Claudette Habesch outside the Jerusalem house where she was born.
Claudette Habesch outside the Jerusalem house where she was born. Photo by Alex Levac
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The entire conversation with Claudette Habesch, which takes place at the Notre Dame compound, on Jerusalem's "seamline," is conducted in English. The only word Habesch says in Hebrew is "shesh" - the number six - which is the address of a house on Shlomo Molcho Street, in the Talbieh neighborhood of Jerusalem, near Rehavia. "Shlomo Molcho shesh," she says in Hebrew. Thus is engraved in her memory the address of the house where she was born 70 years ago.

Palestinian workers from Beit Jallah are now renovating the old stone house. Habesch agreed to be photographed against the backdrop of the three-story building, but she turned down an invitation to tea from Fanny Roselaar, 90, the current owner, who came out to greet her. Roselaar, a retired tour guide, remembers when Habesch visited the house shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967, together with her father, who came from Jordan. The father heartily invited Roselaar to visit him at his home in Amman. It is important to Roselaar to make it clear that her family bought the Ayoub family's apartment (Ayoub is Habesch's maiden name ) for its full price, from the Jewish tenants who settled in it after the War of Independence in 1948.

Habesch, a devout Palestinian Christian, is the director of the Jerusalem branch of the Catholic charitable organization Caritas. The walls of her office are decorated with pictures of popes and bishops who visited the Holy Land. She is a member of the Palestinian Presidential Committee for Christian Affairs. Her son-in-law, Bassem Khoury, was formerly minister of the national economy in Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's government. She participates in the inter-religious activities of Rabbis for Human Rights and is an enthusiastic supporter of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, one based on the pre-1967 borders, with both states having Jerusalem as their capitals (and no wall ). Habesch knows that Israel's Absentee Property Law does not leave her the shred of a chance of getting the house back or receiving monetary compensation. Her family did not flee, nor was it expelled from the house. The War of Independence (the Nakba, in her language ) caught the family in their winter home in Jericho. Her parents settled in Amman and she and her sister were sent to the Church's school for girls in the Old City of Jerusalem. In 1961 she married a Talbieh-born Palestinian and they made their home in the neighborhood of Shuafat, north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, where she still lives.

The Six-Day War found Habesch in Europe. When she returned, via Jordan, a kind Israeli soldier allowed her to cross the Jordan River on foot, to rejoin her children, who had remained at home in Shuafat. At the end of that June, Israel annexed Shuafat to Jerusalem, making her family Jerusalemites again.

Compensation, not eviction

The memories of her childhood in Talbieh still choke her up. Were it not for the Sheikh Jarrah affair, it is doubtful she would be doing anything about getting her home back. After the war in 1948, Palestinian refugees who had to leave their homes in what was now Israel were housed in Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem (which was under Jordanian control between 1949 and 1967 ). About a year ago, an Israeli court ordered the eviction of a number of these families from houses that had been purchased by Jews during the period of Ottoman rule. Additional families are candidates for eviction in the near future.

In light of this precedent, Habesch is prepared to reopen the wounds of 1948 and take a serious look at the possibility of applying to the courts. Even if the judges order the return of the keys to 6 Molcho St., to her family, Habesch promises it would not occur to her to evict the aged Fanny Roselaar from her home.

That is something that cannot be done, she says - just as she asks that the Israelis stop evicting her brethren from their homes in East Jerusalem and recognize the rights of Palestinian families who left their property behind in the western part of the city. And yes, she does support monetary compensation for, for example, the Jews of Iraq who fled their country in the 1940s and 1950s. They too are refugees and they too have property rights, she notes.

Habesch was introduced to me by a member of the advisory team acting alongside the Palestine Liberation Organization's negotiating department, headed by Saeb Erekat. Several weeks ago the team published a position paper on the property rights of Palestinians in West Jerusalem, under a title that ends with a rhetorical question: "a united city, with equal rights for all?"

The document was written in the wake of the Sheikh Jarrah expulsions. Until then, the leadership in Ramallah (in contrast to that in Gaza ) clung to the principle United States president Bill Clinton presented Israel and the Palestinians in the wake of the 2000 Camp David summit: The Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem will go to Israel while the Arab neighborhoods will go to the Palestinians. The discussion about Palestinians' properties in West Jerusalem was to have taken place as part of the general negotiations on compensation to the refugees in the context of the permanent status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

The document on Palestinian property in West Jerusalem is based to a large extent on the research of Dr. Adnan Abdelrazek. He relates that during the course of his work at United Nations headquarters in Jerusalem at the end of the 1990s, he supervised the transfer to software of the archival materials of the Reconciliation Commission (a body appointed by the UN in 1948, which led to General Assembly Resolution 194, which touches upon the refugees' property ).

Thus Abdelrazek, an Israeli-Arab, was exposed to thousands of documents and maps connected to Palestinian refugees' property. Later he conducted research, which went on for three years, on identifying and describing Palestinian houses in a dozen neighborhoods in West Jerusalem - among them Talbieh, Baka, Katamon, Musrara and the German Colony. His findings are detailed in his book "The Flourishing Arab Architecture in the Western Part of Occupied Jerusalem" (which was published recently in Arabic ).

Abdelrazek's data are based on the British Land Registry and in part on Reconciliation Commission reports. According to them, Palestinian property in the western part of the city within the boundaries of the 1949 armistice between Israel and Jordan amounted to approximately 5,500 dunams (almost 1,400 acres ), 33 percent of the total area. The Jewish property amounted to approximately 4,900 dunams, a bit more than 30 percent. The churches between them owned 15.2 percent of the lands. The remainder (about 21 percent ), was owned by the municipality and also accounted for roads, railroad tracks and public buildings. The Palestinian property at that time included about 2,700 houses and buildings with a total area of more than 900,000 square meters.

Dr. Roby Nathanson, director general of the Macro Center for Political Economics, has developed a model for calculating compensation for the properties of the 1948 refugees, which takes into account Israel's tremendous investment in the development of the mixed cities. According to his model, the value of the Palestinian property in West Jerusalem is estimated at $500 million. A considerable portion of the large Palestinian homes in West Jerusalem were given to prominent individuals the Israeli authorities wanted to honor, among them politicians, judges and professors.

Reopening the file

Two weeks ago the East Jerusalem daily Al Quds published a comprehensive review of the book. Abdelrazek attributes the great interest in Arab property in the western part of the city to the creeping Jewish settlement in the eastern part. He testifies to increasing public and private pressure to apply to the Israeli courts in order to examine the possibility of Palestinian property being released in the western part of the city. According to him, Palestinian owners are keeping track of the large sums of money landing in the pockets of their Jewish "successors," and wondering why they are disinherited of their rights to this property.

In this way, the extreme right, which aims to eradicate from Jewish consciousness the Green Line (1948-1967 border ) between the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, has succeeded in reopening the "1948 file" and putting the issue of Palestinian property in the west on the agenda.

And that is not all.

Currently on the Supreme Court docket there is an appeal by West Bank inhabitants whose properties have been "annexed" to Jerusalem by the route of the separation barrier and the Absentee Property Law. Beginning in 1950, and until not long ago, the law applied to properties in the State of Israel whose owners were in an enemy country on the day it came into effect.

Claudette Habesch, for example, who was in Jericho, is not entitled to compensation for her home. Furthermore, there were property owners resident in other countries. The Salameh family, who lived in the stunning building that now houses the Belgian Consulate and were neighbors of Habesch's family, were in the United States on the crucial day and were therefore able to come to a financial arrangement with the state.

Shamgar and Mazuz

The attorney for the owners of the Cliff Hotel, Shlomo Lecker, argues, based on the opinion of two former attorney generals, Meir Shamgar and Menachem Mazuz, that the annexation of East Jerusalem does not grant Israel the right to apply to it the Absentee Property Law, which related to the borders of the city prior to 1967. In January of 2005, Mazuz warned Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time finance minister, that applying the Absentee Property Law to inhabitants of the territories who own properties in East Jerusalem was liable to have serious international repercussions.

"The interest of the State of Israel," wrote Mazuz, "is to refrain from opening new fronts in the international arena in general and in the area of international law in particular." He also noted that security elements also believe the building of the fence should not deny Palestinians who owned properties in East Jerusalem the right to use them.

In an interim ruling handed down in February, by a special bench of seven justices headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, the High Court of Justice ruled that the state's conduct in the matter of property in East Jerusalem belonging to inhabitants of the territories was contrary to the attorney general's opinion, and requested that the court be presented with a revised position.

Recently the state prosecutor informed the High Court, on behalf of the new attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, that the special committee on the Absentee Property Law will discuss the petitioners' request to release the Cliff Hotel and similar properties from the constraints of the law. Here comes the clincher: "on the basis of the position of the state and the Custodian of Absentee Property, whereby these properties are indeed properties of absentees."

For his part, Lecker, who represents the owners of the hotel, which has been "annexed" to Jerusalem, wrote in his response to the court that Weinstein has retreated from the position of the previous attorney general regarding properties in East Jerusalem owned by residents of the West Bank.

"Where is the distinction," wonders Lecker, "between absentees resident in an enemy country, regarding whom the law was passed in 1950, for the purpose of taking possession of their properties, and the '1967 absentees,' who have been living for decades now in territories occupied by the State of Israel?"

A spokesperson for the Justice Ministry said there has been no change in the attorney general's policy in this regard.

"I am prepared to forgive them, but I will never forget the years of suffering by a little girl of 7, in whose bed another child was sleeping and whose bicycle another child was riding," says Claudette Habesch at the end of our conversation.

She adds: "I recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist in 78 percent of the territories of Mandatory Palestine, but I do not recognize its right to expel Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and put in Jews."