A group of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem has asked the High Court of Justice to require the Justice Ministry department that handles abandoned property to recognize their rights as tenants and to end what they say is its secret cooperation with settler organizations.
The petition was submitted by attorneys Adi Lustigman and Tamir Blank on behalf of residents of the Um Haroun neighborhood in Sheikh Jarrah and Ir Amim, an Israeli non-profit that promotes equality between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem.
It asks that the Administrator General and Official Receiver, formerly the General Custodian, be compelled to publish equitable protocols for the management, sale and lease of properties that it administrates in East Jerusalem.
About 600 Palestinian families in East Jerusalem live in buildings managed by the department. Most of the properties belonged to Jews before Israel’s 1947-48 War of Independence. By law, these assets remain in the hands of the Jewish owners or of the administrator general, if its owners are unknown.
Assets owned before 1947 by Palestinians who fled during wartime were automatically transferred to the state, under Israel’s Absentee Property Law.
For decades, right-wing Israeli organizations have used this law to evict Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem homes and replace them with Jewish settlers, with the administrator general’s support. That has led to the eviction of many families in the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, among others.
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In 2018, Haaretz discovered that the administrator general had transferred control of its properties in East Jerusalem to a Justice Ministry unit headed by Hananel Gurfinkel, a right-wing activist from the Habayit Hayehudi party, who was known for actively encouraging the settlement of Jews in Jerusalem. Since the transfer of the East Jerusalem cases to his care, cooperation with the settlers has increased and the pace of evictions have accelerated. From 2012-16, the administrator general opened between one to three evictions files a year. In 2017, 11 such files were opened in and 2018, 14 files.
The petitioners argue that the Palestinian tenants suffer from harassment and are subject to arbitrary decisions, in part due to the lack of clear protocols. Many say they have never met employees of the Justice Ministry unit and that all their contact is through representatives of settler organizations.
In many instances, properties were released into the hands of settlers without even informing the Palestinian tenants who had been living there for decades. The administrator general also fails to take into account the years that have passed since the annexation of East Jerusalem, their rights as protected tenants, or the fact that they renovated and expanded the houses, the petitioners say.
Pushing tenants to leave
In one case detailed in the petition, the unit leased the courtyard of a house in Sheikh Jarrah to a right-wing NGO connected to Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Arieh King, without offering it to the tenants first. In the end, the lease was cancelled, but not before the trees in the courtyard were chopped down. “This action was clearly taken for other considerations, in order to cause the tenants to leave of their own accord,” says attorney Oshrat Maimon of Ir Amim.
In a written response to Haaretz, the administrator general said it does not discriminate among tenants and that it complies with all laws. The response noted that all directives regarding the management of assets applies equally to properties in East Jerusalem, including those connected to “the restoration of assets to their rightful owners,” the statement said.
“As part of its obligation to manage the property for the benefit of its owner, the administrator general is required from time to time to issue eviction orders against those who are illegally holding a property. It should be noted that in accordance with the directive of the administrator general, before it submits an application for an eviction order to the court, the administrator general contacts the property’s residents in an effort to reach an agreement.
“And in fact, in recent years the administrator general has reached an agreement with many families, out of maximum consideration of their situation and while preserving the interests of the owners of the property, for whose benefit the administrator general operates. Eviction orders are issued only when the person holding the property illegally is unwilling to reach agreement...As the [petition] notes, the petitioners’ claims regarding the legal arrangement that applies to these assets is a matter for the legislature and not the administrator general.”