A Jewish settler organization won a lawsuit Sunday against a Palestinian family it has been trying to evict in East Jerusalem on grounds that the structure was built on land previously owned by Jews. The ruling could set a precedent for the eviction of additional 700 Palestinians living in the Baten al-Hawa enclave of Silwan.
The Baten al-Hawa enclave had once been owned by a Jewish property trust (hekdesh), housing Yemenite Jews who arrived in Jerusalem in the late 19th century. In 1938, British authorities ordered the residents out of the neighborhood because of the danger posed by the Arab revolt against the British mandate. Their homes were razed and years later, Palestinian families built Baten al-Hawa on the land.
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In 2001 the Jerusalem District Court accepted a request by Ateret Cohanim settler organization to be named trustees of the land on grounds that it was Jewish property. Israeli law enables Jewish heirs to reclaim property they left in East Jerusalem, but does not enable Palestinian owners to reclaim their property in West Jerusalem.
In 2002, the state transferred the land to the Jewish custodians, without informing Palestinian residents. Ateret Cohanim became the legal owners of the plot inhabited by several hundred Palestinians, and soon after commenced a legal battle to evict residents.
On Sunday, Judge Mordechai Burstyn of the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court accepted the arguments of the Jewish trustees and ordered the eviction of the Rajbi family, which has been living there since at least 1975.
Nasser Rajbi, the head of the family, lives in the building with his children and grandchildren, a total of 22 people. One of his daughters is seriously disabled, while his 25-year-old son suffered a heart attack two-and-a-half months ago and has since been in a coma.
“I’m in the hospital every day and don’t even think about this at all,” Rajbu said Sunday after the ruling. “My father bought this house and I was born in this house. We didn’t take it from anyone. We’d never even heard about the Yemenites until they sued us. I’m not leaving the house, where would I go? We will die before they get us out.”
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Burstyn dismissed the Palestinians’ arguments, but said “It would behoove the state to consider in appropriate instances providing a solution for those evicted from their homes.” In an exceptional move, the judge refrained from imposing court costs or compensation payments from the Palestinian defendants. The eviction was ordered for July 1, but the family is expected to appeal the ruling to the district court. During the coming months, rulings are expected in other cases involving Rajbi's neighbors.
Last year Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez dismissed an appeal in principle on the case. While Barak-Erez did accept some of the complaints against the state’s behavior in the case – like the fact that the land was handed over to Ateret Cohanim without informing the Palestinian residents – she decided the matter did not require the intervention of the Supreme Court, thus allowing the eviction process to continue.
Last week, there were reports that the Registrar of Nonprofit Associations had informed Ateret Cohanim that it was at risk of dissolution due to lack of transparency. The registrar said the case had been transferred to its enforcement unit because the group hadn’t submitted financial statements and minutes of meetings. The association, one of the most prominent settler organizations in East Jerusalem, rejected the claims.
A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that the land in question was purchased by Palestinians after the eviction of Jewish residents.