Opinion |

East Jerusalem's Palestinian Residents Need a Mayor Who Would Stand by Them

Hagit Ofran
Hagit Ofran
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Israeli police officer at a Palestinian family's home that was evacuated for settlers, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, in 2019.
Israeli police officer at a Palestinian family's home that was evacuated for settlers, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, in 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Hagit Ofran
Hagit Ofran

On March 17, Nir Hasson revealed in Haaretz that the Jerusalem Municipality intends to reactivate demolition orders in Palestinian area in the Bustan neighborhood of Silwan. The municipality, headed by Mayor Moshe Leon, backed off from an agreement that had been reached after his predecessor, Nir Barkat, sought to demolish the houses in the neighborhood to create a tourist park planned by settlers. While the fear of displacement hangs over hundreds of families in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan due to the settlers’ claims, Jerusalem is giving its support to those who demand the families’ eviction, aiding them with funds and programs.

This approach, taken by the municipality against its own residents, has been adopted by all mayors of Jerusalem – except one. The legendary Mayor Teddy Kollek, who led the city in 1965-1993, was the architect of the “unification” of Jerusalem, yet at the same time maintained a public image of someone who cares about the capital’s Palestinian residents. In October 1991, when for the first time the settlers of the organization Elad entered Palestinian homes in Silwan, Kollek went, alone, to demonstrate against the settlement. Recently, research by Peace Now has shown that the settlers’ provocation angered Kollek and the injustice committed against those Palestinian families in Silwan concerned him deeply.

In 1992 Yitzhak Rabin’s government set up the Klugman Committee to investigate the government’s involvement in taking over Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. The committee found that then-Minister Ariel Sharon had led an apparatus of state bodies (the Custodian of Absentees’ Properties, the Israel Land Administration, the Ministry of Construction and Housing, the JNF/KKL and others) that worked to take control of Palestinian properties and transfer them to settler organizations funded by the state. Rabin’s government stopped the actions of this apparatus, but didn’t dismantle it or undo its previous actions. Thus, the Palestinians who had been abused by this phalanx of state power had to deal with it themselves – in court, alone, opposite powerful bodies such as the JNF and settler organizations.

Teddy Kollek couldn’t bear that. He approached many officials, including some who could not help him, and tried to convince them to allow those Palestinian families to remain in their homes. This is what he wrote on February 2, 1993 to the Minister of Justice:

“The state has thus admitted that these assets were illegally declared absentees’ property. At the same time, the state takes no stand on the effect that annuling [Palestinian families’ rights to the property] has on property laws. According to its statement, the state is asking those Arab families who lived in those properties prior to their declaration as absentees’ property to present some sort of evidence to prove ownership of the properties. … I think that after the examination had been conducted showing that those properties were unlawfully declared to be absentees’ properties, the situation must be immediately restored, and those families who lived in the properties for decades must be allowed to return to live in them.”

On March 9, 1993, Kollek wrote to State Comptroller Miriam Ben Porat: “Even if it is clear to me that this matter is not the responsibility of the State Comptroller, following an investigation which found that the declaration of absentee property was unlawfully conducted, it must be restored to its former state. It is of great importance to correct the injustice done to some of the Arab residents of the city, and as far as they are concerned, justice must be seen and not merely done – even if through a long, tedious, legally complex process.”

On the March 14, 1993, Kollek asked Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to see to it that the properties were returned to the Palestinians. In his letter he briefly described the findings of the Klugman Report, stressing that “all this did not yet return one property to the Arab residents who lived in these properties in the past. It is our duty to show that justice is done and not only discussed in the courts. This matter will doubtless greatly ease relations in the city, yet may peripherally impact more significant negotiations. I shall call you tomorrow to hear which steps you can take in this issue.”

On April 30, 1993, two days after Energy Minister Amnon Rubinstein visited Jerusalem, Kollek wrote to him: “I request your intervention to rectify the injustice through the returning of assets to their legal owners. ... I believe that even if the Arab owners of the properties cannot prove their ownership, at least the situation should be restored.”

Those are only the letters that have reached us. We do not know if Kollek made other efforts, but it is obvious that this was a burning issue for him. His efforts, unfortunately, did not succeed.

On Monday the Supreme Court heard the appeal of the Sumarin family from Silwan, whose home was declared absentee property in 1987 and given to the JNF. The JNF is calling for the family’s eviction for the benefit of Elad, in a 30-year legal battle. The court asked the state prosecutor to give his opinion on the issue, signaling that the government has some responsibility in the matter.

Unfortunately, today there is no mayor to stand by the Sumarins. In Jerusalem 2021, hundreds of families are in grave danger of expulsion, on the basis of discriminatory laws and a cruel policy, and not one body in the Jerusalem Municipality or government offices is standing by them to stop this injustice.

Hagit Ofran is Peace Now’s Settlement Watch co-director.

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