Israeli Supreme Court’s Ruling on East Jerusalem House Is Expected to Lead to Eviction of Dozens of Palestinian Families

Some 40 members of family fighting eviction since 2008 must leave home in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood within months

File photo: Homes in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
Emil Salman

The Supreme Court on Thursday denied a Jerusalem Arab family’s appeal against their eviction and refused to hear a case on the ownership of the building, citing the statute of limitations.

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As a result, around 40 family members will have to leave their home in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood within months. The ruling will also make it very difficult for dozens of other Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah to avoid eviction.

The appellants are members of the Sabag family, who live in a building with five apartments. About 40 relatives, including 30 children, live there.

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The family has been in Sheikh Jarrah since 1956, though they were originally refugees from Jaffa. Their two former houses in Jaffa still exist, and they keep pictures of them in their living room.

According to the Absentees’ Property Law from 1950, a building that belonged to people who fled Israel is considered abandoned and therefore state property, though this usually is not applied to property owned by Jews.

The house where the Sabag family has been living was built on land that was owned by Jews before the 1947-49 War of Independence, and the current owners requested their eviction.

The basis of the claim is a property sale from 1876, when two groups of Jews, one from the Sephardi community in Jerusalem and one from the Ashkenazi community, bought the tomb of Simeon the Just – a high priest from the Second Temple period – and the land around it.

They built a small Jewish neighborhood on the land, which was abandoned during the War of Independence when the area was occupied by Jordan.

Six years later, the Jordanian government and the United Nations built houses for Palestinian refugees on the land. The Sabag family received one of the houses, for which they paid only a symbolic rent.

In 2003, the company Nahalat Shimon bought the land from the two Jewish groups. The company is registered in the state of Delaware in the United States, and the Sabags say they do not know who is behind the firm.

Tzahi Mamo, an activist who helps settle Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, represented the company during the legal proceedings.

In 2009, the company removed three Arab families from their homes in the neighborhood, which led to international protests and demonstrations that have continued to this day each Friday in the neighborhood. About six months ago, another family was evicted in a different part of the neighborhood.

The Sabags have been fighting an eviction order since 2008. Their lawyers filed suit in district court claiming that the land was not properly registered in the Land Registry and asked the court to rule on the ownership. The lawyers say they checked the Ottoman registry documents, including those in the imperial archives in Istanbul, and found problems with the documentation.

The district court declined to hear the case, saying the statute of limitations had expired because the land was registered long ago. The Sabags appealed to the Supreme Court, but last week, after a short hearing, the three justices hearing the appeal – Daphne Barak-Erez, Yael Willner and Alex Stein – denied the request and upheld the lower court’s ruling.

“This entire appeal was meant to drag out the time; 10 years have passed since the ruling for eviction and there are many rulings stating that Nahalat Shimon is the sole owner of the land,” said Ilan Shemer, the attorney representing the company.

Barak-Erez said: “We cannot intervene in the findings of fact by the district court. According to the laws on the statute of limitations and the factual findings, we have no tools to intervene in the decision.”

She recommended to the lawyers representing the Sabags to withdraw their appeal, but they refused and asked for a ruling, which was issued Thursday.

“We have two houses in Jaffa, on Hasneh Street and Hagidam Street, and we have 250 dunams [62.5 acres] in Yavneh and also in Ashdod,” said Mohammed Sabag, 71. “Why can’t I ask for my property from before 1948”