In December 2012, a Jerusalem court ruled to evict a Palestinian family from its Sheikh Jarrah home, where it had been living for decades, on March 1. The eviction suit, filed by the Justice Ministry's Custodian General, was engineered entirely by far-right activists.
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The Shamasna family of Sheikh Jarrah is one of several Palestinian families to have been evicted in recent years using a similar method.
The law enables Jews, but not Palestinians, to reclaim property they left behind enemy lines in 1948. A number of rightist NGOs have been acting vigorously in recent years to track down the Jewish heirs of properties in East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods and assist them in "releasing" the property, held in trust by the Custodian General. They then buy the property from the heirs or rent it to Jewish settlers.
The Shamasna family home, like many others in the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood, was built on land that belonged to Jewish families who had fled to west Jerusalem during the War of Independence. This method has raised much protest from both Palestinians and Jerusalem peace activists.
The Shamasna family - father Ayoob, 79, mother Fahima, their son, his wife and their six children - live in a tiny, shabby house that once belonged to Haim Ben Sulimani.
Sulimani's granddaughter, Ashira Bibi, filed the claim to evict the Shamasna family with the help of rightist activist Aryeh King, who was number four on Otzma Leyisrael's ticket. Bibi was represented in the court hearing by attorney Avi Segal, from Yitzhak Mina's law firm, which often represents rightist NGOs against Palestinians.
Before filing the claim, Bibi and King asked the Custodian General to register the house in the heirs' name. The process was almost completed in 2008. But then, says the Shamasnas' attorney, Mohand Jabara, the plaintiffs decided to halt the process in order to be able to ask the court to evict the Palestinian family in the State of Israel's name rather than their own.
Jabara suspects this move was intended to impress the Jerusalem District Court. "They had all the documents to take over the property but they wanted to keep it in the state's name," Jabara says.
"It makes a bigger impression when you ask the court in the state's name to evict Palestinians," he says.
The Justice Ministry responsed that it was convinced the verdict was accurate, regardless of the plaintiffs' identity. But the Magistrate Court, which heard the case initially, attributed importance to the fact that the party demanding to evacuate the house was the state.
"The court has been faced with a difficult question," wrote Magistrate Anna Schneider in her ruling. "On the one hand the plaintiff, an administrative authority presenting apparently freely-made leases ... and on the other side the respondent, an elderly, poor man who doesn't speak Hebrew at all."
The case for the state was run by a private law firm representing the settlers. Two courts rejected the family's argument that they were protected tenants because they had been living in the house since before the Six-Day War.
The judges also rejected the family's argument that they did not understand that, for decades, they were signing an unprotected lease, because the contracts were in Hebrew.
Two weeks ago, the family filed for permission to appeal against the eviction to the Supreme Court. If their request is denied, they are to be evicted on March 1.
"This is the new government's first challenge regarding its policy in East Jerusalem," says Peace Now's Settlement Watch Director, Hagit Ofran. "Will it take responsibility for the house and show it is heading for peace, or let the settlers use the Custodian to advance their interests and lead to conflagration in Jerusalem?"
King dismisses the objections. "They made that argument in the Magistrate's Court and were rejected," he says. "The state authorized the lawyer to continue handling the case for the owners."
"It makes no difference who runs the case; the house belongs to the heirs," says Segal.
The Justice Ministry said: "The Custodian General managed the house in trust for the owners, who are private people. In 2008 the Custodian allowed the release of the property to the heirs for a management fee. The eviction suit was filed by attorney Mina, who represented the heirs after their ownership had been proven."