east jerusalem 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
Plans by a Jewish group to build a 200-unit apartment complex in the capital's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood have thrust a decades-old land dispute into the international limelight, drawing official complaints from both the US and the EU, and threatening to escalate tensions in east Jerusalem.
News of the building plans, which involve the demolition of 28 Palestinian homes, comes after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's meeting with US President Barack Obama this week, in which the latter stressed his desire to put a halt to settlement expansion in the West Bank and his administration's continued dedication to a two-state solution.
Opponents of the new apartment complex, which is being sponsored by Nahalat Shimon International - a group with American ties but about which little else is known - say it jeopardizes both of those aims, and is part of a larger process meant to create firm Israeli control in the area around the Old City.
"Such a plan would advance the creation of Israeli and Jewish strongholds in the historic basin surrounding the Old City," reads a report released on Tuesday by Ir Amim, a Jerusalem-based NGO that engages Israeli-Palestinian issues in the capital. "In Sheikh Jarrah to the north, the Mount of Olives to the east and Silwan to the south, development plans aim to ring the Old City with Jewish settlements and public projects, cutting off Palestinian territorial contiguity with the Old City. These developments unilaterally create an integral population link between the Old City and west Jerusalem, strengthen Israeli control of this sensitive area, and thwart the feasibility of future agreed-upon borders for Jerusalem in the context of a two-state resolution."
Nahalat Shimon International has insisted, during a long series of court hearings, that it is the rightful owner of the property, and Israeli authorities have backed this claim, adding that the current residents have forfeited their rights to property protection due to delinquency in paying their rent.
A Jewish community existed in the area in the late 19th century, set up around the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, a high priest during the Second Temple period, whose burial plot there remains a point of pilgrimage for religious Jews from around the world. Those homes were gradually abandoned beginning with the period of Arab attacks beginning in the 1920s and '30s, lasting through the War of Independence in 1947-1949.
According to Ir Amim's report, the Jordanian government took control of these plots under the Enemy Property Law during its rule from 1948 to 1967. In 1956, 28 Palestinian families who had been receiving refugee assistance from UNRWA were selected to benefit from a relief project, in which they forfeited their refugee aid and moved into homes built on "formerly Jewish property leased by the Custodian of Enemy Property to the Ministry of Development."
The agreement stipulated that the ownership of the homes was to be put in the families' names - a step that never took place.
In 1972, two Israeli organizations - the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Yisrael Committee - began notifying the residents that they owed rent, and initiated a process with the Israel Lands Administration to register the land in their names, based on 19th-century Ottoman-era documents.
In 1982, the two committees brought a lawsuit against 23 families for rent delinquency.
Itzhak Toussia-Cohen, the lawyer representing the Palestinians, did not contest the legitimacy of the committees' ownership claims, and instead arrived at a court-ordered settlement - a binding agreement that can be appealed only if proven to be based on false grounds - that secured "protected tenancy" status for the residents.
The families claim Toussia-Cohen did not have their authorization to make this agreement.
The decision has served as the precedent for rulings on subsequent appeals, including the present-day cases.
Most of the families, not wanting to recognize the committees' ownership claims, refused to pay rent, and a flurry of legal battles - mainly with the goal of evicting neighborhood residents - have been ongoing since.
While it remains unclear when Nachalat Shimon entered the picture, it became part of the legal proceedings in 2003, when it filed a joint case with the committees against the state and the Kurd family - one of the original families to be sued for rent delinquency and eviction - to force them to destroy a section of their home that had been renovated.
Um Kamel al-Kurd, the family matriarch, has since been evicted from her home, and now lives in a protest tent near the site of the proposed development.
"We are going to fight this until the end," Kurd said on Wednesday through a translator, Amal Qassem, whose home is also under threat of demolition. "These are our homes, and we're not going to leave."
Qassem detailed a long history of conflict in the neighborhood, citing break-ins by Israelis who she said were now squatting in some of the homes, along with constant harassment by police.
"At this point, we only have the international groups to depend on," Qassem said. "Them and of course, ourselves."