Despite the concerted efforts of right-wing activists, including city councillor Aryeh King, to foil the sale of a Jewish-owned building in East Jerusalem to its longtime Arab tenants, the sale was completed this week.
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The mixed-use (commercial and residential) building is part of a formerly Jewish neighborhood, known as Eshel Avraham or the Georgian neighborhood, located just outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate. The area’s Jewish residents fled in the 1930s, due to attacks by Arabs, but retained ownership of its properties.
Around a year ago, the heirs of the building’s original owners hired Jerusalem lawyer Yoram Zarifi to help them sell it. Two groups vied to buy the building from the sellers, who live in Israel, France and the United States. The first was comprised of the Palestinian commercial and residential tenants who have worked or lived in the building for decades; the second was a number of right-wing activists, including King, who sought to replace the current tenants with Jewish families.
After the Palestinian group submitted a higher bid and stood to close on the property, notices were distributed denouncing the proposed sale of the building “to the descendants of our loved ones’ murderers,” among other claims. Right-wing activists also demonstrated outside Zarifi’s law office, demanding that he call off the sale.
Zarifi also notifies the families of soldiers of their loved ones’ death, on behalf of the Israel Defense Forces. During last summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza, King sent a text message to Zarifi while the lawyer was attending the funeral of a soldier who had died in action: “A life filled with internal conflicts. In the morning, advancing the sale of a property in Jerusalem to an Arab; in the afternoon, punching a time clock at the funeral of a soldier who sacrificed his life on behalf of the nation and the land ... how do you live with yourself?”
During the sales negotiations, King even brought in a group of businessmen, including the Australian Jewish investor and philanthropist Kevin Bermeister, part of whose fortune came from his early involvement in Skype. Despite the pressure, the building’s owners did not cancel the deal.
Zarifi says he wanted to sell the property to Jews, “but they didn’t reach into their pockets, it was all talk.”
The building is being sold in stages. Around four months ago the buyers put down 9 percent of the selling price, and recently paid for an additional 50 percent, meaning they now own 59 percent of the property.
Nevertheless, King promised to keep up the pressure on the sellers. “[One] seller’s father lives in [the East Jerusalem neighborhood of] Neveh Yaakov, now everyone will know they sold to an Arab – anyone who does it once will do it again,” King said.
In a related development, King went to another East Jerusalem neighborhood this week that has been the focus of property disputes between Arabs and Jews. He came to demand the eviction of the Shamasneh family, which was under a Supreme Court order to leave – by Sunday, March 1 – the home they have been renting for 40 years, in favor of the building’s Jewish owners.
The home, which has been the subject of a legal dispute since 2009, was once owned by Haim Ben Sulimani, a Jew. King helped Sulimani’s granddaughter, Ashira Bibi, to file an eviction claim against the family.
The Shamasneh family home, like many others in the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood, was built on land that belonged to Jewish families who fled to West Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence.
The law enables Jews, but not Palestinians, to reclaim property they left behind enemy lines in 1948. A number of rightist NGOs have been active in recent years in tracking down the Jewish heirs of properties in East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods and assisting them in “releasing” the property, held in trust by the Custodian of Absentee Property. They then buy the property from the heirs or rent it to Jewish families.
In August 2013, a panel of three Supreme Court justices confirmed the property’s Jewish ownership and ordered the Shamasneh family to leave. However, for humanitarian reasons they stayed the execution of the eviction order by 18 months.
“It should not be easy to evict someone from his home, certainly not when we are talking about an elderly man who has lived there for many years,” they wrote in their ruling. “This is why, in this case, we tried over and over to promote a compromise between the sides that would allow the appellant to continue living in the house until old age. Much to our chagrin, the sides rejected our proposal and we are, therefore, forced to rule on the basis of the law.”