All Of It
V. EXPROPRIATION AND EVICTION
On the same track, Jewish settler groups are working relentlessly to “Judaize” – their word – Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem using an arsenal of legal and strong-arm tactics to displace long-time Arab residents.
It starts with the Absentee Property Law (APL), enacted by the Knesset in 1950, which defines as “absentee owners” all of the 750,000 Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948 and the 300,000 more who fled when Israel took the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967, or who for any reason are currently living outside Israel.
All of their homes and lands were designated “absentee property,” declared “state land” and expropriated, confiscated, without any compensation to the Palestinian owners. Camil Odeh, a Palestinian lawyer: “After 1948 Israelis said, it does not matter why you left, it’s ours now.”
Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property (CAP) then sells or leases the “absentee”property,” without public auction or oversight, to the Jewish National Fund – its charter stipulates that only Jews can buy or lease JNF land – or to well-funded settler groups like Ateret Cohanim, a messianic sect that runs an in-your-face yeshiva in the heart of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and the Ir David (City of David) Foundation, Hebrew acronym Elad, whose patrons include the sanctioned Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, former Chelsea football club owner and now Israeli citizen, who alone has given Elad more than $100 million since 2003.
The APL is thus the legal mechanism by which private Palestinian land is transferred first to the State of Israel and then to Jewish owners. Historian Shira Robinson of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University calculated that the APL has resulted in the wholesale expropriation, the theft, of more than 25,000 Palestinian buildings, 10,000 businesses and almost 60% of the country’s arable land.
And then there are the demolitions. According to the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions, Israel had, through 2019, razed 49,532 Palestinian homes, schools and other buildings, displacing, making homeless, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. And it never stops. Yet another kind of terror.
Israel demolishes Palestinian homes and other structures for being too close to security barriers or Jewish settlements, in areas that overnight are designated as firing ranges, for lack of building permits that are almost impossible to get, or as retribution for “terrorist” acts, i.e., one member of a family is accused and the entire family loses its home, in short, “collective punishment,” a grave violation of international law.
On top of the APL, there is the Legal and Administrative Arrangements Law, passed by the Knesset in 1970, which gives Jews, but not Palestinians, the right to reclaim properties they owned before 1948 that ended up on the wrong side of the cease fire line. Again, two peoples, two different rules.
This unbalanced dynamic is being played out all over East Jerusalem, most notably in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods, two miles apart as the crow flies.
Sheikh Jarrah takes its name from the personal physician – “jarrah” means “healer” in Arabic – of Salah ad-Din, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty who seized Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187 A.D.
It is predominately Palestinian. Many residents are descendants of the 28,000 refugees forced to flee West Jerusalem in 1948 and resettled by Jordan in East Jerusalem, at the same time that Israel expropriated almost 10,000 Palestinian homes in upscale Talbiya – some spell it Talbiyeh – and other West Jerusalem neighborhoods and handed them over to Jewish families displaced from the eastern part of the city.
Just north of the Old City’s Damascus Gate, tree-lined and quiet, with its late 19th century St. George’s Cathedral, Palestinian National Theatre, handsome Jerusalem stone houses, foreign consulates and luxury hotels, including the American Colony in what 100 years ago was an Ottoman palace, Sheikh Jarrah is prime real estate and Jewish settler groups covet it.
They set their takeover sights, just for starters, on three large properties, first Shepherd’s Hotel, owned by the prominent al-Husayni clan, but declared absentee property and sold by CAP to Florida-based multi-millionaire Irving Moscowitz, who bankrolls settler projects in East Jerusalem; also Mufti’s Grove, a 10-acre Palestinian olive orchard expropriated by CAP in 1967 and subsequently leased without public notice to Ateret Cohanim for the construction of 250 Jewish homes; and a third 200-acre Palestinian neighborhood claimed by yet another settler group, Nahalat Shimon, which proposes to evict the residents, demolish their homes and build a new settlement, Shimon HaTzadik, for 500 Jewish families.
But often their quarry is just a single Palestinian home or several homes on one street. Settlers groups go to court with documents they claim prove that the properties were owned by Jews prior to 1948, demanding an eviction order against the families living there, who are forced to run up big legal bills in a long war of attrition against their deep pocketed adversaries.
The settlers’ message: “You’re going to lose anyway, you’ll have to pay tens of thousands of shekels in back rent and legal fees, better make a deal, sell to us instead.” In short, coercion and duress.
Because Palestinian properties in East Jerusalem often have multiple owners, the extended family heirs of the original owner, another favored tactic is to entice, pay, one of the purported heirs, often living abroad, unsophisticated and in need of a quick buck, to sign away his share.
The settler organization then goes into an Israeli court brandishing a bill of sale – sometimes with a forged signature – from an individual who does not own a controlling interest in the property.
No matter, the outcome is always the same. In the words of Mohammed El-Kurd, a prominent Sheikh Jarrah writer and activist “I am furious that my fate is in the hands of settlers, settler establishments, settler courts, settler laws.” He knows firsthand.
In the autumn of 2009, after being recruited by Nahalat Shimon, Yaakov Fauci, an Orthodox religious student from Long Island, arrived with a police guard at the al-Kurd home, threw some of their furniture out on the street and moved into one part of the house.
Yaakov and his attack dog – Shiksa he calls her – have been there ever since, going on 13 years, and according to Mohammed “tormenting us, harassing us, doing everything they can to not only force us to leave the second half of our home, but also harassing our neighbors into leaving their homes, they want to completely annihilate the presence of Palestinians from Jerusalem.”
One afternoon Mohammed’s sister Mona confronted Yaakov in the garden, “Jacob, you know that this is not your house, you are stealing my house.” He replied, “Yes, it’s not my house, but don’t yell at me, if I don’t steal it, someone else will.” East Jerusalem reality in a nutshell.
Mohammed calls Fauci and his ilk “nothing but squatters with Brooklyn accents,” but the legal game is stacked against the El-Kurd family. Disputes like this have been playing out in Israeli courts for almost two decades and, no surprise, Palestinians have lost time and time again, on every level the game is rigged.
Lawyers for human rights groups inside and outside Israel say that Israeli courts are violating international law just by applying Israeli law in occupied East Jerusalem, particularly one-sided laws that give Jews the right to reclaim property in East Jerusalem they abandoned in 1948 while denying Palestinians the right to recover their homes in West Jerusalem.
Daniel Seidemann, a New York-born Israeli lawyer who has defended Palestinians in eviction cases: “Jews and Arabs were both displaced in 1948, . . . One can recover, but the other cannot. This is the original sin of Sheikh Jarrah.”
Some Palestinians have offered to move out of Sheikh Jarrah if in the bargain they could recover their family homes in West Jerusalem. No surprise, no takers.
Handsome pre-war Palestinian homes – in Israeli real estate parlance, bayit aravi, an Arab house – in West Jerusalem are the hottest of hot properties. But for the Palestinian families who once built and owned them, and are now living just a few kilometers away in East Jerusalem, they might as well be on the moon.
Menschkeit: a way of living, a selfless instinct for always doing what is right, honorable and decent.
In 1933, shortly after arriving in Jerusalem from Berlin, book publisher Rubin Moss and his wife Chana rented an apartment in a house at 11 Marcus Street in Talbiya owned by a prosperous Arab couple, Yusuf Ghajar and Lulu Jamal.
When Yusuf and Lulu fled to East Jerusalem in 1948, Rubin and Chana continued to think of themselves as tenants, safekeeping the house until they returned. And as mukhtar, leader of the Jewish community in Talbiya, Rubin set an example for other Jews who moved into Arab houses.
Despite losing his son Dani in the 1948 fighting, Rubin wrote in his diary: “With the good relations we had with the Arabs here, I insisted at the time on taking care of the Arabs’ property. In each apartment, we set aside a room where we put all the owner’s property, except for the tables and chairs and beds that we had to make available for refugees to use. We sealed up the room with wax and the [Jewish] family that moved in had to sign a declaration that they wouldn’t touch that property.”
But three years later, 1951, the Custodian of Absentee Property unsealed the locked rooms and sold or gave away the contents. Yusuf and Lulu were never able to return to Talbiya, and years later, 1973, Rubin and Chana purchased the home from CAP, eventually selling it to wealthy American Jews who come to stay only during Passover and Sukkot.
11 Marcus is still known as the Rubin Moss House. Inside a small pavilion on the property, Jerusalem artists Adam Kaplan and Nir Shauloff have created a mini-museum with a guided tour, videos and displays, including a writing table likely used first by Yusuf and Lulu, and then by Rubin and Chana. “For us,” says Shauloff, “the story of the house is in many ways the story of Talbiyeh, of Jerusalem, of Israel as a whole, . . . An exit on top of an exit on top of an exit.”
Meanwhile, in the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood of Silwan just south of the Old City, Elad and the Israel Land Authority, working hand in glove, are using archeology to evict Palestinians from their homes.
In 2002, Elad took over from the Israel Antiquities Authority operation of the City of David National Park, site of a massive archeological dig seeking evidence of the biblical city of King David.
In fact, the original walled city on this site was built not by King David, but by the Israelites’ arch enemies, the Canaanites, or Jebusites as they were then known. Ancient Egyptian tablets suggest that it was called Urusalim, or “City of Shalem,” ironically, a Canaanite, not Jewish, deity. According to the Hebrew bible and some archeological evidence, David sacked the city and took it from the Jebusites around 1,000 B.C., presaging the Zionist taking of all of Palestine in the 20th century.
In 2004, archeologists discovered the remains of an ancient Roman road leading from the trapezoidal Pool of Siloam in Silwan toward the south wall of the Old City. Elad excavated a horizontal tunnel to expose the road, which it claims is the route taken by Jewish pilgrims to Herod’s Second Temple.
This is, for starters, bad archeology, because the gold standard is stratigraphic, digging down layer by layer, rather than horizontally, which mixes and wipes out the layers above and below it. And, not incidentally, the excavations and tunnels are undermining the foundations of Palestinian homes above and adjoining the dig.
What have they found? So far not a single artifact has been unearthed from King David’s time. Most post-date the destruction of the Second Temple almost one thousand years later, many after 1535 when the present day walls of the Old City were built not by Jews, but by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
Unfazed, Elad has turned the Park into one of Israel’s top tourist attractions – almost one million visitors a year – with a single narrative centered on King David’s Judean kingdom, ignoring all of the other peoples who before and since have left their cultural and religious mark on the city.
And to add injury to insult, each shekel taken in from visitors funds Elad’s ongoing confiscation of Palestinians homes in East Jerusalem.
Yonatan “Yoni” Mizrachi, CEO of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli archeology NGO: “The people at Elad are creating an imaginary historical reality shaped by their religious beliefs and nationalist goals, rather than by archaeological finds and other historical evidence.” Danny Seidemann calls it “a pseudo-Biblical theme park.”
No matter, because this is much more a political than archeological endeavor. It is, in two words, a land grab.
The excavations extend along the entire length of Wadi Hilweh’s main street up to the very footings of Al-Aqsa, and it is this proximity that has made Silwan a target.
Religious zealots want to surround the Temple Mount – the Haram as Muslims call it – so that one day they can demolish Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock and then rebuild Solomon’s Temple. Full stop.
Not mere conjecture. In 1984 and 1990, police foiled plots by Jewish extremists to blow up the Dome of the Rock and lay a cornerstone for a new temple, and since then the Temple Mount Faithful, which is pushing for Israel to assert Jewish control over the Haram, has grown from a tiny fringe group to a movement supported with state funds.
Elad’s master plan calls for expropriating 60 more acres of Silwan, including demolishing a Palestinian cultural center, for the construction of the Kedem Center, a seven-story visitor facility almost as tall as the walls of the Old City, a car park and a Jewish cemetery.
Linked to it will be a second biblical theme park, Gan Hamelech, the King’s Garden, in the al-Bustan section of Silwan, the only place in Jerusalem where water flows year round, and where until 1967 Palestinian orchardists tended hundreds of fruit trees.
Al-Bustan is home to 1,550 displaced Palestinians, but to clear the land for the theme park, the Municipality of Jerusalem has issued 78 home demolition orders. 60 have been temporarily stayed by the courts pending appeals, but if the homeowners ultimately lose, on top of being out on the street, they will be compelled to pay the cost of demolishing their own homes.
On the opposite ridge in the Batan al-Hawa part of Silwan, Ateret Cohanim has eviction actions pending against 81 Palestinian families who have lived there for four generations, and at the same time has established new settler outposts like the seven-story Beit Yonatan, named in honor of Jonathan Pollard, who in 1987 was given a 30-year sentence in the U.S. for passing top secret American intelligence to Israel.
International law aside, Beit Yonatan is illegal under Jerusalem municipal ordinances, constructed as it was without a permit and under the guise, false pretenses, of providing apartments for Palestinians, when in fact 19 Jewish families live there.
One pending Silwan eviction is a four-story home owned by the Nasser Rajabi family. In the 1980’s Rajabi’s family divided their home and sold an apartment on the first and second floors to another Palestinian family, who later sold it to a third.
Nasser bought the apartment back in 2004, but just as he was about to move some of his family back in, Ateret Cohanim, claiming that it purchased the apartment in 2000, took it over in the middle of the night, changed the locks and gave the keys to Boaz Tanami, who promptly erected a very large, in your face, neon star of David on the top balcony.
Ever since, throughout a 17-year court battle, the Rajabi and Tanami families, barely speaking, have lived side by side, above and below. “How should I talk to him?” Nasser asks, “Is he a neighbor? Or someone living in a house that’s not his?”
Indeed, the trust now claims that it owns not just Rajabi’s building, but the entire neighborhood, and is seeking to evict 80 other families, 700 people in all, and turn a Palestinian neighborhood Jewish in one fell swoop. Once again, all of it.
Even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City is on the block. Of the 33,000 current residents of the Old City, only 4,000 are Jewish, and only 1,000 of those live in the Christian and Muslim quarters.
But well-funded settler groups are picking off the old and the destitute one by one. Ateret Cohanim already owns more than 70 buildings worth an estimated $10 million, and is negotiating to buy 12 more.
Louis Bloom, its English-born public relations director, estimates that the cost to purchase the rest of the Muslim Quarter, every last square meter, will be $100 million, plus $100 million for renovations. “The only thing stopping us now is money,” he effuses, “but I think that within 10 years we will have made . . . Jerusalem Jewish again forever.”
This string of settlements and parks around the Old City, dubbed the “Holy Basin,” is transforming a longstanding Palestinian community and the holy sites of the three Abrahamic religions into a place, in the words of Aviv Tatarsky of the Ir Amin NGO, “where Jewish national and religious identity dominates above all.” B’Tselem calls it “Old Bogus National Park.”
Aryeh King, founder of the Ma’ale HaZeitim settlement on the Mount of Olives and one of eight deputy mayors of Jerusalem, has admitted, boasted really, that the new settlements in Sheik Jarrah and Silwan will create what he called “layers of Jews, . . . because by putting in the layers we might avoid in the future any division of the city giving part of Jerusalem to our enemy,” adding, “God gave us this land, who are we to give it to somebody else?” Our enemy? All of the people who live on the land we want.
Palestinian neighborhoods pay the same high taxes as Jewish, but get only a disproportionately small fraction of the city budget for street maintenance, refuse collection and other municipal services. Some Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are not even connected to the municipal sewage system and do not have paved roads or sidewalks.
Chris Alami, who runs Citadel, a popular youth hostel inside the Old City, and traces his family’s Jerusalem roots back more than 700 years to the time of the Crusades, summed it up in 2017 for the Guardian’s Hannah Ellis-Petersen:
“The face of the city is changing, . . . architecturally and in terms of infrastructure, but not to benefit us. . . . Everyone pays the same exact taxes, but you go [to the Muslim Quarter] and you see fewer street cleaners, fewer garbage bins, fewer street lights, but more soldiers. . . . And it’s even worse in Palestinian neighbourhoods like Silwan. You don’t see paved streets, and there will be just one big garbage bin overflowing with rubbish. That tells the Palestinians who live here, ‘You’re not welcome, we don’t want your streets to be clean, for you to be comfortable.’ “
So some Arabs are gravitating to French Hill, Mount Scopus, Pisgat Ze’ev and other predominately Jewish sections of Jerusalem. This is not about politics, rather the desire for a better quality of life and access to jobs, but it raises the hackles of many Jewish residents, who denounce as “traitors” Jews who sell or rent to Arabs.
Israeli film maker Avi Mograbi, The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation (2021), pointedly observed, “When you look at the result, you understand that the Occupation couldn’t have just happened. Someone somewhere had to sit down and think this up. You basically cut through the obfuscation and present the occupation almost as a mathematical formula, showing that there is nothing random about it.”
“The action all the time has been to grab land and make life difficult for those who have remained there in a way that encourages them to leave. When visitors come to me from abroad, I take them to Abu Dis, to a place that used to be the heart of a bustling neighborhood and now the security barrier runs through it,” he said, referring to a West Bank town on the edge of Jerusalem. Getting from one side of it to the continuation of the same street on the other side, you have to drive for 40 minutes, and that’s without having to wait at checkpoints. If you try to imagine having to live like that, it’s kind of hard not to see the evil of it.”
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