Jews Buy Up Land Around J'lem Shimon Hatzadik Neighborhood

A group of Jewish investors from Israel and abroad is set to sign a deal to purchase 18 dunams of land near the Sheikh Jarah neighborhood, close to the Green Line in East Jerusalem.

A group of Jewish investors from Israel and abroad is set to sign a deal to purchase 18 dunams of land near the Sheikh Jarah neighborhood, close to the Green Line in East Jerusalem. The move will ensure Jewish control over the area around the nearby Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood.

The investors were assembled by the Homot Shalem association, which is closely aligned with MK Benny Elon (National Union-Israel Beiteinu), for the purpose of purchasing the land from the Sephardic Ethnic Council and the General Committee of the Jewish People - two religious trusts that currently own the property, which is inhabited by hundreds of Arabs and a couple of dozen Jews.

The investors have agreed to pay a total of $3 million for the land and also intend to invest some $4 million in "compensation for the evacuation" of the Arab residents, as well as in the planning and rebuilding of the area to establish a Jewish neighborhood.

The group's company, Nahalat Shimon Ltd., has prepared a plan for initial construction in the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood. Three buildings housing 40 families each will be constructed in the first stage of the project; another 40 apartments will be built in another part of the neighborhood, close to the cave in which Shimon the Righteous is said to be buried.

The General Committee of the Jewish People had spent a long time debating whether or not to sell the land, before the deal was approved by one of the leading rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, Rabbi Yosef Eliashiv. The issue was even discussed by the Great Rabbinical Court headed by Rabbi Dichovsky that ruled that it was a, "real redemption-of-the-land mitzvah [positive commandment] and that the entrepreneurs have to be encouraged so that they will succeed in building Jerusalem."

The Sephardic Ethnic Council, which has permitted a handful of Jews to return to the neighborhood that was cleared of its Jewish residents in 1948, approved the deal many months ago. The move was lead by MK Elon, who believed that it was another stage in the "return to Zion."

In the bill of sale, the buyers agree to preserve the tomb and the small Sanhedrin Cave that are recognized as religious sites under law. They have also promised that these locations will continue to serve as places of worship and as a synagogue.

The Sephardic Ethnic Council, headed by former lawmaker Yehezkel Zachai, owned 50 percent of the plot and gave Elon and the Homot Shalem group power of attorney to occupy the area and property a few years ago. Zachai, who served as a Labor MK from 1977 to 1984 and does not identify himself with the right wing, explained that he had agreed to cooperate with Elon and his colleagues because "of the Arab residents' treatment of the land - as if it was their own private property."

"They built without permits and without informing the owners of the land [the Sephardic Ethnic Council and the General Committee of the Jewish People]; they took over buildings that were not theirs and even tried to demolish the synagogue in the center of the neighborhood," Zachai said.

The turning point in the affair came when the Arab residents of the neighborhood tried to demolish one of the walls of the abandoned synagogue and annex it to the yard of one of the nearby houses. Zachai signed the papers that same day and Elon quickly moved a number of yeshiva students into the building and held some Torah study sessions.

The synagogue was renovated and a nearby building was annexed onto it. This signaled the start of a renovation drive involving the houses surrounding the synagogue. These buildings are now inhabited by six families and a number of single individuals. A kolel (a yeshiva for married men) now occupies the renovated synagogue.

The process that the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood is currently undergoing is similar to that seen in the City of David (Silwan) in recent years. There is, however, one key difference: A significant portion of the area nearby Shimon Hatzadik has already been occupied by Jews; these Jewish strongholds are public institutions, rather than privately-owned homes, and include the government complex and the national police squad in Sheikh Jarah and the Hadassah Mount Scopus Hospital.

In practice, this area has been "mixed," or integrated, for almost 20 years, with East Jerusalem Arabs living close to official state institutions. The Arabs currently living in Shimon Hatzadik are mostly of a low socio-economic standing - former refugees who were housed in buildings that had once belonged to Jews. As a result, Homot Shalem, which has been active in the area for years, found it relatively easy to tempt the residents away with money. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, used similar tactics in an effort to convince the residents to stay.

The Jewish neighborhood of Shimon Hatzadik began to develop at the end of the 19th century, around the grave of Shimon the Righteous, the son of Yohannan the Cohen, who lived in the fourth century C.E. Jews went on pilgrimage to the tomb for years to light candles and prayer. The Arabs nicknamed the place, "Al Yehudia."

The area was owned by Arabs until 1976, when the cave and the adjoining field were purchased by Jews with funds raised abroad.

The area was divided equally between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, as were the caves. Dozens of Jews built homes on the land and hundreds occupied the area on the eve of the 1936 riots. Initially, most fled, but then returned a few months later.

Following the War of Independence, the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarah and Shimon Hatzadik ended up in Jordanian hands. The Jews were evacuated during the war, and in the 1950s, the Jordanians housed refugees there. The land was part of the area captured by Israel in the Six-Day War, and, in accordance with Israeli law on abandoned property, it was placed under the guardianship of the state.

The land was subsequently released to its owners, the Sephardic Ethnic Committee and the General Committee of the Jewish People, in September 1972. Thirteen years ago, after years of debate, the Supreme Court awarded the 28 Arab families that were housed their by the Jordanian government the status of "protected residents," but their request for ownership of the land was rejected.