Valery Bisharat lives the life of a young New Yorker, like many of her peers. “My roots are the difference between me and other young people in the U.S.,” she says. “My family is of Palestinian descent, from Jerusalem, and I think I carry the history of that land inside me.”
That’s why in 2016, soon after graduating from high school, Valery decided to visit “that land” she had heard so much about from her grandfather. One of those who encouraged her was her father, George, a musician and political commentator on the Middle East.
“I longed to go to the villa built by my great-grandfather, Hanna Bisharat, a magnificent building – they call it the Villa Harun ar Rashid – which I had only been able to admire in photos. It was confiscated from my family by the Israeli authorities after 1948, and I was curious to meet the people who lived there.”
When she arrived in Jerusalem, Valery found Giselle Arazi, a 96-year-old Jew, living in her great-grandfather’s villa on Markus Street in the residential district of Talbiye. Director Sahera Dirbas tells the story of the encounter between them in her documentary On the Doorstep. The story doesn’t have a happy ending.
After the first friendly talks, the elderly woman decided to no longer speak to the young Palestinian woman, who was asking many questions and wanted to see the villa taken from her grandfather by the Israeli authorities. The film ends with Valery writing a letter to Giselle in which she describes her disappointment at being shut out and left outside, on the doorstep.
Thousands of properties have been confiscated from Palestinians living in West Jerusalem, in the Jewish part of the city. But Valery’s great-grandfather’s villa has always been special because of its beauty and splendor. An architectural jewel with a beautiful garden, which Hanna Bisharat, although he was a Christian, decided to dedicate to the Abbasid caliph Harun ar Rashid, one of the most famous figures of Islamic history. Its value is on the order of millions of dollars. Prominent Israeli officials, and even Golda Meir, Israel’s world-famous female premier, have lived there.
“My family tried to recover the villa several times, but nothing could be done: Israeli law does not allow Palestinian owners (of houses and land confiscated by the state) to take back what belonged to them,” explains Valery, who struggles to control her emotions as she remembers her brief but intense visit to Harun ar Rashid: “It was like experiencing the stories and memories of my family all at once, a unique feeling.”
The occupation of confiscated Palestinian properties in West Jerusalem—under Israeli control at the time of the cease-fire on July 17, 1948 (the Transjordanian kingdom had its hands on the eastern part)— and their assignment mostly to Jewish immigrants were among the first steps taken by the authorities of the newly-formed State of Israel. A strip of no-man’s land ran south of Sheikh Jarrah, along the west side of the Old City walls and Hebron Street, all the way to Ramat Rahel.
UN mediator Folke Bernadotte was working to allow displaced Palestinians to return to their homes without restrictions and regain possession of their property. This was a solution strongly opposed by Israeli leaders, who during those days were planning the annexation of West Jerusalem. They took the opportunity to give directives to confiscate Palestinian homes, land and businesses, later codified as the Absentee Property Law of 1950. Under this law, an “absentee” was a person who, at any time between November 29, 1947 and the day the state of emergency declared in 1948 ceased, had become a citizen of an Arab country, had visited an Arab country, or had left Palestine prior to September 1, 1948. In practice, it covered all Palestinian refugees and a large proportion of internally displaced persons, including those who had fled West Jerusalem temporarily because of the war.
The Housing Committee immediately began to settle Jewish immigrants and displaced persons in Palestinian homes in Qatamon, the German Colony, Baqaa, Musrara, Abu Tor and Talbiya.
Historian Salim Tamari recalls that the new Jewish immigrants were more than willing to move into the spacious Palestinian homes, to the point that “when some of them were told they would be housed in the Jewish Neve Sha’anan, they refused to move there, saying they preferred to live in the Qatamon villas in Jerusalem.” Many of these were superb houses and villas. Even nowadays, Israeli real estate agents in Jerusalem don’t miss the chance to point out to potential buyers that the house listing is an “Arab” house, which means a beautiful and spacious one.
In 2006, as Sahera Dirbas was filming the first of her documentaries (Stranger in My Home) about Palestinian houses in West Jerusalem assigned to Israeli citizens, she accompanied some of the previous owners to the houses.
“I filmed with my camera the meetings between the Palestinians and the Israelis living in the confiscated houses,” she says, “and I clearly remember the disorientation, combined with frustration and pain, of the Palestinians who were insisting that they had rights to those houses, contrasted with the calm of the Israelis, who were friendly, smiling and, most of all, very quiet: they knew that the law would never allow those visitors to take possession of the houses, even though they had the documents attesting their ownership of the buildings before 1948.”
Yacoub Abu Arafeh, from Sheikh Jarrah, the neighborhood in East Jerusalem where a real estate company linked to the Israeli right-wing is claiming properties owned by Jewish families before 1948—and 28 Palestinian families are at risk of being kicked out of their homes—had a curt comment: “If the Israelis want their properties here in Sheikh Jarrah, then they should give us back ours, in West Jerusalem, in Jaffa, Haifa, everywhere.”
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