About two weeks ago, after a nine-year legal wrangle, a Tel Aviv court ruled that an Arab family that has lived in its Jaffa home for 90 years will not have to pay the state nearly half a million shekels ($130,000) in rent. But the court also ruled that the family would have to buy the state’s stake – 40 percent – of its house to regain ownership.
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“We still have to pay a large sum for the right to live in our own home, the house our grandfather built,” a member of the family says.
The large house on the hill on Tziona Tajer Street in Jaffa was built in the 1920s by Salim Khoury Shaya, the spiritual leader of the Christian Arab (Greek Orthodox) community. His seven children were born and raised in the house.
Shortly before the 1948 War of Independence, three of the siblings went to visit relatives in Lebanon, where they got stuck when the war broke out, and they weren’t able to return. The other four siblings – George, Evelyn , Awda and Claire Shaya – remained in their house. Their children are now in their 40s.
In 1950 the siblings who went to Lebanon were declared absentees and Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property took over the house, although the four siblings were still living in it.
Only nine years later, in 1959, did the state recognize the rights of the four siblings in the house. Despite this, the state retained its hold over 40 percent of the property.
In the 1950s, George Shaya and his siblings claimed in court that before they had left, the other siblings had sold them their stake in the house. The absentee siblings also traveled to Cyprus and signed an affidavit to this effect, but an Israeli court rejected it. In June 1960, the court turned down the siblings’ request to receive full ownership of their house, and in 1963 the Israel Lands Administration received custody of 40 percent of the house. That year, Salim Khoury Shaya died.
George Shaya continued to fight for the house until his death in 1973. His daughter, Mary Kusa, remembers her father always saying that “I don’t want to buy my own house.” She and the other children grew up, married and had families. Some still live in the house.
George’s son Sami says that in the 1990s they tried to buy the state’s stake in the house, but Amidar, the public housing agency that took over its management, refused.
Salim Khoury Shaya’s daughter-in-law, Fadwa, who married his son George, is now the eldest resident of the house, where she has lived since 1947 and where her children and some of her grandchildren grew up.
In 2007 Amidar filed a suit in the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, demanding the Shaya families pay some 471,000 shekels as rent, plus linkage and interest, for the past seven years. The sum was based on the rent the land survey deemed the house could fetch on the free market.
The siblings say Jaffa’s rising property values are behind the move.
The state also asked the court to dissolve the partnership and let it sell the house to the highest bidder, which basically meant evacuating the families.
“We feel it’s an injustice,” says Anisa Shaya. “First they show up out of the blue demanding money, and the next minute they want to throw us out on the street. Where is my mother, who has lived in this house since 1947, supposed to go?”
The Shaya family was represented by attorney Hisham Shabaita of the Tel Aviv University’s Human Rights Clinic.
He opened his defense speech by citing the Biblical proverb of the poor man’s sheep. “In this suit too, the state is demanding, cynically and without good faith, to dispossess the respondents from their home, which has always been in their ownership,” he wrote.
The court denied the state’s demand for retroactive rent and recognized the families as “protected tenants.” It concluded that the Shaya and Manzur families, who live in the house, should buy out the state’s part in the property.
However, the state’s 40 percent costs an estimated 2 million shekels, which the families say they cannot afford.