Demonstrations against the eviction of Palestinian families living in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah are set to resume Friday, ahead of the scheduled hearing on Monday by the Israeli Supreme Court of an appeal by the Shamasneh family over their eviction.
The weekly protests by leftists against settlers in Sheikh Jarrah died down over the past year, after several leading figures concluded that the threat of additional evictions had passed. There have been no evictions of Palestinians there for three years, although as a result of a ruling in December 2012 by the Jerusalem District Court dozens of members of the extended Shamasneh family now face immediate eviction.
That ruling had ordered the affected individuals to leave their homes by March 1, but the eviction was put off pending appeal. Activists plan a mass prayer rally in the neighborhood on Friday, followed by a demonstration by Arabs and Jews against the eviction.
At Monday's Supreme Court session the family is expected to argue they are protected tenants, as they have lived in their homes since before the 1967 Six-Day War, despite the fact that two courts have already rejected that argument. The courts have also rejected the family's claim not to have understood, because the contracts were in Hebrew, that for decades they had signed an unprotected lease agreement.
Attorney Mohand Jabara, who is representing the family, argues that the plaintiffs, who are heirs to the property, together with the right-wing Israel Land Fund, had concealed from the court that the Custodian General had essentially transferred the property to their ownership.
Throughout the legal process, the state has been represented by the law office of Yitzhak Mina, who also represents the heirs and the ILF, without telling the court that the state was essentially no longer a party to the action. According to Jabara, this had been done to “impress the court” with a claim being made by the state against a private person, and not just two private people going against each other.
Attorney Avi Segal of Mina’s office said in response, “The question of who is managing the process has no legal significance.”
Sheikh Jarrah after 1948
During the next few days a short pamphlet written by Michael Ben Yair, a former Israeli attorney general, will be published. Ben Yair, who was born in Sheikh Jarrah, fled the area with his family during the 1948 War of Independence. His family could have reclaimed its home. But Ben Yair presents legal and ethical arguments against returning homes to their original Jewish owners. For one thing, he says, all the Jewish families that were evacuated from East Jerusalem received compensation in the form of homes that had belonged to Arabs who fled from western Jerusalem.
“In January 1948, even before the state was declared and there were already battles, we were asked by the Haganah to evacuate the area, and all of us, all the families of that neighborhood, were evacuated and became refugees,” Ben Yair writes. “I remember very well that for around a month we lived in some school.”
The family was later given two apartments and a store in the Arab village of Sheikh Badr (now the Jerusalem neighborhood of Romema), in exchange for the three homes and two stores they had left behind in Sheikh Jarrah.
“The position I’m taking is first and foremost a moral one,” Ben Yair adds. “After 1970 the Custodian General approached our family and suggested, as he did to other owners, to help us liberate the properties we had owned under the Legal and Administrative Matters Law. We said: We are not liberating our property, because we’ve lost our right to that house."
“The first time I came to attend a demonstration at Sheikh Jarrah with the Solidarity movement, it was a Friday in July or June 2010, I saw a Palestinian flag fluttering over my house,” he continued. “I didn’t shed a tear, because we had lost our rights to that home in February 1948.”
In the soon-to-be-published booklet, Yair details the discriminatory laws that enable Jews to reclaim their properties abandoned during the period of the War of Independence, but do not allow Palestinians, including those with Israeli residency, to repossess properties they abandoned at the same time.
He also argues that many of the Jews who obtained these homes should at least pay compensation to the Palestinian owners who built the structures, in lieu of capital gains tax, since most of the homes that have been transferred to Jewish owners over the past several years were built on empty lots. While the land was Jewish-owned, the structures were built by the Palestinians with the help of UNWRA and the Jordanian government.
Yair also suggests a solution for Sheikh Jarrah and other disputed areas of East Jerusalem. The proposal is based on an idea put forward by attorney Daniel Seidemann and researchers from the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. It calls for Israel's finance minister to expropriate the homes from their Jewish owners in return for compensation, and formally title them to their Palestinian occupants.
Yair quotes former Israeli attorney general Menachem Mazuz, who wrote, in the context of a similar problem in East Jerusalem's Ras al-Amud neighborhood, “It can’t be that the government is authorized to seize land for cultural purposes (antiquities), for environmental purposes (to plant forests), or for projects to prevent unemployment … but is not authorized to seize land out of political considerations. In a situation where the government’s position is that private activity is liable to have serious consequences, from a political or public order perspective, it cannot be left" without an avenue for action,” Mazuz wrote.