The Supreme Court is holding a decisive hearing on Monday concerning the eviction of a Palestinian family from their home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem – which could also affect the possible eviction of dozens of other families in the area.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who was asked to issue his legal opinion on a number of fundamental questions arising from the case, told the court last week he believes these issues should not be discussed because the residents can be evicted based on the denial of their claim that the statute of limitations has expired. The attorney general is expected to send a representative to attend the hearing.
The court is to hear the appeal of the Dweik family, which like dozens of other families from the Batan al-Hawa area of Silwan, has lived for decades on land that was owned by Jews before Israel was founded in 1948. The land is currently owned by a historic religious trust, which for the last 20 years has been controlled by the pro-settler Ateret Cohanim organization. The neighborhood was built in an area settled by Jewish Yemenite immigrants at the end of the 19th century and abandoned before Israel's establishment.
The ruling in the Dweik family case is expected to have ramifications for other cases in which pro-settler Jewish organizations are seeking to evict residents of Silwan, potentially affecting hundreds who might be evicted.
The Supreme Court ordered Mendelblit to submit his legal opinion on a number of fundamental issues arising from the case, including those concerning the status of the land and the laws of religious trusts in Ottoman-era jurisprudence. The religious trust says the 1899 decision by the Sharia Court of Jerusalem to use the land for the benefit of Jerusalem’s Jewish population is still in force and that it therefore belongs to the trust.
The residents claim that according to law it was not at all possible to entrust the land, only the structures on it, and these were demolished long ago – and that once these buildings were demolished, the trust was rescinded.
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The plaintiffs, the trustees of the religious trust from Ateret Cohanim, argue that the land and buildings all belong to the trust. Another question is that of the expiration of the statute of limitations, because the Dweik family bought the house in 1965 and the trustees only requested their eviction in 2002. Another question concerns the residents of houses that they built themselves, supposedly without knowing they did not own the land.
Instead of addressing these questions, Mendelblit provided a short response after requesting a postponement in providing his answers. According to the response submitted last week, Mendelblit “considered the matters seriously and held discussions with professionals and on the policies relevant to the issue, in which weighty diplomatic considerations also arose.”
Nonetheless, “it would not be appropriate in the framework of this proceeding to provide an across-the board position on the question of the classification of the property involved.” The reason given was that two lower courts, the magistrate’s court and the district court, accepted the position of the Jewish owners concerning the statute of limitations. As a result, the decision on the matter of the statute of limitations is sufficient in itself and there is no need to consider the rest of the fundamental questions, wrote Mendelblit.
The justices will also decide on a request submitted by a group of experts in international law to join the case and file an amicus curiae brief stating the that according to international and Israeli law, the residents' right to housing supersedes that of the trustees to evict them. The brief includes examples from elsewhere in the world in which control of a property for decades by an underprivileged group that suffers from discrimination overrides the rights of the original owners. They say that even if the Supreme Court reaches the conclusion that the Jewish trust is the owner of the property, this does not necessarily mean that the residents must be evicted, but rather that the state must compensate the religious trust and allow the residents to stay.
The Peace Now organization said in advance of the Supreme Court hearing: “When our neighbors are at risk of eviction, our obligation is to stand and prevent it. We will not remain silent when the settlers and government take advantage of a discriminatory law to dispossess Palestinian families of their homes, with the goal of ‘Judaizing’ East Jerusalem. This is a protest on behalf of justice, equality and morality and against the attempt to harm the chance for peace on the basis of the two-state solution.”