stirred tensions that built up to the war last year between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group in Gaza.
Following a standoff, police evicted two branches of the Salhiye family during a pre-dawn raid and detained several family members. State employees later demolished their homes and other nearby structures, which the Jerusalem municipality had expropriated in 2017.
A senior official of Hamas, which had previously threatened to respond violently to any further evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, called for a new Palestinian uprising, Palestinian media reported. Other Palestinians vented their anger at the evictions online.
Israeli officials said the expropriation and evictions were necessary to make way for building a school for Jewish and Arab students with learning difficulties.
But the Salhiye family and rights campaigners said the eviction was part of a more general attempt to force Palestinians from East Jerusalem, and questioned why the school could not have been built on nearby land designated for a Jewish seminary.
“They are definitely trying to Judaize the neighborhood,” said Lital Salhiye, 43, an Israeli who married into the Salhiye family in 1998.
Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 and later annexed it. The country considers all of Jerusalem its undivided capital. But most East Jerusalem residents are Palestinians who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state, and the United Nations Security Council has deemed it occupied territory.
Evictions and demolitions are a regular part of Palestinian life in East Jerusalem, and are seen by Palestinians as an attempt to squeeze them out of the city and ensure Israel’s long-term control over East Jerusalem.
The city administration denies this, claiming instead that it has made it simpler for Palestinians to build.
“If we wanted to kick them all out,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, “why did we pass a law three years ago to make it easier for East Jerusalemites to get permits to build?”
The evictions on Wednesday were at least the 10th instance of eviction or demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem since the start of the year, and one of more than 1,000 evictions or demolitions since the start of 2016, according to the United Nations. Because it is difficult for Palestinians to obtain planning permits — a U.N. assessment called it “virtually impossible” — many build homes without authorization, leading to their demolition.
Most evictions go unreported, but cases in Sheikh Jarrah attract special attention because of the role that the district played in the buildup to last year’s war.
Historically, Sheikh Jarrah was mainly populated by Arabs, but it also houses a Jewish shrine and was home to a Jewish community that fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Nearly 30 Palestinian families, themselves displaced during the 1948 war, moved in the 1950s to the land on which the Jewish community had lived. After Israel captured the land in 1967, Israeli groups spent decades attempting to evict them.
Unsuccessful efforts to evict six of the Palestinian families in May 2021 generated an unusually strong reaction from Palestinians, and were among the reasons cited by Hamas to justify firing the rocket barrage that started last year’s war.
The predicament of many families in Sheikh Jarrah has a strong resonance for most Palestinians.
The Israeli groups pursuing their eviction are led by settlers who mostly did not live on the plots before 1948, but instead bought the land from the original Jewish owners.
The settlers use a 1970 law to attempt to evict Palestinians, who cannot use that same law to reclaim the homes in Israel that they lost in 1948, because the legislation only applies to property seized that year by Jordan, not Israel. Other legislation exists under which Palestinian residents of Israel can, in theory, apply to reclaim their land, but in practice that has succeeded in only exceptional cases.
The Salhiye family says it was also displaced from another part of Jerusalem that became Israel in 1948, but their situation differs slightly from that of the families under threat elsewhere in the neighborhood.
First, it is the Jerusalem municipality that has expropriated the land and evicted the family, not a settler group. Second, the Salhiye family is also accused by other East Jerusalem residents of stealing the land from a fellow Palestinian in the 1990s.
Sami Abu Dayyeh, a prominent hotelier, and his lawyer, Elias Khoury, a well-known rights attorney, said the land has been owned since the 1960s by a company later bought by Mr. Abu Dayyeh. Prior to the expropriation by the Jerusalem municipality, Mr. Abu Dayyeh had attempted to evict the Salhiye family to build a hotel.
The Salhiye family deny the claim and say they had lived on the land since before Israel captured it, buying it outright in early 1967.
But Mr. Abu Dayyeh and the Salhiye family both see the municipal expropriation of the land as part of a wider Israeli effort to undermine the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem.
“The decision is political and complies with the aggressive government policy in Jerusalem to evict Arabs from their properties and to create political facts on the ground,” Mr. Khoury said in a statement.
But the Jerusalem municipality said it simply wanted to build a new school for the benefit of all citizens.
“These illegal buildings had been preventing the construction of a school which can benefit the children of the entire Sheikh Jarrah community,” the municipality said in a statement distributed by the Israeli prime minister’s office.