Earlier this month, Jerusalem police chief Moshe Edri submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court, explaining why the police couldn’t help remove a synagogue built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land in the settlement Givat Ze’ev.
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According to Edri, because of the current terror wave, the police couldn’t divert forces for such a task. As the government stated to the Supreme Court, “the assessment by the Jerusalem district commander is that the security situation requires a further postponement of the demolition of the building.”
But the next day, the day of the planned demolition, the police found hundreds of officers for a different assignment: blocking all entrances to East Jerusalem neighborhood Silwan to protect officials implementing an eviction order. The police let a mover’s truck reach the home of the Abu Nab family, who were moving out so Jews could move in.
The eviction of the Abu Nab family, after a long legal battle, is the latest success of the NGO Ateret Cohanim – with the police’s close cooperation – in expanding the Jewish presence in the heart of Silwan. Unlike settler group Elad, which buys houses in the City of David near the Old City, Ateret Cohanim aims to establish a Jewish neighborhood in the very center of an Arab one.
The takeover of the houses culminates dozens of lawsuits against Palestinian families to persuade them to move in exchange for money, and extreme financial and legal pressure against the families that refuse. In this, Ateret Cohanim enjoys the remarkably close cooperation of the authorities.
Ateret Cohanim portrays itself as an NGO that goes beyond the letter of the law; one that in its benevolence pays Palestinian families to move despite the eviction order they already face.
In any case, the Judaization of Silwan, with all its consequences, is orchestrated by one man, referred to here as M. The Supreme Court has prohibited the publishing of his name or those of Palestinian residents with whom he has signed agreements.
Justice Isaac Amit granted M.’s claim, supported by the attorney general, that his life would be in jeopardy if his name were published. Haaretz argued, through attorney Tal Lieblich of the law firm Lieblich-Moser, that the principle is not protecting a life but defending Ateret Cohanim’s right to do property deals, with all the security and political ramifications, far from the public eye. And in any case, this argument goes, M. is already well known in Silwan.
M. lives in a West Bank settlement and has been involved in property deals in Hebron. Silwan residents say he has almost unlimited funds at his disposal and enjoys close relations with the police, the Custodian of Absentee Property and other authorities.
In the early 2000s, he began his activities in the Batn al-Hawa neighborhood, later to be named the Yemenite Village by Ateret Cohanim. The project would substantially change the character of the small neighborhood.
In honor of Jonathan Pollard
M. co-opted Mohammed Maraga, a young resident, who bought a plot of land from a relative on behalf of Ateret Cohanim. With the help of the NGO, he built a seven-story building containing 10 apartments to become known as Beit Yonatan — in honor of American Jonathan Pollard, still in a U.S. prison for spying for Israel.
The building was put up without a permit. A court order is in place for the structure to be evacuated and sealed, but the execution of the order has been blocked by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
The saga of Beit Yonatan – the complex relations between Maraga and Ateret Cohanim and the betrayal he felt when his family was evicted from Beit Yonatan – was chronicled by Meron Rapoport in a 2005 Haaretz article.
Ateret Cohanim declined to respond for that article, despite the claim that the NGO’s people paid Maraga even though they knew he had executed false property transfers, that they funded an illegal construction project, and that they pampered Maraga with trips abroad and stays in luxury hotels.
Beit Yonatan and the adjacent Beit Dvash, which the Asla family had sold to Maraga, were occupied in 2004. They constituted Ateret Cohanim’s first foothold in the neighborhood.
Three years earlier, in a move that exploited a single technical decision by the district court, M. and Ateret Cohanim became the legal owners of land in the neighborhood inhabited by several hundred Palestinians. M. became the executor of a hekdesh, land declared sacred property more than a century earlier, and was recognized as its owner. This was the opening act in a long legal odyssey to evict local people and move Jews in.
Over the years, the Palestinians brought counterarguments, both legal and moral, against the evictions. One was the complaint that the law only permitted Jews to reclaim property on the other side of the border after the 1947-49 war, while Palestinians who had to abandon property in West Jerusalem and elsewhere were denied this right.
They also raised the issue of the drawing of the hekdesh, and therefore of their status as protected residents. Inexplicably, and in contrast to all other Jewish property left in Arab East Jerusalem after 1948, neither the Jordanian authorities (until 1967) nor the Israeli authorities (after 1967) made any move to take possession of the area now called the Yemenite Village.
But Ateret Cohanim won the cooperation of the custodian general, and for the most part, the Israeli courts rejected the claims of Palestinians who not only faced eviction but had enormous legal debts.
Narrow street, wide ramifications
Still, even after the drawn-out legal process, it’s not easy to execute the eviction order. Police protection is needed, as well as government approval because of the security and political ramifications.
This is where M. enters the picture. His job is to persuade the Palestinians to move out “in a good way.” The first on his list are the extended Palestinian families in a narrow street between Beit Yonatan and the big building that was taken over in late August.
Every family has to deal with M., either as the plaintiff demanding their evacuation or the buyer offering generous compensation if they leave voluntarily. Or he’s the one who threatens dire consequences if they refuse. He typically uses all three approaches together.
The fruit of M.’s labors have ripened of late. A few months ago, settlers moved into another house after the residents, already facing an eviction order, signed an agreement to leave voluntarily. They received 3.2 million shekels ($830,000) in compensation.
Later, Ateret Cohanim took possession of a large building of more than 10 apartments after paying 2 million shekels to a member of the family that owned the property. In exchange, the family would move out.
Other members of the family are engaged in a legal battle, contending that their relative was not the owner of the building and had no right to transfer it to Jewish ownership. And again, there was the recent departure of the Abu Nab family.
The remaining families are fighting a rearguard action against M. and Ateret Cohanim. The NGO plans to demand the removal of dozens more Palestinian families in the area classified as within the hekdesh.
M.’s greatest achievement was acquiring the building with more than 10 apartments, letting Ateret Cohanim double the number of Jewish families in the neighborhood. (There is a court-imposed gag order on the exact location of the building and the names of the owners.)
Several dozen young Jews occupied the building in the dead of night, but not before a Silwan notable walked away with 2 million shekels. He has not been seen in the neighborhood since, and Haaretz was unable to locate him.
Attorney Avraham Moshe Segal, responding for Ateret Cohanim, quoted Justice Amit’s order that prevented the publication of details of the people involved in the transactions, or of anyone acting on their behalf. He said he thus could not comment on specifics.
“In general, it may be said that after a long legal battle, both in district court and at the Supreme Court, justice has prevailed. [The courts] have determined unequivocally that my clients are the sole owners of many properties in Silwan ... already owned by them in the 19th century. And those who have trespassed on those properties are required to vacate them and return them to my clients,” he said.
“Despite the unequivocal decisions by the various courts, particularly the Supreme Court, my clients offer the trespassers and their families, within and beyond the letter of the law, an opportunity to vacate the properties of their own volition, and receive monetary compensation. Instead of recognizing my clients’ humanitarian and chivalrous conduct, various bodies with their own vested interests have brought false accusations against my clients.”
Meanwhile, regarding the heavy police presence for the eviction of the Abu Nab family, a spokesman for the Jerusalem district said “the police assigned an escort for the executors of the eviction order. It was not a large force, and the eviction was carried out without problems.”