I tracked down the house Israel stole from my grandfather

Jalal Abukhater

Jalal Abukhater

Last month, and coinciding with United States President Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem, the Haifa-based Adalah Legal Center released a report detailing how land designated for a planned US embassy was actually owned by Palestinians before it was stolen by Israel following the Nakba of 1948.

The descendants of the original owners include Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian Americans. Adalah, along with these descendants, shared in their report original documents serving as proof of ownership of the property in Jerusalem. The parties have demanded that the Biden administration cancels the plan to build a diplomatic mission on stolen land.

The revelations and the struggle of Palestinians to reclaim their land feel personal to me. They echo a similar battle for our past that my grandfather – and many others – waged.

After 1948, Israel legalised the systematic theft of Palestinian homes and properties in West Jerusalem, in particular through the Absentee Property Law. That 1950 legislation declared Nakba refugees “absentees” even if they were in the eastern part of Jerusalem and allowed the Israeli government’s Custodian of Absentee Property to take over their property.

Back then, the Americans themselves recognised this fact in a cable sent by the US consul general in Jerusalem in December 1948. The consul general wrote to the US secretary of state, stating that Israel was trying to “eliminate” the possibility of Palestinian refugees returning home, in defiance of a United Nations resolution passed earlier that month and supported by the US.

My family was one of the many Palestinian families that were denied the right to our homes in Jerusalem’s west side.

Our oasis

Before Israel, my grandfather owned a house in al-Qatamon, a modern and affluent neighbourhood of Jerusalem, located 2km (1.2 miles) south of the Old City. Established in 1860, Al-Qatamon included 204 Palestinian homes on land that spanned 20 hectares (49 acres). It was established to accommodate middle to upper-class Jerusalemite families who found life within the walls of the Old City too crowded.

The population of the neighbourhood was mainly Muslim and Christian, along with a few foreign families who lived there during the time of the British Mandate. Growing up, Palestinian writer and doctor Ghada Karmi brought al-Qatamon alive for me through her 2002 memoir, In Search of Fatima. In her book, Karmi described her family’s stone house and its garden full of citrus and olive trees. Karmi and her family were forced out of the neighbourhood when she was eight years old, during the Nakba.

Later, I came to hold documents that my grandfather and father had carefully kept, proving the ownership of our house in al-Qatamon. The papers showed that my grandfather had registered the property on April 21, 1939. He had bought it from another Palestinian Jerusalemite family, the Zmourrods.

Everything changed in 1948, following my family’s expulsion to East Jerusalem. My grandfather, though just 1km (0.6 miles) away from al-Qatamon, was suddenly an “absentee” under Israeli law.

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