East Jerusalem Palestinians Say Right-wing Group Using Land Trust to Displace Them

Residents of the Silwan neighborhood filed a High Court of Justice position accusing Ateret Cohanim of using a 120-year-old land trust to evict 700 families

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A building in Silwan that belongs to the Benvenisti Trust, in 2018.
A building in Silwan that belongs to the Benvenisti Trust, in 2018. Credit: Emil Salman

Dozens of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood have petitioned the High Court of Justice, claiming that the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization is using a land trust to overtake property there that houses 700 Palestinians, some of whom are facing eviction.

According to the petition, the Charitable Trust Registrar helped the organization acquire control over a historic land trust (hekdesh) in the Batan al-Hawa section of Silwan, which had been founded in Jerusalem 120 years ago to benefit the city’s poor. This control has made Ateret Cohanim the de facto owner of the land and in August the eviction of several Palestinian families is expected to begin. 

The Moshe Benvenisti Trust was registered with Jerusalem’s Sharia court in 1899, when the area was still under Ottoman rule. The trust was founded by Jewish philanthropists, and it built structures in Silwan to house poor immigrants from Yemen. During the Arab riots in 1938, the residents, pressured by the British mandatory government, abandoned the enclave. The buildings the Jews had lived in were demolished and years later local Arabs built their own neighborhood at the site, called Batan al-Hawa, where 700 people now live.

During the 1990s, Ateret Cohanim conducted an investigation into the history of the Yemenite neighborhood and the Benvenisti Trust, and in 2001 Ateret Cohanim members asked the Jerusalem District Court for permission to revive the trust and become its trustees. In a short ruling and with the agreement of the Charitable Trust Registrar, the court agreed. Since then, Ateret Cohanim has essentially gained full control of the site.

In recent years Ateret Cohanim, in the name of the trust, has increased pressure on the Palestinian families to leave. A number of families have already done so, while dozens of others have received eviction notices. Around a year and a half ago, the Supreme Court allowed the evictions to proceed, even though Justice Daphne Barak-Erez noted there had been faults in the process of allowing the association to take over the trust.

According to the petition, which was filed by the Ir Amim organization and 22 Palestinian families, the trustees have a serious conflict of interest between their loyalty to the trust and their loyalty to Ateret Cohanim.

The petition says that every article, press release, public statement and court testimony demonstrates that there is total congruence between Ateret Cohanim and the trust. The Benvenisti Trust, the petition says, has no bureaucracy, bank account, accountant or attorney of its own; everything is managed through Ateret Cohanim.

In the Ateret Cohanim’s financial statements there is no distinction between the management of the organization’s assets and those of the trust. The materials show “that this is a planned process of Ateret Cohanim in order to use the trust as a platform to forcefully seize the property,” said attorney Ishay Shneydor, who presented the petition on behalf of Ir Amim.

Attorney Avraham Moshe Segal, representing the Benvenisti Trust, said in response, “This is another vain attempt by the invaders to take over the trust’s lands. This comes after the invaders’ claims have been rejected, time after time, by various courts, chief among them the Supreme Court. The fate of this attempt is to fail, just as in previous ones.”

The Israel Corporations Authority, the Justice Ministry agency responsible for the Charitable Trust Registrar, said, “The registrar plans to examine the issues raised by the complaint.”