The Israeli Justice Ministry’s Man Who Settles Jews in Arab East Jerusalem

Hananel Gurfinkel has also set up an NGO to help prevent the takeover by ‘foreign entities’ – Arabs – of state property in East Jerusalem

A man is seen from a window as Israeli flags fly on top of a house in Silwan neighborhood of east Jerusalem, August 27, 2015.
AP

Palestinians who are fighting evictions in East Jerusalem have complained for years about cooperation between the Justice Ministry and groups trying to settle Jews in the capital’s Arab neighborhoods. The Palestinians say this coordination has reached new heights over the past year and a half.

A Haaretz investigation has found that during this period the Justice Ministry’s office of the administrator general transferred responsibility for its East Jerusalem portfolio to a different unit at the office, one headed by an official named Hananel Gurfinkel.

Gurfinkel, the head of the economic unit, is a member of Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party; he has also set up a nongovernmental organization to help prevent the takeover by ostensible “foreign entities” of state property in East Jerusalem. He has called on Israelis to fight the “Arab conquest” of Jerusalem.

Gurfinkel, who lives in the Jewish Nof Zion neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem’s Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood, is responsible for a long list of efforts to evict Palestinians and transfer the homes to right-wing nonprofit groups.

Palestinian families and their lawyers say that since Gurfinkel received his new responsibilities, pressure has increased for them to move, with Jews replacing them. In addition, the administrator general’s office hired attorney Moshe Segal without a competitive bidding process. Most of Segal’s clients are right-wing groups that have interests in certain decisions by the administrator general’s office.

Hananel Gurfinkel during a tour of Sheikh Jarrah.

In response to a request by Haaretz, the Justice Ministry has looked into Gurfinkel’s actions but he is not expected to be replaced. The ministry said the contract with Segal involves no conflicts of interest because the lawyer and the administrator general do not represent opposing positions.

In general, the administrator general, formerly known as the custodian general, is responsible for unclaimed land and property, as well as bequests to the State of Israel. The administrator general administers abandoned property, and in this case the property owned by Jews before 1948 in the parts of Jerusalem occupied by the Jordanians from 1948 to 1967, now known as East Jerusalem. The administrator general “inherited” the Jewish-owned land from the Jordanian custodian of enemy property.

Most property abandoned in Jerusalem in 1948 belonged to Arabs who had fled the city; by law the people who fled and did not return are considered absentees and are no longer entitled to their property. The law lets Jews reinstate the ownership of their property, which is usually done through a process handled by the administrator general. In most cases, the Jewish families with title to the land and homes are asked to sell it to right-wing nonprofit groups representing Jews who want to live in East Jerusalem.

The NGOs then file a request in the owners’ names with the administrator general to release the property to the owners. The request also asks the administrator general to remove the current Palestinians residents, who have usually been renting the place for years. In legal terms, the administrator general considers these residents “trespassers and intruders.”

In the Silwan neighborhood, just south of the Old City, the administrator general has supported the right-wing group Ateret Cohanim, which controls property known as the Benvenisti Trust, a property trust dedicated for religious purposes and named after the Benvenisti family, which established the trust nearly 120 years ago. Some of the land involved was acquired by Jews in 1881.

In 2001, Ateret Cohanim became the Benvenisti trustee. The appointment was supported by the administrator general and was approved by the Jerusalem District Court. In 2005, the administrator general sold Ateret Cohanim other plots near the trust’s lands.

Now the idea is to evict about 60 Palestinian families in order to build a Jewish neighborhood in the heart of Silwan. In the early 20th century, this area was a Jewish neighborhood housing Yemenite Jews. Most of the Palestinians in question have lived there since the 1950s or ‘60s.  A number of the families have already left.

Over the years, the administrator general office’s has helped Ateret Cohanim in lawsuits against the Palestinians. The administrator general has also helped evict families living under similar circumstances in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood northwest of the Old City so Jews could move in. Over the past three months another legal campaign has begun for further evictions; two families have received eviction notices and at least five others have received expedited eviction orders.

‘Slowly occupied by the Arabs’

Gurfinkel has run the economic unit for years. A year and a half ago his department also received the responsibility for East Jerusalem, which had previously been under the Unit for the Location and Restitution of Unclaimed Property at the administrator general’s office.

At that office, Gurfinkel was elected a member of the Habayit Hayehudi central committee by the party’s Jerusalem branch. In 2016, he established the Boneh Yerushalayim (Building Jerusalem) nonprofit group. This NGO is registered under the name of his wife Sarah; its official address is their home in Nof Zion in the middle of Jabal Mukkaber.

Gurfinkel has signed most of the organization’s founding documents and reports. On its list of goals, the group includes encouraging the construction of housing for the needy in Jerusalem, especially in Nof Zion, along with social services, education and culture marked by Zionist values for residents.

It goals also include working with government bodies to increase enforcement against illegal construction, including in East Jerusalem. This includes encouraging the authorities to do their job based on the law and the “fundamental principles of Zionism and to prevent the takeover by foreign entities of these resources” owned by the government in Jerusalem.

In a Facebook post in April 2013, Gurfinkel commented on what he considered the government’s role in East Jerusalem. “Have a wonderful week Nafatli,” Gurfinkel wrote on Bennett’s Facebook page. “For your information, every day that passes, more houses of Arabs are being built on the state’s land and private land in Jerusalem .... Jerusalem is being conquered slowly by the Arabs who are building illegally on state/city/private lands.”

In a 2012 post in response to an article on a demonstration by Arab students at the Technion technology institute in Haifa, Gurfinkel wrote: “Is there a possibility of sending them on a ‘missile’ to Gaza?”

Palestinians who have met Gurfinkel in court say he is very eager to evict them. “He came with three other people from the custodian’s office, as if they were the owners,” said Mohammed Zaharan, a resident of Sheikh Jarrah who faces an eviction order.

“When we went out into the corridor, Hananel told me that it seemed to him that I was a person who likes to play music: ‘Come over to me and I’ll sing and you’ll play the darbukas.’ He said ... anyone who makes any change to his house should know he’ll be evicted – which is one of the justifications for removing a “protected tenant.” Zaharan said that Gurfinkel “for maybe 15 minutes made only threats.”

Another resident, Mohammed al-Kisawani, said that when Gurfinkel visited Sheikh Jarrah accompanied by Justice Ministry security guards, he stood on the roof of one of the houses evacuated six months earlier and said that soon he would evacuate the entire neighborhood.

‘Special expertise’

In response to questions from Haaretz, Sigal Yakovi, the administrator general, ordered an examination into the various matters concerning Gurfinkel. A preliminary examination found that a civil servant of his rank is allowed to be a member of a political party.

Segal, the attorney, is Gurfinkel’s partner in his efforts to evict residents. Segal represents Ateret Cohanim as well as Elad, the group that runs the City of David National Park and also settles Jews in Arab East Jerusalem. He also represents the Regavim nonprofit group that conducts legal battles against illegal Arab construction in Israel and the West Bank. Segal is a key figure in dozens of legal proceedings for evicting East Jerusalem Arabs. At least some of the organizations he represents have clear interests in decisions made by the administrator general.

Still, he was hired by the administrator general’s office to represent it in proceeding against Palestinian families, most of which have been opened in recent months after Gurfinkel received the East Jerusalem portfolio.

Segal also represents Ateret Cohanim as the trustee of the Benvenisti Trust, and is doing the trust’s legal work for evicting about 60 families from Silwan. A petition was filed recently with the High Court of Justice against the administrator general's decision to let Ateret Cohanim manage the trust’s assets.

Yet the Justice Ministry says this does not represent a conflict of interest because “the administrator general and attorney Segal do not represent opposing positions.” Segal was hired without a competitive bidding process. The ministry says he has “special expertise” and the cost of the contract was based on an examination of pricing between a number of law firms before Segal was chosen. The ministry also said Segal was hired before the High Court petition was filed.

In the case of the Shamasneh family that was evicted from Sheikh Jarrah in September, Segal represented the Jewish family that inherited the building, though he was paid by a right-wing group that later rented the building to Jews. In the case of the neighboring Bader family, Segal represents the administrator general.

Mohaned Jabara, an attorney who represents some of the families in Sheikh Jarrah, says the administrator general supplies the settlers with another important service: It provides a stamp of approval. In the case of the Shamanseh family, the new Jewish residents avoided paying the final, symbolic sum to “release” the building into their hands, Jabara said. This way, they could keep the administrator general in the picture and hopefully strengthen their hand in court by claiming it was a government agency that sought the eviction of families, not the private owners.

For its part, the Justice Ministry said there is no connection between the identity of the plaintiff and the results in court.

At first, the ministry said Segal did not work for the administrator general. Only after Haaretz presented the ministry with documents showing that Segal did work for it did it admit he represents the administrator general in six cases – all of them requests for eviction orders in East Jerusalem.

The administrator general’s office said Segal’s law firm was chosen to represent the office “in proceedings in the Jerusalem area after a pricing process, and in light of his expertise on the matter.”

“The handling of assets managed by the administrator general division were transferred to the economic unit ... as part of a structural change and based on the giving of additional tasks to the Unit for the Location and Restitution of Unclaimed Property,” the Justice Ministry said.

“The administrator general division manages the property of private owners all over the country and is obligated to act for their benefit, including handling suits against trespassers. The division has no separate policy concerning management of property located in one region or another,” it added.

“As for the matter of Mr. Gurfinkel, in light of his rank and position there is no reason to prevent him from being active in a branch of a political party. All the activities of the nonprofit organization he founded are in organizing leisure-time activities for children.”

Segal said his firm represents the administrator general in lawsuits for the eviction of people who have trespassed onto property that the administrator general has lawfully acquired – and not against “the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes.” The contracts with the Justice Ministry have been conducted according to the law, he added.

As Segal put it, “I am sorry that such eviction suits, which do not please and do not match the agenda of the Haaretz newspaper, have led the newspaper to write nonsense and lies, even though the paper knows very well that the various courts, including the Supreme Court, have approved the eviction rulings granted in the suits conducted by my firm on behalf of the administrator general.”