East Jerusalem Palestinians Petition Israel's Top Court in Last-ditch Effort to Prevent Eviction

The petition states that an illegal decision 16 years ago gave the land they live on to the custody of Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing group that settles Jews in Arab areas

An Israeli flag hangs over a house in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, Jerusalem June 29, 2016
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

More than 100 residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan have petitioned the High Court of Justice in a last-ditch attempt to prevent a right-wing organization from evicting them from their homes.

The petition assails the Administrator General’s Office, which is part of the Justice Ministry, for having transferred a plot of land in Silwan to the Ateret Cohanim organization 16 years ago without even informing the hundreds of Palestinians who live on those five dunams (1.2 acres) of land.

Ateret Cohanim has waged a legal battle for years to evict the Palestinians, and over the last two years, it has sought dozens of eviction orders from the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. Both that court and the Jerusalem District Court have repeatedly upheld the organization’s right to the land, but neither has ever scrutinized the administrator general’s original decision. 

Now, attorneys representing the families are arguing that this original decision was a mistake and violated the law, and should therefore be canceled.

How did Ateret Cohanim obtain rights to the land in the heart of Silwan in the first place? In the late 19th century, the land housed a small group of Jews from Yemen. The leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem established a public sanctuary for the immigrants on the site, designed to assure their rights to the place. The sanctuary was set up through the Ottoman sharia courts in 1899. Its deed outlines that the sanctuary would be run by three people: the two chief rabbis of Jerusalem “and the principal of the Alliance vocational school.”

Right wing Israelis march in East Jerusalem in honor of new Torah scroll being placed in a synagogue in Silwan. August 24, 2017.
Olivier Fitouss

However, the Yemenite Jews abandoned this area following the Arab riots in 1929 and the Arab rebellion in 1936; during the 1940s, the buildings that they used in the enclave were all destroyed.

In 2001, over a century after the sanctuary’s construction, Ateret Cohanim petitioned the Jerusalem District Court, showing documents that its managers, the two chief rabbis of Jerusalem (who were both very old at the time, and would die within two years) could not and did not want to fulfill their roles at the sanctuary. The organization also presented a document from the Education Ministry that the Alliance school no longer existed.

Atered Cohanim then proffered its services and asked to be named the trustee of the sanctuary. In the petition it stated that its goal was to regain the sanctuary lands for Jews and evict the squatters.

This petition won the support of the custodian general and the registrar of sanctuaries. In a brief, technical ruling, Judge Yaakov Zemach of the Jerusalem District Court named three people from Ateret Cohanim as trustees of the sanctuary and de-facto owners of the land – on which hundreds of Palestinians, who were not a party to these motions, were living.

Shortly after the ruling, the custodian general transferred the land to the organization, which then began the protracted legal process of evicting the Palestinian residents.

Right wing Israelis march in East Jerusalem in honor of new Torah scroll being placed in a synagogue in Silwan. August 24, 2017
Olivier Fitoussi

A number of the Palestinian families have been ejected from their homes, some by force and some in exchange for compensation.

Now four lawyers representing the families against the eviction motions have joined forces and hope to demonstrate that the original decision by the custodian general was illegal. Their key argument is that the permits granted for the Yemenite immigrants were given for the structures and not for the land itself; the moment the buildings were demolished, the sanctuary had no more rights to the area.

They note that the land in question is in the heart of Silwan, and that under Ottoman law, this type of land that could only be allocated by a special order of the Sultan.

In a similar (but opposite) case in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where settlers sought to exercise their rights to a structure in a Muslim sanctuary, the custodian general ruled that land of that exact type could not be allocated, and the Supreme Court supported the ruling.

The petitioners write that they hope the custodian general was not guided by external considerations into changing his positions based on the identity of the parties, though they suspect that to be the only reason.

The state’s response to the petition doesn’t relate to the argument about the nature of the land and the possibility of its allocation. It simply asks the court to reject the petition on technical grounds, including a delay in filing.

In its response, Ateret Cohanim also ignores the character of the land; the organization’s lawyer, Avi Segal, asks the court to throw out the joint petition and claims the Palestinian families are all squatters who grabbed control of the sanctuary land. In practice, the group says, the petitioners want the court to ratify the moral and historical shame of the Jewish residents of the site after they were forced to flee by the bloody events of the Great Arab Revolt, and their exile that enabled the petitioners to occupy the sanctuary land.

“For years there’s been a battle over the Judification of Silwan, expelling the Palestinian residents and delivering their homes to settlers,” says Alaa Mahagna, one of the Palestinians' lawyers. “Ostensibly it’s a legal battle in the courts about the rights to the land, but in substance it’s a political conflict and the association is executing a political agenda.”

The custodian general declined to comment.