'Battle royale' over e. Jerusalem before High Court

Israel Land Fund rejects compromise over land dispute in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

May 21, 2013 02:33
4 minute read.
High Court of Justice

High Court of Justice 370. (photo credit: yonah jeremy bob)

The Israel Land Fund rejected a compromise from the High Court of Justice on Monday to resolve an appeal of a 2012 district court decision to evict an east Jerusalem Arab family from Beit Merivah in Sheikh Jarrah.

The seemingly simple ownership lawsuit for the Shamasna family, filed in 2009, is one of the frontline battles between groups of Palestinians and Jews over the future character and identity of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

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The case also took a bizarre turn with both sides debating as to why the Trustee of the Justice Ministry, who was at the very least joined as a party to the case, did not show for the hearing.

The family accused the Fund of misrepresenting the case to the lower court by claiming it had filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Justice Ministry.

After the Six Day War, the Trustee’s office – which is connected to the Justice Ministry but also operates independently – was charged with the responsibility for administering certain properties which were, or might have been, Jewish properties prior to the war of 1948.

In the compromise, the court implicitly recognized that the Fund held legal ownership rights to the disputed residence by suggesting that the family be allowed to remain as long as the eldest family members were alive, as long as they paid rent to the Fund and their descendants (who also currently live there) committed to leaving when the elderly family members are deceased.

The elderly family members claim to have lived at the residence since 1964 and have succeeded until now in delaying eviction. In recent years, groups of right-wing Jewish activists have been using legal actions to evict or retake residences in the neighborhood.

These legal actions have led to significant turmoil, demonstrations by east Jerusalem Arabs and left-wing Jewish activists, and general tension in the area.

Several Knesset members participated in demonstrations against the eviction action on Monday.

Attorney Muhanda Jabarah said that the Shamasna family had two central legal claims and one more general claim regarding justice.

One, that the lower court decision had been unduly influenced to lean in the Fund’s direction by the Fund’s alleged misrepresentation that they were suing on behalf of the Trustee. Two, that the family are protected tenants and can not be evicted.

Also, Jabarah said that it was simply unjust to forcibly evict a family of multiple generations that had lived in the residence since 1964 in favor of others who currently live elsewhere.

The Fund’s lawyer, Avi Segal, hotly disputed both claims.

Segal said that the Fund had approval from the Trustee to file the lawsuit and that in any case, the issue was not relevant since with or without the Trustee, the Fund had proven its ownership of the residence.

The Trustee did not provide any fodder to the Shamasna’s claims on this count, stating that “the eviction lawsuit was filed by the inheritors after their rights to the residence was recognized [by the Trustee.]” Further, “permission from the Trustee was required since the procedural release” of the property to the Fund was still pending regarding procedural issues, such as payment of certain technical fees.

Therefore, regardless of how accurate Segal’s wording was to the lower court, the Trustee’s Office had approved of the Fund’s ownership and of the process to take possession.

Next, Segal said that the Shamasna’s lease specifically said that they were not protected tenants, leaving them no defense.

From there, the sides debated whether the Shamasna’s had understood the lease or whether they had been misled for decades to think that the tenancy was protected and whether the low-rent paid by the family indicated, in and of itself, a protected tenancy.

There was also a debate as to when the Shamasna’s started to live in the residence, with Segal claiming a much later date, which would in turn reduce their potential defenses for trying to stay.

Segal claimed that the Fund’s right to the property that dates back to 1948, and only being forced to leave during the war, made it the first owner and that the Shamasna’s moving into the property was invalid, or at least stopped them from taking ownership.

A spokeswoman for Peace Now said that this was a dangerous argument for Jewish-Israelis to make and could backfire and “hurt Israel.”

She said that we don’t believe that “Palestinians or Jews” should have the “right to return” at this point to disputed areas “where they were forced out from before the war of 1948.”

She added that just as Palestinians “should accept compensation” and not try en masse to return to Israel, the Fund should be ready to accept compensation in the form of rent, as suggested by the court.

The spokesman said that she was not sure how the court would rule as “both sides had been asked hard questions and the case was not clear-cut,” but that she hoped she could be optimistic in that the court had not rejected the appeal out of hand, but had pushed to hear substantive arguments for both sides.

The Fund did not respond to inquiries by press time.

The court did not render a decision at the hearing nor did it announce a date for its decision.

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