State Eyes 'Legal' Takeover of Abandoned East Jerusalem Properties

Pending court approval, government could assume control over properties of people who moved to enemy states during the War of Independence, as well as structures that belong to people now residing in the territories.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein recently informed the Supreme Court that the state plans to apply the law on abandoned properties to properties in East Jerusalem. This in effect will mean that Israel can "legally" take over thousands of acres and buildings worth hundreds of millions of shekels.

The state intends to assume control over properties of people who moved to enemy states during the War of Independence, as well as structures in East Jerusalem that belong to people now residing in the territories.

East Jerusalem
Emil Salman

If the court accepts the view of the state, it will likely spur strong protest on the part of the Palestinians and sharp criticism by the international community.

The matter was brought to discussion before the Supreme Court following appeals of two cases in which the Jerusalem District Court decided in favor of owners of abandoned property, and two other cases in which judges ruled against. A special seven-justice panel ordered Weinstein to tell the court whether the state intends to apply the law concerning such properties in East Jerusalem.

The court also noted that the state's conduct in relation to these properties in some cases ran contrary to the opinions of previous attorney generals.

In its announcement to the court, the state demanded that the owners in the cases in question submit a formal request for the properties to be released before a special committee on abandoned properties.

However, the state also noted that "the deliberation will be held on the basis of the view of the state and the custodian of the properties that they are indeed abandoned."

If the justices accept the current appeal of four West Bank residents who own properties estimated to be worth close to $10 billion, the state will have to give up a great deal of land and many buildings - or compensate their owners.

The neighborhood of Har Homa has, for example, been built on many properties that were considered to be abandoned.

The law concerning such properties was passed in 1950, well before Israel annexed East Jerusalem in July 1967, and was not been amended. However, in 1968, Meir Shamgar, who was attorney general at the time, presented a legal opinion in which he concluded that the law should not apply to properties of Palestinians in East Jerusalem whose owners lived in the territories.

Shamgar wrote that, "We did not see any justification that annexation of East Jerusalem should in itself bring about taking over properties of persons who were not essentially absent, but rather were present at the time their property came under our control ..."

In 2005 attorney general Menachem Mazuz warned Benjamin Netanyahu, who was finance minister at the time and whose office served as caretaker of abandoned properties, that applying the law vis-a-vis residents of the territories could have serious international consequences.

"The interest of the State of Israel is to avoid opening new fronts on the international scene in general, and in international law in particular," Mazuz wrote.

He added that defense sources also believed that the building of the separation fence should not strip Palestinians of the right to properties they own in East Jerusalem.

In a letter to Netanyahu, Mazuz also explained that there was no logic in applying the law to East Jerusalem properties. "The properties became abandoned due to a unilateral action taken by the State of Israel ... at a time when both the properties and their owners were under the control of the state ... Essentially these are 'present owners,' whose rights to their property were stripped because of a broad, technical formulation of the law."