A settlement in East Jerusalem.
A settlement in East Jerusalem. Photo by Emil Salman
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Mohammed Nabulsi's paper trail has been catching up with him, which is making it difficult for Jewish settlers and their state patrons to take over East Jerusalem homes.

Starting in the 1970s, Nabulsi, an East Jerusalem taxi driver, provided settler organizations with affadavits claiming that Palestinian owners of East Jerusalem homes were "absentees" residing in enemy countries, which the state used over and over to expropriate the properties and turn them over to settler organizations.

On Tuesday, Nabulsi's work was cited unfavorably by a Jerusalem District Court judge in ruling against the Elad settler organization, Jewish National Fund and various government agencies that have been trying for 25 years to evict a Palestinian extended family from a home in the heart of City of David National Park in Silwan. Overturning a previous court's ruling and determining that the Roweidi family, not Elad or the JNF, were the Silwan property's rightful owners, Judge Miriam Mizrahi said Nabulsi's affadavit, which was crucial to Elad's case, looked awfully suspicious.

Nabulsi was shot by a Popular Front activist in the 1990s, but survived. His services to the settlers continue to this day to make the lives of Palestinian families in Jerusalem miserable. Mizrahi's ruling joins a number of other rulings and legal opinions excoriating the use of shady affadavits to evict Palestinian families in the capital. But so far no one has been able to stop it.

It is hard to know how many cases Nabulsi has been involved in because in many cases the person giving the affidavit remains anonymous. The Roweidi family, for example, only discovered Nabulsi's involvement 16 years after their eviction process started. One another East Jerusalem family currently faces eviction based on Nabulsi's work.

In 1992, the custodian of absentee properties, Aharon Shakarji, told the Knesset State Control Committee that he had received between 10 and 15 affidavits of this type from Nabulsi, on the basis of which a property owner was declared absentee, placing his family (usually more than one family ) in danger of eviction.

In most cases the homeowner did not even know he had been declared absentee. Some found out only when the police and the new, Jewish, residents came to the house in the dead of night to evict them.

In light of the criticism, no more affidavits have been taken from Nabulsi since the early 1990s, but the declarations he had already made continue to be valid.

Invoking the Absentee Property Law is considered the most dubious way settlers' associations in East Jerusalem have of obtaining property. The law, passed in 1950, allowed the state to take control of property abandoned by Arabs who left the country during the War of Independence. It was extended to East Jerusalem in 1967 but not invoked until 1977, when the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, encouraged by Ariel Sharon, began to make use of it.

According to the law, it is enough to prove that a property owner was residing in an enemy country - including any Arab country or the West Bank - at the time East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel in 1967 for them to lose their rights to the property.

The decision is made by the custodian of absentee property, whose department is now part of the Finance Ministry.

This is the way most of the real estate in Silwan and the Old City were transfered - via various bodies including the Development Authority (a government agency that manages absentee property ), the Jewish National Fund, the public housing agency Amidar and others - to settlers' associations.

Nabulsi provided the custodian with the pretext to declare the landowner absent - a short affidavit that the owner is living in Jordan or the territories.

Another important figure is this saga is attorney Eitan Geva, who for years has represented settlers' associations and the Jewish National Fund. Geva would obtain Nabulsi's signature on the affidavit and defend the procedure in endless court appearances, including the case of the Roweidi family.

"Nabulsi did the leg work and so he knew," Geva told the court at the last hearing to explain how Nabulsi knew the disposition of the Roweidi property.

However, in her verdict, Mizrahi wondered about Nabulsi's motives and his ability to amass such a huge amount of information in his head.

In 1987,for example, he wrote in an affadavit: "I am familiar with lot 51, bloc 30125 in Silwan. This area is 370 square meters and a two-story building with three apartments is built on it, to be called below, 'the asset'. In 1957 the asset was registered with the Jordanian property tax authorities to one Mahmoud Salim Darwish and his nephews..."

It is unreasonable, Mizrahi ruled, to assume that anyone would amass such information under normal circumstances unless they were working in the service of others "who used him as a mouthpiece for information to base the ostensible claim of absentee status."

In 1992, Shakarji admitted to the Knesset State Control Committee that such claims by Nabulsi were used, with no other supporting evidence, to declare a property owner as absentee, and that the custodian of absentee property was "unable to check" if this were true or not.

In the same year, the Klugman Committee, appointed by Yitzhak Rabin's government, confirmed that such affidavits were not verified, that the custodian did not visit the properties in question, and that the signature on the affidavit was obtained by Geva, who had been representing the Jewish National Fund.

Three years later, then-Magistrate's Court Judge Ayala Procaccia ruled that the custodian had been making decisions on absentee status that "did not have a leg to stand on." She recommended that the attorney general study her verdict to determine whether an investigation should be launched, but apparently none was.

Dozens of judges over the years have discussed Nabulsi's methods; none has heard the man himself defend them on the witness stand.

In 1995, after attorney Daniel Zeidman, an advocate for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, asked the High Court of Justice to stop the use of these affadavits to expropriate property, the state responded that it had launched an investigation. However, nothing changed and the affidavits continued.

The question of what Nabulsi received in exchange for his services has come up repeatedly over the years. Among the Roweidi family, there is no doubt Nabulsi did it for money - which Geva confirmed in court.

"A person is entitled to payment for his efforts which he made in clarifying the facts and giving them to the custodian," Geva told the court. In the last court hearing, he reiterated that Nabulsi was reliable, and that "no verdict determined that Nabulsi's affidavit was incorrect."

Asked about the validity of these affadavits, Shakarji said he did not remember cases from years ago and that he made his decisions based on evidence that was presented to him.

Regarding the Klugman Committee's findings that the affadavits were unreliable, the Elad association said: "The Klugman Committee worked for a short time, and wrote its recommendations based on partial and missing information (which it notes in its report ) after refusing to hear from representatives of the association in relevant issues."

Elad said that at any rate, the committee's report did not touch on the group's rights to the property it now owned.