Palestinian Property, Absent Justice

Along with many other West Bank Palestinians who own land and property in East Jerusalem, my family is caught in a Kafkaesque trap: We are considered absentee owners - and the Israeli government has the right to take our homes away from us.

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Three weeks ago, the Israeli Supreme Court discussed whether or not they should consider my family and me absentee owners. I was born in Abu Dis, and I live barely 300 meters from my childhood home there - and yet, under Israel’s 1950 Absentee Property Law, I can be considered an absentee owner, and my property can be confiscated by the state. The hearing was just the latest in a string of ironies with which I have had to deal in the last decade.

From 2003 onwards, the State of Israel has claimed that my family house in Abu Dis, which is very close to the Jerusalem municipal border, is in fact inside Jerusalem. Since I am a resident of the West Bank, this has enabled the state to apply the Absentee Property Law to the house - which my father converted in the 1960s into the Cliff Hotel - and define us as absentees in relation to the property. After Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, and applied Israeli domestic law to the territory, properties in East Jerusalem were considered to be in Israel, but their owners in the West Bank were considered absentees - even though they never left their places of residence. According to Israeli law, this now gives the government the right to take my home away from me.

This Kafkaesque set of circumstances affects many Palestinians resident in the West Bank who own land and property in East Jerusalem. The Supreme Court hearing, therefore, gave us some reason to be hopeful. The judges showed a willingness to discuss the principle issue of applying the law to East Jerusalem properties owned by West Bank Palestinians, and they have now summoned the Attorney General to defend the state’s position at the next hearing.

In their decision to schedule another hearing, the judges hinted that the position of former Attorney General Meir Shamgar should be taken into account: He instructed the government in 1969 not to apply the law to West Bank residents. However, some of the judges indicated they would be satisfied with an existing mechanism by which East Jerusalem properties would be expropriated through the Absentee Property Law, and then owners like me would turn to a special committee to release the property; though its criteria for such a release are not stated in the law, and there is no transparency as to what they are or if such clear criteria even exists.

Whatever the High Court may decide, the longstanding saga of my attempts to maintain ownership of the house that my parents passed on to me and to my brothers is not likely to end soon. Early this year my lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, received a notice signed by the Minister of Finance of "intention to acquire possession of property that is urgently needed for a public purpose,” which would confiscate the house for 10 years. Since the house is near the route of the separation wall in Abu Dis, the State of Israel can use security considerations to bypass judicial oversight and take over the property, regardless of the final decision in the Absentee Property Law case. In the case of my Hotel, the ends seem to justify the means.

For many years my calendar has overflowed with lawyers’ meetings, administrative hearings and court decisions. I try to keep my calm, although this is my home and my parents’ house. In 1954 my father built this large, impressive house on a hill overlooking Jerusalem. It is precisely the location of the house - once our source of pride - that probably makes it now such a desirable strategic asset for Israel. In the seventies, when the Cliff Hotel still functioned as a hotel, I managed it for 15 years, and that is where I met my wife and we lived with our two daughters when they were young. That is why, like the "present absentees" inside Israel, I cannot accept being called an absentee. I am not an absentee, I am here. Accepting this definition would mean forgetting my history and giving up my connection to the past. 

Ali Ayyad was born and raised in Abu Dis and shares the ownership of the Cliff Hotel with his siblings. A businessman, he managed the Cliff Hotel between 1979-1996.

Ali Iyad, with the Cliff Hotel in the background. Credit: JC Tordai
Ali Iyad, with the Cliff Hotel in the background. Credit: JC Tordai

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