An organization that settles Jews in Arab areas of East Jerusalem has filed six suits in recent months to evict 27 Palestinian families from their homes in the Silwan neighborhood.
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These latest suits by Ateret Cohanim, filed in the last four months, bring the total number of such suits now moving through the courts to 12. Altogether, the 12 suits affect 51 families made up of more than 300 people. The names of all the people involved in the suits are under a court-approved gag order.
Security for each Jewish family now living in Silwan costs the state about 1 million shekels ($260,000) a year.
All the land at issue was purchased by a Jewish trust more than a century ago for the purpose of housing Jewish immigrants from Yemen. Ateret Cohanim obtained control over the land in 2001, when it successfully asked the Jerusalem District Court, with backing from the Justice Ministry’s administrator general, to appoint it as the trust’s trustee, on the grounds that the original trustees – appointed back in 1899 – could no longer fulfill their role.
In 2004, Ateret Cohanim began settling Jewish families in Silwan’s Beit Yonatan building. Ever since, it has worked to evict Palestinians living on the trust’s land, both by filing suits and by offering families generous compensation to leave voluntarily.
So far, the organization has settled 10 Jewish families in Beit Yonatan. Over the past year, it has emptied another 13 apartments in Silwan, but most haven’t yet gotten new tenants.
A few months ago, however, it apparently decided to begin a concerted legal effort to clear all the land it controls of its Palestinian residents. Most of the 60 families targeted have lived there for decades.
Attorney Ziad Kawar, one of a team of lawyers representing most of the Palestinian families, said he believes Ateret Cohanim is filing the suits now for fear that if it waits, the statute of limitations will expire. The organization obtained control of the land in November 2001, he noted, and the statute of limitations on unresolved land issues is 15 years, “so they have to file all the suits by November 2016.”
Kawar, however, argues that the statute of limitations should have expired long ago, because the administrator general was aware of these lands but made no effort to take control of them.
Another unresolved legal question is whether the land really remained in Jewish hands after the Yemenite Jews left the neighborhood in the late 1930s during the Arab Revolt. Moreover, some of the Palestinians claim to have bought their plots from the Jewish owners, while others claim their plots aren’t actually the ones mentioned in the original Ottoman-era deeds.
Finally, the Palestinians argue that Jews shouldn’t be allowed to regain property lost in the 1948 War of Independence as long as Palestinians aren’t allowed to do the same. During that war, Jordan conquered East Jerusalem and expelled its Jewish residents, while many Palestinians fled or were driven from the city’s western part.
“My father had a house in the [Old City’s] Jewish Quarter,” said Zuheir Rajbi, a Silwan resident. “If they want to remove me from here, then I want it back.”
“Israel, by means of discriminatory legislation, is helping to establish settlements in the heart of East Jerusalem and turning the many Palestinian refugees who live [in Silwan] into refugees once again,” added attorney Muhammad Dahleh, Kawar’s colleague.
Moving more Jews into Silwan would also have far-reaching security and budgetary implications. Jewish residents of the area have repeatedly had their houses and cars stoned or firebombed, and they can only leave home in armored cars accompanied by an armed guard.
Last year, the state spent 83 million shekels to guard Jews living in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, while this year, the figure is expected to be 74 million shekels. A source familiar with the issue said the cost of security for Jews in the part of Silwan where Ateret Cohanim operates comes to 12 million shekels a year – about one million shekels per family. This budget, which comes from the Housing Ministry, doesn’t include the extra costs to the police.
Nor is Ateret Cohanim the only organization moving Jews into Silwan. Elad, for instance, has settled 25 families in a different part of Silwan over the past 18 months.
Attorney Avraham Moshe Segal, who represents the trust, said the courts had ruled it to be the sole owner of the land in question, and therefore, “all the squatters against whom suits have been filed ought to vacate the land voluntarily. My client, going beyond the letter of the law, is even willing to compensate the squatters who vacate the trust’s land voluntarily.”
The Ir Amim organization, which is helping the Palestinian residents, said that settler organizations, “under the auspices of a discriminatory system, are dispossessing and uprooting the Palestinian community from its houses, and dispossessing Israel of any chance of a future diplomatic solution.”