Egyptian banks sue Israel over King David Hotel

Egyptian banks sue Israe

By BENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE
November 24, 2009 16:36
4 minute read.

 
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Two Egyptian banks have petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to hear a case in which they claim Israel stole their shares in a luxury Jerusalem hotel after the founding of the Jewish state. The Egyptian Arab Land Bank and the National Bank of Egypt, owned by the Egyptian government, are seeking damages over shares they purchased during the 1930s in the King David, Jerusalem's most famous hotel. The banks claim that their shares in the hotel, originally purchased during the 1930s, were taken from them following the 1948 War of Independence between the newly declared Israeli state and its Arab neighbors. Beginning their lawsuit in 2007 after the Egyptian government returned the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria, Egypt to its Jewish owners, the Egyptian banks are believed to be claiming $78 million, including decades of unpaid interest. The story begins in 1929, when Jewish Egyptian banker Albert Mosseri, then the director of the National Bank of Egypt, financed almost half of the construction of Palestine Hotels, built on Julian's Way in Jerusalem. The bank claims to have purchased another 693 shares of Palestine Hotels between 1934 and 1943. Following the 1948 war, Palestine Hotels was renamed the King David Hotel and Julian's Way became King David Street. Mosseri sold all his personal shares in the hotel but the bank held onto its shares until Israel's Absentee Property Custodian seized them in 1958 after the bank was declared an 'absentee' party. The move took place in the context of a series of Israeli laws passed in the early 1950s to formalize state ownership over what was termed "absentee" land and property, mostly referring to somewhere between 500,000 and 4.1 million acres (2,000 to 16,500 square kilometers) of land abandoned or confiscated during the 1948 war. Israel's Absentee Property Custodian sold the King David shares to private Israeli companies in 1993. But the banks claim that according to international law the Israeli Absentee Property Custodian should have returned their shares in the King David. "The shares were bought by the banks in 1929 and the 1930s before the State of Israel was established," Ahmad Al Arousi, the Palestine branch manager of Egyptian Arab Land Bank told The Media Line. "In 2007 they found the shares in one of the safes." "Frankly speaking you can say that they didn't know they had it," he said. "When they found the stocks for the King David they got in touch with a lawyer in Israel and he took over the case." Ran Rahav, a spokesperson for the Dan Hotel Corporation, which runs the King David, said the hotel itself was not involved in the case. "Dan Hotels is not involved in this matter and takes no side," Rahav told The Media Line. Israel's Finance Ministry also refused to comment on the petition. "This case is being dealt with in the Justice system," Shlomi Shefer, spokesperson for the ministry told The Media Line. "Until the process is completed we are not going to comment on the case." A spokesperson for the Israeli Justice Ministry said the case was civil and being handled by the Israeli Courts Administration. Israeli Courts Administration officials claimed they could not find a record of the case, despite news of it appearing in Israeli press on Monday. Officials involved in Israeli 'Absentee' property issues said the Egyptian banks were unlikely to see success. "In some cases people claim that they are not supposed to be included in the absentee property laws and they sue the state," said Tuvi Peri, Director of Planning and Valuation at the Jewish National Fund, which was gifted large tracts of land by the Israeli government following the 1948 war. "They never get the property back but they get some money." "I think it's a really interesting case but I don't think they will get anything in the end," Peri told The Media Line. "Unless it becomes a political question and the State of Israel tries to avoid a conflict with Egypt, I imagine that it will be rejected." "I don't think that the absentee property laws mention nationality," he added. "They speaks about people who were absent at the time of the war. I don't want to seem naive - of course it was all about Palestinians - but I don't think it says the word Palestinian or Arab." But Dr. Emad Gad, Director of the Israel research unit at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt, argued that the choice of Egyptian banks to use an Israeli court is much more significant than the claim itself. "The claim itself is huge and complicated, but I see all this as a positive sign in Egyptian - Israeli relations," Gad told The Media Line. "You have to remember that any contact with any Israeli institution is seen as part of a process of normalization, which is a bad word in Egypt." "I know that they have received permission from the Egyptian government and they are using official channels to deal with a problem rather than launching a media campaign to pressure Israel," he said. "So what is significant here is not the claim, but the fact that they are approaching an Israeli institution. It's a sign that they respect the Israeli legal system and a positive step towards dealing with Israel as a normal state in the region."

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