Israel Offers to Lease Land to Jerusalem Activist Working to 'Judaize' City

Arieh King, who is running for re-election to the city council, says the lease in the Arab Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood complies with the law

A Jewish settlement in Silwan, East Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

The government’s administrator general has leased land in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to a company owned by right-wing activist and city councilman Arieh King.

For years, Palestinians and left-wing activists have accused the Justice Ministry’s administrator general of doing everything possible to help settler organizations in East Jerusalem. The administrator general has been a key player in efforts to Judaize Sheikh Jarrah.

Most of the neighborhood’s houses were built on land that was owned by Jews until Jordan seized East Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence. Settler organizations work to locate heirs to this land and file suit in their name to get the administrator general to release it. They then sue to get the Palestinian families living there evicted.

It now turns out that in addition to the buildings that settlers have seized with the consent of the Jewish owners’ heirs, the administrator general has leased vacant lots in the neighborhood to a company owned by King.

King, who is currently running for re-election to the city council at the head of a right-wing ticket, is a leading activist in Judaizing the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods.

One lot, which is fairly small, is next to the home of the Abdul Razeq family. Twenty years ago, family members fenced in the plot, saying they did so to prevent trash from being dumped there. They also planted a grove of fruit trees on the plot.

A month ago, officials from the administrator general’s office uprooted the trees as part of their effort to evict the trespassers. Shortly before last week’s Sukkot holiday, King visited the site with officials from that same office. He later announced in a video posted on his Facebook page that he planned to build a sukkah on the site, though that didn’t happen.

“Of course the Arab squatters trespassed on the land,” he said in the video. “We’ve already cleared the land, and soon we’ll evict the people as well.”

It turns out that the administrator general leased this lot and several adjacent ones to Yoshvei Hahar, a company wholly owned by King. That same day, signs were posted in Sheikh Jarrah announcing the company’s plans to build three homes for Jews there.

About six months ago, Haaretz reported that the director of the administrator general’s economic department, which handles East Jerusalem issues, is Hananel Gurfinkel, a member of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party who set up an organization that tries to prevent “foreigners” from taking over state assets in East Jerusalem and has publicly called for fighting the “Arab occupation” of the city. Gurfinkel still holds this job.

“The lease complied with the law and the administrator general’s legal advice,” King said. “And as far as I know, they didn’t come to me first; they also offered to lease the land to the Arab neighbors. We have plans to develop the site as far as the law allows.”

The administrator general’s office said, “There is no rule requiring us to offer to lease the lot to owners of neighboring lots, and certainly not to someone who illegally squatted on the property."

“When the administrator general asked the people who held the property illegally, they said the property didn’t belong to them, and that they planted trees on the lot and fenced it in to prevent the site from being trespassed on and turned into a dump. They didn’t at any point express interest in leasing the land from the administrator general,” it said in a statement.

“The administrator general made sure to obtain a permit to cut down the trees, as required by law, and took steps to clear the lot only after receiving it.”

The administrator general is also active in other East Jerusalem neighborhoods. In Silwan, for instance, the office has backed the Ateret Cohanim organization’s acquisition of land where hundreds of Palestinians live.