In the mid-1990s, Ilan Shtayer, a research assistant at the Ben-Zvi Institute for the study of the Land of Israel, was asked, together with others, to conduct historical geographical research about the Yemenite Jewish section of the Arab village of Silwan near Jerusalem’s Old City. The team collected maps, aerial photographs and written sources and wrote their study of the neighborhood, where Yemenites lived from the 19th century until the riots of 1929. Among their tasks was to locate land purchased by Jewish philanthropists to build the neighborhood for the new immigrants from Yemen who arrived in 1882.
As far as Shtayer knew, the bodies commissioning the research were the Administrator General’s office, a Justice Ministry unit responsible for selling property of various kinds that is given to Israel, and Yad Ben-Zvi. Only after the report was completed and the researchers met with the research steering committee, did they realize that alongside Administrator General personnel, they found representatives of the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization were sitting. “I remember I was very surprised to see them in the room,” Shtayer says.
The research Shtayer and his colleagues carried out was the first step in a long legal battle to make the Silwan neighborhood of Batan el-Hawa Jewish. But it was also the beginning of a close and unusual relationship between Ateret Cohanim and the Administrator General. Over the years, that government department has provided Ateret Cohanim with opinions and permits and sold the land to the association at a convenient price, and generally stood shoulder to shoulder with Ateret Cohanim in its struggles against Palestinian families who sought to remain in their homes.
After the 1990s research was used to map Jewish properties in Silwan, the next phase was for Ateret Cohanim to take possession of the historical hekdesh – the association that purchased the property in the 19th century and legally speaking is still the owner. The turning point was in 2001, when the Jerusalem District Court approved the appointment of three new individuals as trustees of the hekdesh: M., who works for Ateret Cohanim, taking care of details involving the evacuation of Palestinian families; A., a lawyer representing the association, and Y., a well-known rabbi in Jerusalem who is close to Ateret Cohanim. The Administrator General supported Ateret Cohanim’s application for their people to be appointed trustees.
Haaretz is still waging a legal battle, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, to have a gag order lifted on the names of the individuals in question; the court approved their request to keep their names confidential because revealing them could put them in danger.
A year after the District Court’s ruling, the new trustees asked the government’s administrator of properties to release land to the hekdesh. The administrator approved the request and transferred to the hekdesh 5.5 dunams (about 1.3 acres) in the heart of Silwan, where hundreds of Palestinians live. Ateret Cohanim then launched the legal process to evict the Palestinian families.
A year ago, in an effort to remove all doubt, the deputy head of the office of the administrator of absentee property, Sigal Ya’akobi, signed another document releasing the land to the three trustees. This time, the precise lots are mentioned: 95 and 96, according to official Israeli land records.
But the administrator’s most problematic decision was to sell four other lots to the hekdesh that were not part of its original land. This happened in 2005, when the administrator realized that the original owners could not be located. The land, almost 2,000 square meters, was sold for 995,825 shekels ($253, 240).
Why did a right-wing group receive the right to purchase the property in the densely populated heart of Silwan, at such a low price and without a tender? According to law, the administrator must give priority in selling property to individuals in possession of or living in nearby assets. But a glance at the map shows that two of the lots are not adjacent to the hekdesh and are surrounded on all sides by Palestinian lands. Two other lots owned by the hekdesh are adjacent to it only on one side, meaning that three or four neighbors other than the hekdesh could be potential purchasers – but they were not given the opportunity to do so because the administrator did not publish a tender.
Regular property costs in Silwan show what a low price Ateret Cohanim paid. According to records of the Tax Authority, an average apartment in Silwan goes for 1.2 million shekels. In 2005 prices were significantly lower, but according to experts, they have not changed as drastically as in the western part of town and the rest of the country.
According to a Justice Ministry statement released in the name of the Administrator General’s office, the price Ateret Cohanim paid is higher than the value determined by a real estate assessor.
The administrator did not deny that no tender had been issued and gave no explanation for this, or for the fact that preference was given to Ateret Cohanim.
The Duweik family, one of those living in hekdesh property, has been waging various legal battles against Ateret Cohanim. The family has so far lost in the Jerusalem District Court and the Supreme Court in a suit brought by Ateret Cohanim against illegal construction the family carried out, and Ateret Cohanim is now suing to have the family evicted.
One of the family’s attorneys, Hussam Siam, says the administrator’s conduct shows the close connections with Ateret Cohanim. The court had ordered the administrator to allow the family’s legal team access to all documents, Siam says. “But when we came to the administrator’s office, their representatives and Ateret Cohanim people were sitting there and every important document we wanted to see they said, ‘no, that’s forbidden, that’s confidential.’”
Jerusalem District Court Judge Aharon Farkash dismissed that argument, saying that the family should have subpoenaed the administrator’s employees to cross-examine them about it.
Attorney Mohammad Dahla, who represents Palestinian families in Silwan, and other lawyers have identified a number of ways to take over property in East Jerusalem that had belonged to Jews before 1948. Appointing trustees to hekdesh property is one way. Another, used in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, is to locate the Jewish heirs to various properties, have them sign power of attorney over to the association and approach the administrator’s office in the name of the heirs with a request to release the property. The association then purchases it from the Jewish family, and moves people in. In most cases, right-wing activists play “matchmaker” between the heirs and donors from abroad who purchase it from them.
A third method is for right-wing activists to approach the administrator’s office directly to request that a property be sold to them. The Custodian of Absentee Property in the Finance Ministry and the Administrator General in the Justice Ministry have sold dozens of properties in East Jerusalem over the years, many of them to groups working to settle Jews in East Jerusalem.
“The deep involvement of the Administrator General and the authorities in transferring assets in Silwan to settlers pulls the rug out from under the government’s claim that these are merely private real-estate dealings,” says Hagit Ofran of Peace Now.
The Justice Ministry spokeswoman said the administrator general “does not manage documentation about the tenants. An amended release certificate was issued at the request of the hekdesh trustees based, among other things, on the opinion of a licensed surveyor The matter received further validation from the District Court.”
In contrast to the Duweik family’s attorneys’ claim, the spokeswoman said that “in the framework of the legal proceedings the parties were given the opportunity to examine the administrator general’s file.”
As for the sale of properties to the hekdesh, the Justice Ministry spokeswoman said the lots were offered for sale “a decade ago in light of their planning and legal status while maintaining the broader interests of the owners of the lots.”
Attorney Avraham Moshe Segal, who represents the hekdesh, said: “Haaretz readers should know that the Supreme Court issued a gag order prohibiting Haaretz from published details that could identify those involved in the purchases in Silwan. Haaretz should bow its head and respect the court’s verdict.”
Segal also noted that “four District Court judges noted that the hekdesh is the legal owner of the hekdesh land. This was approved by four Supreme Court justices. All claims by Haaretz were rejected in verdicts of the Supreme Court, a fact that does not stop the newspaper from thinking, mistakenly, that it is a judicial tribunal serving as a court of appeals over the Supreme Court.”
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