Jewish settlers' takeover of houses inhabited by Palestinians for more than 50 years in Sheikh Jarrah is legal in the formal sense of the term. However, Israeli law discriminates between the Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem when it comes to the rights of each community to recover property owned before the dislocations created by the 1948 War of Independence.
In 1950, the Knesset passed the Absentees Property Law, which declared that any property situated within the post-war boundaries of Israel and owned by an Arab who had left the country between November 29, 1947 and May 19, 1948, or by a Palestinian who went abroad or to an area of Palestine held by hostile forces up to September 1, 1948, lost all rights to that property.
The law appointed a Custodianship Council for Absentees' Property, whose president was to be known as the custodian of absentees' property. It then declared that "every right an absentee had in any property shall pass automatically to the custodian at the time of the vesting of the property; and the status of the custodian shall be the same as was that of the owner of the property."
In other words, the law stated that all property belonging to "absentee" owners was irretrievably lost to them.
The Jordanian government, which occupied and then annexed the West Bank, also established a custodian of absentee properties, which took control of property belonging to Jews who had fled to Israel during the fighting.
One of the properties belonging to Jews in east Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood was known as the Shimon Hazaddik section, an 18-dunam (4.5-acre) plot of land located near the grave of the Second Temple high priest after whom it was named.
Two Sephardic groups, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee, purchased the land and established a small Jewish neighborhood there, which was gradually abandoned during the Arab riots of the 1920s and 1930s and, finally, during the War of Independence.
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In 1956, the Jordanian custodian of absentee property reached an agreement with the UN Refugee Works Agency, whereby 28 Palestinian families who had fled from west Jerusalem during the war, would be given homes in the Shimon Hazaddik neighborhood.
In 1970, three years after the Six Day War, Israel passed legislation to deal with various issues that arose in the wake of its takeover of the West Bank. Among many other provisions, the law, known as The Law and Administration Arrangements Law, allowed Jews who had lost property in east Jerusalem and the West Bank to reclaim it.
On the basis of this law, a settlement company known as Nahalat Shimon International, acting as the representative of the Sephardic Community and Knesset Yisrael committees, claimed ownership of the area and began to demand rent from the Palestinian families.
The families, who knew nothing of the 1970 law or the fact that the land had subsequently been registered by the Israel Lands Authority in the name of the Jewish owners, refused to pay, although there was no question that they had never bought their homes from the Jordanian government and therefore did not own them.
The committees filed suit against the Palestinians in 1982 in the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court. The court granted the Palestinians living in Shimon Hazaddik the status of "protected tenants," whereby they could remain in their homes on condition that they paid rent.
Some of the residents obeyed the ruling. But others refused on principle, refusing to recognize Jewish ownership of the land.
The committees sued several of the families who refused to pay rent and demanded that they be evicted. The courts, including the Supreme Court, upheld their demands. So far, three families have been evicted and replaced by Jewish families.
Ironically, the Palestinians who are being evicted from Sheikh Jarrah were in exactly the same positions as the Jewish owners of the land they have lived on since 1956. They owned property in west Jerusalem and lost it as a result of the War of Independence, while the Sephardic Community and Knesset Israel committees owned land in east Jerusalem and lost it as a result of the War of Independence.
The difference is, however, that because of Israeli legislation, the Jewish landowners could recover their land once the city was united, but the Palestinian landowners could not.
This discrimination is not the only reason Jews and Arabs have been demonstrating against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions over the past three months. The demonstrations are inspired by politics as well.
The protesters oppose the settlement of Jews in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and support a settlement which will include east Jerusalem as part of a Palestinian state. They also believe that Jewish settlement activity in east Jerusalem will sabotage the chances of negotiations with the Palestinians.
But for them, there is also a clear case of injustice, which accounts for the doggedness and determination of their protests.
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