Israel Advances New Projects for Jews Across East Jerusalem That Would Push Palestinians Out

Documents obtained by Haaretz include proposals for a new neighborhood in Sheikh Jarrah, one near Damascus Gate, two near Beit Safafa, and one each in Sur Baher and Beit Hanina

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
The land intended for a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem
The land intended for a new Jewish neighborhood in East JerusalemCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Custodian General’s Unit in the Justice Ministry is promoting widespread plans for building Jewish neighborhoods and housing complexes in East Jerusalem – a move that would entail the eviction of Palestinian residents.

The proposal includes a new neighborhood in Sheikh Jarrah, one near Damascus Gate, two near Beit Safafa, and one each in Sur Baher and Beit Hanina, documents obtained by Haaretz show. The Justice Ministry, for its part, says that except for examining a construction project in Sheikh Jarrah, no other plans are being advanced.

Last week Haaretz reported that the Custodian General, along with the Jerusalem Development Authority, have put forth a plan to construct a new neighborhood adjacent to Beit Safafa, in southern Jerusalem, under the name “Givat Ha’shaked.” The plan, which includes construction of 470 housing units, was unanimously approved last week at the local construction and planning committee.

Building in Jerusalem.

Givat Ha’shaked is planned as a Jewish neighborhood with a synagogue and other services separate from Beit Safafa, although the homes of the new neighborhood are planned to stand only meters away from those of Beit Safafa. Now it turns out that Givat Ha’shaked is but one of the neighborhoods envisioned by the Custodian General in East Jerusalem.

By law, the custodian is in charge of all private property whose owners are unknown. In Jerusalem the custodian manages some 900 properties, most in East Jerusalem. By a special law passed in 1970, properties that were owned by Jews prior to 1948 in the eastern part of the city were transferred to the custodian’s administration.

In 2017 the East Jerusalem portfolio was transferred to the custodian’s economic unit under Hananel Gurfinkel. A Haaretz report three years ago revealed that Gurfinkel is a right-wing activist who founded a Jerusalem NGO to move Jews into Arab neighborhoods of the city. Since Gurfinkel’s appointment, cooperation between the custodian and settler organizations has tightened. The custodian has sought to evict Palestinian residents using the services of Avraham Moshe Segal, an attorney who represents the Elad, Ateret Kohanim and other organizations that move Jewish residents into homes in the city’s Arab neighborhoods while evicting the Palestinian residents. The apartments vacated were populated by Jewish families.

A Jewish settlement perched in the middle of a Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

On Tuesday the High Court of Justice will hear a petition filed by the Ir Amim NGO demanding to be apprised of the procedures whereby the custodian manages its properties in East Jerusalem. The petition cites various examples of harassment of Palestinians by the custodian, such as the sale of the apartment in which they have been living for dozens of years to right-wing activists without notification, lack of transparency, disregard of tenants’ rights, and more.

In response to another petition sent last week by Ir Amim's attorney, the custodian’s property management procedure was submitted. The procedure includes dozens of clauses, none of which reference the possibility that the custodian may itself file plans and build residential complexes on a lot it owns. One clause refers to this indirectly, stating, “When initiated, or if contacted regarding urban renewal or planned improvements, the Custodian General shall examine the essence of the request and its impact on the administered property.”

Indeed, planning sources are unfamiliar with any case in which the custodian acted as a realty entrepreneur by improving the properties it holds. The subject raises another issue: the custodian is technically forbidden to sell property. Therefore, it remains unclear whether the apartments built in these various compounds will be sold on the open market, or whether they will remain the property of the custodian, who will rent them out. The Justice Ministry has not responded clarified the matter.

Documents obtained by Haaretz show that so far, the custodian has examined the possibility of building five compounds in East Jerusalem. Two years ago, Gurfinkel even met with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon to promote the projects. The first plan was promoted in a neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah known as Umm Arun. The neighborhood is home to dozens of Palestinian families, mostly in custodian-managed properties. Right-wing organizations, aided by the custodian, have been conducting legal battles for many years to evict the Palestinian families. Thus far two families have been evicted. The Salam family, numbering 11 people, is slated for eviction at the end of this month.

Last week Deputy Mayor Aryeh King and Councilman Yehonatan Yosef, who purchased the house, came to the Salam family and gave them an eviction notice. According to a custodian document, it administers 33 plots out of a total of 58 in the neighborhood. Five more plots have been expropriated by the Israel Land Authority. The city zoning plan allows for the demolition of the old structures and construction of buildings up to four-stories in their stead, or expanding them to that height. This could mean the construction of a neighborhood containing hundreds of housing units in the heart of Sheikh Jarrah.

The Justice Ministry’s Land Registrar recently completed the registration of the neighborhood to its Jewish owners, so it is likely that any neighborhood built there will be for the Jewish population. Such a neighborhood would fit well with the other plans promoted by right-wing organizations in the eastern part of Sheikh Jarrah, where 13 Palestinian families are facing eviction orders in favor of the “Nahalat Shimon” corporation. However, the planning, legal and diplomatic obstacles facing the plan are high.

In the Beit Hanina neighborhood the custodian has looked into building several dozen housing units on a six dunam (1.5 acre) plot adjacent to the IDF Central Command base. The custodian has also approached the Defense Ministry to promote the plan adjacent to the base.

In the Beit Safafa neighborhood, not far from where Givat Ha’shaked is being promoted, the custodian has planned another residential compound with dozens of housing units between Beit Safafa and the Talpiot industrial zone. Right by the Sur Baher neighborhood, the custodian is planning another residential compound, 3.3 dunams in size, but is making efforts to locate an additional two dunams of land to add to its holdings. Another sensitive plan promoted by the custodian is in the Damascus Gate area, behind the row of shops along Hanevi’im Street, the main commercial and employment stretch of East Jerusalem.

Behind the row of shops along Hanevi’im Street is a small settlement of about 10 Jewish families, who settled there after the custodian released the property to the heirs of the pre-1948 owners, who sold it to a right-wing NGO named “Homot Shalem.”

The Justice Ministry said in response: “The plan being advanced by the Custodian General at Givat Ha’shaked is a planning procedure aimed at enhancing the value of the properties. In the other locations mentioned by the query, the CG is not advancing planning procedures at this time, and therefore not construction plans either. It should be noted that in Nahalat Shimon, the possibility of advancing a plan is being examined. The Custodian General is promoting planning and/or construction procedures throughout the country, alone or in collaboration with property rights owners, among others in Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Bat Yam, Holon, Ashdod, Ramat Gan, Hod Ha’sharon, Kfar Saba, Bnei Brak, Hadera and more.”

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