Israel Must Explain How East Jerusalem Land Was Transferred to Right-wing NGO, Top Court Rules

Court’s order came in response to a petition signed by more than 100 residents, who claim the decision made 17 years ago was illegal

A Jewish-owned house in Silwan, in 2016
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered the state’s administrator general’s office on Monday to explain its decision to transfer land in the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood of Silwan, inhabited by some 700 Palestinians, to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization.

The court’s order came in response to a petition submitted by more than 100 residents of the East Jerusalem locale, who claim that the decision to transfer the property, 17 years ago, was illegal. Since then settlers have moved in and many Palestinian residents have been evicted.

The justices demanded that the Justice Ministry office provide more details relating to its examination of the situation in Batan al-Hawa preceding the state's decision in 2002, when it released the privately owned property to a new trust; three Ateret Cohanim members were appointed as trustees.

Residents of Batan al-Hawa in the High Court of Justice last week.
Emil Salman

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The original trust administering the land in question was established during Ottoman rule, in 1899. In light of that, the justices asked the administrator general to clarify whether there have been other precedents whereby private lands or structures covered by the original trust – and thus subject to Turkish law – were transferred to other bodies. The court also asked the state whether the residents had received proper advance notice of the change in the status of their land.

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The bench asked the Palestinian petitioners to provide more information about any other legal processes in the past involving their land. The justices gave the state 30 days to respond to the court’s requests.

The case involves 5.5 dunams (1.4 acres) of land in the Silwan neighborhood where some hundreds of Palestinians are still living. The deed was issued to the Benvenisti Trust, established about 120 years ago to provide homes to Jews immigrating to Palestine from Yemen. But the trust has, for the last 17 years, been controlled by Ateret Cohanim, a rightist nonprofit group that encourages Jews to move to predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

The main issue in the petition concerns whether the original, Ottoman-era trust covered the administration of the land in question or the buildings erected on it, all but one of which was demolished in the 1940s. The petitioners seeking to halt the eviction claim that the original trust and the recent transfer of the title deed pertained to the buildings, but not to the land itself, based on Ottoman law. The Palestinians claim that the trust’s authority should be voided and the evacuation halted because the trust covered structures that no longer exist – not the land.

Attorney Avi Segal, representing the Benvenisti Trust and Ateret Cohanim, says the petitioners’ claim should be dismissed because they were all aware of the issuance of the title deed to the trust years ago and only filed their petition because they feared they would lose individual eviction cases.

At a hearing last week, however, the state admitted that it had not looked into some of the issues regarding the status of the land and the structures built on it, and the purview of the trust governing it both now and during Ottoman times.

In an ad-hoc event organized Monday by local student groups and the Justice Ministry, administrator general Sigal Yaakob was asked about the eviction of Palestinians in Silwan.

“Sometimes it hurts me but I am a civil servant and I have a job to do,” she said at the event in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. “You expect me to say that in my view this move is not moral although it may be legal, but I don’t have the privilege of saying ‘there could be some sort of distortion of justice here.’

“Perhaps if I were a member of Knesset,” she added, “I would say there is indeed some sort of distortion, but I don’t have the privilege, with my status, of dealing with political issues.”