It Pays Off to Be an Israeli Settler, Whether Trespasser or Landowner

A comparison of four cases in which residents in different neighborhoods have been evicted reveals the bitter truth about ethnic and class hierarchy in Israel

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The evacuation of the illegal Amona outpost, 2017.
The evacuation of the illegal Amona outpost, 2017.Credit: \ Ilan Assayag
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

“A community has been sitting under its vine and its fig tree for years, and suddenly someone questions the ownership of the land.” The speaker was a cabinet minister, Yuval Steinitz, and he was referring to the settlers of Amona, who were compelled to leave their homes, some two years ago, after it turned out that they stood on privately owned Palestinian land. The same comment could easily be made about the residents of Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood abutting the Old City of Jerusalem, who lived in their home for decades before the buildings were transferred to the ultranationalist Ateret Cohanim organization; or about the folks in Jerusalem’s upscale Rehavia neighborhood, who suddenly discovered, some three or four years ago, that they were living on land that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has sold to private developers; and also about the Jewish residents of the former Palestinian village of Lifta, at the western entrance to Jerusalem, who last year were required to vacate the homes they had lived in for 60 years.

Amona, Rehavia, Lifta and Silwan have all made the headlines in recent years for the same reason: Families in each neighborhood have been evicted from their homes, or face evacuation, because they are living on land they don’t own.

Each case is a separate story in its own right. No one drew a connection between the residents of Rehavia, who today are fearful for the future of their property, and the people in Silwan, who face a similar plight under far grimmer conditions. Each case has its own distinctness, and comparisons can be tricky. But the similarity of the basic plot, combined with the differences in the way the political and judicial systems in Israel have treated each case, reveal a bitter truth about equality, property rights and social status in Israel and the territories.

The illegal settler outpost of Amona was established by the Binyamin Regional Council and the Ministry of Defense in 1997. It was built on privately owned Palestinian land in what is occupied territory under Israeli law, without permits and without appearing in a mandatory master plan. Twenty years later, in 2017, following a protracted legal battle waged by the Palestinian owners of the land, the outpost was evacuated. The government established a new community for the evacuees at an estimated cost of 250 million shekels (about $68 million). During the battle against the evacuation of the outpost, the Knesset passed a law that allows the state to expropriate privately owned Palestinian land in the West Bank. To date, the Palestinian landowners from Amona have not been allowed to return to their property.

In the case of Rehavia, parts of neighborhoods in the center of Jerusalem were built on land that the Jewish National Fund leased in the early 1950s for decades from the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Most of the contracts will expire in another 30 years. In recent years, nearly all of this land has been purchased by private developers, most likely for the purpose of selling it back to the current residents. House prices have already plunged 30 percent, and the occupants are in danger of losing their investments. At the moment no solution is pending, though it’s likely that in the end the JNF and the state will have to reach an agreement with the developers so that the residents are not left homeless. In the meantime, MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) is sponsoring legislation that would allow the state to expropriate the land.

Lifta was one of the largest Palestinian villages in the Jerusalem region prior to 1948. It was abandoned by its inhabitants during the War of Independence, following which the Jewish Agency and the state settled dozens of Jewish new-immigrant families from Kurdistan and Yemen to live there, in the homes of the Palestinian refugees. As in other places, such as the Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Givat Amal Bet and Sumeil, the legal rights of the new occupants of the buildings were never formalized. About a decade ago, the Israel Land Administration demanded that the “trespassers” leave. Only after a legal and public struggle, and after one of the Lifta residents, Yoni Yohanan, found a 1953 document according to which the occupants were to be granted title to the houses, did the Finance Ministry agree to compensate them. The contents of the agreement were not made public, but the assumption is that the residents who were evacuated received more or less what the market value of their homes would have been under normal circumstances. The state seized the land, demolished the homes and launched groundwork for the widening of the last stretch of the highway to Jerusalem that is currently underway.

The Batan al-Hawa section of Silwan was established after 1948 by Palestinians, some of whom had been left as refugees during the war. The neighborhood was built on the site where Kfar Hateimanin, the “Yemenite Village” – a small community which lived on land owned by a Jewish public trust – had existed prior to 1938. In 1950, the Palestinians lost their rights to the property they left behind elsewhere in the country, and in 1967 Silwan was annexed to Israel. In 2001, the Jerusalem District Court appointed Ateret Cohanim as the trust’s representatives, and in 2002 the Custodian General in the Justice Ministry released the land to the trust’s possession. In recent years, hundreds of Palestinian residents of the neighborhood have been confronted with evacuation demands on the part of Ateret Cohanim. Three weeks ago, the High Court of Justice rejected the residents’ petition and allowed Ateret Cohanim to continue with the evacuation efforts.

Trampled principles

Each case is distinct, but each of them involves people living on land that isn’t legally theirs: settlers, members of a Jerusalem elite, descendants of immigrants from Kurdistan and East Jerusalem Palestinians. In each case their interests are in conflict with the legal landowners, or people who claim ownership: Palestinians from the West Bank in Amona, the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches and private developers in Rehavia, the State of Israel in Lifta and the historic trust controlled by a settlers’ nonprofit organization in Silwan. A different solution was found or can be anticipated for each case. In Amona there was an evacuation and generous compensation, as well as a special law intended to preclude similar evacuations in the future but which trampled basic international legal principles in the present, not least that the legislature is precluded from enacting laws that are applied to people who lack the right to vote. In Rehavia there’s a commitment by the JNF to solve the problem, and a process has begun for the Knesset to pass a special law. Lifta saw a voluntary evacuation in return for generous compensation, while in Batan el-Hawa the Palestinians are being required to evacuate their homes and also to pay compensation to the settlers.

Additional differences also exist, such as the residents’ level of awareness that the land belonged to someone else. There is evidence that in Amona, Rehavia and also Lifta the occupants knew there was a problem with the title land, and that they assumed the problem would somehow be solved. In Silwan, at least some of the people bought their homes years ago at market price without knowing about the land issue. Another difference is that only two of the groups of settlers were termed “trespassers” in the more recent legal documents: the Kurdistan Jews from Lifta and the Palestinians from Silwan. The others are not perceived publicly as intruders, but as “residents” or “occupants.”

A further important difference is the reason for the occupancy and its duration. Three of the four cases – Silwan, Rehavia and Lifta – are related to the rupture of 1948. At that time, populations moved from one side to the other, property was abandoned on a large scale, homeless people settled where they could and deals were concluded quickly in order to consolidate the fledgling state. The fourth case, Amona, is related to the rupture of 1967. The settlers in Amona cannot enjoy the benefit of the doubt connected to urgent need and an emergency situation. The inhabitants of Silwan and Lifta built their lives in those places for lack of choice. Both groups were refugees in the wake of the 1948 events and had lived in their homes for some 70 years. The Amona settlers had other options and chose to live at the site for ideological reasons. They lived there for about 20 years, 10 of them after the legal procedures for their evacuation began.

The differences also stand out in terms of the mobilization of the media, the judicial system and the political arena in favor of residents facing evacuation. The case of Amona brought about a general mobilization by the right wing, whose results were apparent in emotional reports about the crumbling community and the families who were being forced out of their homes. Amona also generated political crises, posed a threat to the government’s stability and gave rise to a special law tailored to the circumstances.

The political response to the Rehavia case, too, suggests that the state can mobilize to prevent injustice and legal absurdities, enact special legislation, underwrite compensation and also undermine property rights, when it wants to. On the other side of Jerusalem, in Silwan, the full force of the law is being wielded against the Palestinian residents, and no one dares to acknowledge that they, even more than the inhabitants of Rehavia, are really just the victims of historical and political circumstances.

Additional similarities and differences can also be found, but the hierarchy is quite clear. If you’re a trespasser it’s best to be a settler, and if not a settler then a resident of Rehavia, and if not that, then a Mizrahi from Lifta. But don’t be a Palestinian from Silwan. The same pecking order holds if you own land that someone else is living on. Here, too, it’s preferable to be Jewish: Your rights will be preserved in perpetuity, and laws will be bent so you can recoup your property. In this case again, as always, the worst is to be a Palestinian.

Right-wing readers won’t understand the point of this article. From their viewpoint, it’s clear that the supreme goal of the State of Israel is to bring about Zionist settlement in the entire space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and accordingly policy must be intended to assist Jewish settlers and to interfere with all others. After all, that’s the essence of Zionism. We’ll ignore for the moment the question of who is more Zionist – the residents of Rehavia and Lifta or the settlers of Amona; the important point in this comparison is that it exposes the naked truth, without the veil of clichés and slogans.

One can’t reasonably argue that there is moral wrong in the uprooting of the families in Amona or in the threat to the property of the Rehavia residents, without seeing the same wrong in Silwan. It’s not reasonable to argue that the state must expropriate, pay and legislate in order to protect people who are living on their land without thinking that the residents of Lifta and Silwan are also entitled to the same protection. Nor it is possible to view Israel as a law-abiding country and Jerusalem as a unified city when the law changes according to nationality and is applied differently in the two sides of the city.

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