A much-awaited Supreme Court hearing concerning the eviction of a Palestinian family from their home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem ended on Monday without any decision. The ruling in the appeal of the Dweik family – which is fighting an eviction order they received from the pro-settler Ateret Cohanim organization – is expected to have ramifications for as many as hundreds of other Palestinians from the neighborhood who could also be evicted.
It seems from the hearing that the justices rejected the Palestinian family’s claims of ownership of the property where they have lived for decades – and are expected to rule, as two lower courts did, that the owner is the Benvenisti Jewish religious trust, which is now controlled by Ateret Cohanim.
However, the justices also criticized the Justice Ministry's Administrator General, who for decades failed to act concerning the property under its control in Silwan, until it transferred ownership to Ateret Cohanim. The eviction request was filed only in 2014, 49 years after the family moved into the house which they purchased when it was still under Jordanian control. The justices questioned the statute of limitations regarding the eviction.
“The appellants have lived [there] for almost 60 years, they were not hiding,” argued the Dweik family’s lawyer, Hussam Siam – referring to the issue of the statute of limitations. According to Siam, in 1966, the Jordanian commissioner for enemy property visited the site and allowed the residents to remain in the houses. The Israeli Administrator General continued on in the role of the Jordanian commissioner and did not take any action to inform the residents that they were living in a Jewish-owned property.
The neighborhood was built in an area settled by Jewish Yemenite immigrants at the end of the 19th century and abandoned before Israel’s establishment in 1948. It was originally owned by a Jewish religious trust, which for the last 20 years has been controlled by Ateret Cohanim. But when the current residents began living in the homes decades ago, the neighborhood was part of Jordan.
“What stopped the Administrator General in 1970 or 1980 from approaching the plaintiffs?” asked the head of the three-justice panel, Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit. Justice Daphne Barak-Erez added: “We treat the Kingdom of Jordan as a respectable country whose practices should be respected.”
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Avraham Moshe Segal, the attorney representing the Jewish religious trust countered: “There is not even a crack here through which it is possible to claim a right to appeal. There are factual determinations of the Magistrate’s Court and the District Court,” he said, referring to the lower courts that ruled that the property is owned by the Jewish religious trust. Segal declared that the plaintiffs are willing to compensate the family for the house beyond the letter of the law and claimed that the family has other homes. “We showed your honors that they have houses in Shimon Hatzadik [neighborhood], what is called in foreign languages Sheikh Jarrah, and we showed that they have an apartment in Abu Gosh, so the attempt to paint them as unfortunates is inappropriate – and it is even less appropriate to paint us as stormtroopers.”
Siam responded that the house in Abu Gosh was purchased by one of the brothers, who left it about 20 years ago and the father recently underwent kidney transplant surgery, and the family has no other property. “There is no compensation for someone who was uprooted from the house he was born in and lived in all his life.”
Dozens of residents from the Batan al-Hawa part of Silwan were present in the courtroom for the hearing. Hundreds of them may also face eviction, depending on the outcome of this case. Diplomats from the United States and a number of European countries were also present in the courtroom.
While the court did not issue a ruling, it rejected a request submitted by a group of experts in international law to join the case. The group had asked to file an amicus curiae brief stating that according to international and Israeli law, the residents’ right to housing supersedes that of the trustees to evict them.