This Palestinian Is Fighting for His East Jerusalem Home - and the Whole Neighborhood Is at Stake

Jawad Siyam is competing against the settler group Elad that has far more money and hopes Siyam's house in Silwan will be a tipping point

Jawad Siyam, a community leader in Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood, August 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Settlers and Palestinians are bidding for a property in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan that could decide the whole area’s character, local people say. The contestants: the settler group Elad and the man considered the Palestinian leader in Silwan, Jawad Siyam.

An invitation for bids was published by the Finance Ministry’s Custodian of Absentee Property and the Israel Land Authority, offering for sale a one-quarter stake in a building of four apartments. The invitation expires in less than three weeks. Siyam says the custodian is doing everything possible to help the settlers take over his home.

“Since 1994 we have been in the courts facing the settlers,” Siyam says. “If we lose now we’ll have only one quarter of the building and it will be much easier for them to evict us. But I won’t leave; they’ll have to kill me first.”

Both Elad and the finance minister say they are doing everything according to the law.  

Siyam, 48, lives in Silwan’s Wadi Hilweh section, almost all of it located within the City of David National Park run by Elad. Siyam established the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, which tries to counter Elad’s attempts to take over the area by publicizing events both in the neighborhood and in wider East Jerusalem.

He has also set up a children’s club with day camps, computer groups and other educational activities. He lives in a building that was owned by his family, next to a property that was seized by Elad, which for years has striven to obtain ownership over the building and evict the Siyams.

The story of Siyam’s house is similar to that of many houses in Silwan. The original owner died and the heirs were divided. Some sold their stake in the building to straw buyers, who transferred it to the settlers, while others are abroad, considered absentees. The rest must contend with legal challenges by Elad, which seeks to take over the building.

An Israeli flag hangs on the wall of a building that was taken over by settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.
Olivier Fitoussi

In the case of the Siyam family, the owner, Siyam’s grandmother, died in 1991. She left the building to eight heirs. Four of them sold their stake to people who handed it over to Elad, so now the group owns half the building. Two other daughters were in Jordan in 1967 and thus are considered absentees. Their one-quarter stake is owned by the state through the custodian. Two other heirs, including Siyam, still live there.

Unequal forces

One family member who sold a stake to Elad ostensibly collaborated with it. In 1997 the local district court rejected a petition filed by Elad. The claim was that the grandmother had disinherited her two daughters, so the settlers’ stake in the building was actually larger.

The supporting document was signed with a thumbprint. Siyam says this was obtained after the grandmother’s death, as her body was being washed. The court did not address the timing of the signing but ruled that the woman did not understand the implication of the document, annulling the disinheritance of the two daughters.

Elad filed a petition to dissolve the joint ownership of the building. While this petition was still under consideration, the custodian announced his intention to sell the state’s stake in the building.

This is a closed invitation for bids in which only Elad and Siyam can take part. The minimum price is 455,000 shekels ($126,140) and the winner will simply be the highest bidder. Siyam knows that his chances of beating Elad, considered one of the wealthiest nonprofit groups in the country, are slim.

“I can’t produce such a sum,” he says. “Even if I do they’ll offer more. They’ll know exactly how much I’m offering.”

In a letter asking the attorney general to cancel the bidding, attorney Waleed Zahalka wrote: “These are not equal forces competing in the bidding. On one side is a simple Palestinian family of limited means, while on the other is a strong settler group with an annual budget of tens of millions of shekels assisted by unknown but wealthy foreign groups focusing on land acquisition, for which money poses almost no limits.”

Siyam and his lawyer question the fairness of the bidding but also the way Elad gained sway over the building. They question the use of the Absentees’ Property Law to evict the Siyam family. The law was legislated in 1950 to seize the assets of Palestinian refugees as a result of Israel’s 1947-49 War of Independence. According to the law, assets belonging to a person who moved to an enemy state are taken over by the state.

‘Extremely exceptional cases’

Since 1967 settlers have made extensive use of this law to seize assets in East Jerusalem, after proving that owners had moved to the occupied territories or to Jordan. But judges, a government commission of inquiry, attorneys general and other jurists have all criticized the use of this law. Unlike the situation during the War of Independence, these were not cases of refugees abandoning their homes during wartime, leaving behind assets needed to develop the country, as stated in the original law.

Two years ago a seven-member panel of Supreme Court justices ruled that the use of this law in Jerusalem should be limited to “extremely exceptional cases.” Two justices, including the current president, Miriam Naor, contended that there were no such exceptional cases.

Zahalka argues that the custodian should first have tried to return the property to the absentee’s family and not let a Jewish group buy it.

“There is collusion here between the custodian and Elad’s interests,” says Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, which is assisting Siyam. “These aren’t trespassers. It’s the family, the daughter of one of the absentees who is living there. The custodian considers her a trespasser.”

As Zahalka wrote, “This appears to be a new stage in the wrongful conduct of the Custodian of Absentee Property in Silwan, aimed at helping the settlers.” He calls this “a transparent attempt by the custodian to help the settlers achieve compete control of the property and evict its Palestinian owners."

Israeli and Palestinian activists trying to help Siyam say the issue is much more than a battle over another house that might pass into settler hands. In recent years Elad has managed to seize houses and develop a national park both above and below ground. “The feeling is that if Siyam’s house falls the entire neighborhood falls,” Ofran says.

For its part, the Finance Ministry says “the custodian’s stake in this building was determined in a ruling by District Court Judge Josef Shapira. This ruling that determined the proportional rights over the property was followed by a procedure to dissolve the shared ownership, undertaken by all parties to the dispute. Since the custodian cannot sell property to a private person but only to a development authority that is part of the Israel Land Authority, the state’s stake was given to this authority. The process is proceeding according to the law and the Land Authority’s procedures, and is being monitored by the court.”

Elad said “the property was sold by the Siyam family 20 years ago, freely and for full value. The court determined the sharing of ownership. Thus, to simplify the procedure, the state announced its intention to sell its stake three years ago through an invitation of bids, as is customary in such cases.

“We regret that although this is a routine matter known in advance and carried out in coordination with all owners, there is a family member who does not live in the building and who seeks to exploit this case by misleading the public to advance his extremist political activities. It is the buyers whose rights have been denied for 20 years. They purchased the property in a procedure sanctioned by the court, but have thus far not been able to exercise their rights over this property.”