Standing their ground

A three-generation family in Nahalat Shiva is taking on a large corporation in a fight to keep what has been their home for decades.

Building destruction 521 (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Building destruction 521
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
In a story with elements of Charles Dickens, S.Y. Agnon and John le Carré, an impoverished three-generation family faces eviction on December 15 from its small Nahalat Shiva selfbuilt home to make way for twin six- and nine-story luxury towers, pending a last-minute reprieve from the Jerusalem District Court. Adding a piquant twist to the conflicting agendas of social justice and city center property development, the family includes the daughter of exiled Egyptian journalist Nabih Sarhan, who was granted asylum in Israel after criticizing the dictatorship of Abdul Gamal Nasser. The Muslim dissident and his family today live in Beit Jala, but his daughter Miriam converted to Judaism.
Miriam, 27, and her husband, Avraham (Avi) Shaulyan, 49, both readily admit they’re squatters in the structure at 8 Beit David Lane. Avi proudly shows his two-room, 40-square meter home, which he built around an abandoned 19th-century ruin just off Angelo Levi Bianchini Street. In contrast, Avi’s parents, Mansour and Malka Shaulyan, both 80, claim to be protected tenants, having paid for a lifetime key-money leasehold. However, the couple cannot find their lease agreement or any other relevant documents that would validate their claim.
“My father is disorganized,” Avi shrugs. “It’s been many years since he paid municipal tax. But he’s been paying electricity for 40 years. Back [in the 1970s] when it was so hard to get a telephone, he got one 37 years ago. He’s had the same number since,” he submits as proof of his family’s long standing.
“For 40 years they’ve been telling us they’re going to tear up the [Shammai Street] parking lot and build here. Nothing ever happened. Then three months ago they brought tractors and began to demolish,” he says.
Dust from the demolition has aggravated his wife’s lupus condition, he continues, and has made life difficult for their daughters Naomi, three, and Yael, 18 months. Their once carefully cultivated garden has been bulldozed, and “bullies” have intimidated them while protecting the wrecking crew, he says. The police have repeatedly shown up to enforce the peace. Now the developers are threatening to demolish the family’s washroom to ratchet up the pressure to leave.
The two Shaulyan homes stand side by side on a prime downtown development site adjoining the Italian Synagogue in the gentrifying 19th-century neighborhood. Their picturesque alleyway is unmarked by a street sign. At the end of the trail, the Ortam Malibu Group recently erected a hoarding end sign, and began demolishing the structures.
The Ramat Gan-based corporation has a track record of building civil engineering landmarks, such as skyscrapers from Gush Dan to Beersheba, the Moshe Dayan railway station in Rishon Lezion and the Wohl Theater at Bar-Ilan University. Last year Ortam Sahar bought Malibu Construction from Malibu Israel Ltd., and refocused the company toward building lucrative residential projects.
Yehoshua (Shuki) Nener, a lawyer hired by the Shaulyans, has filed a barrage of cease-work and other motions in both the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court and Jerusalem District Court. The lower court ruled in September that Malibu Construction pay Avi and Miriam Shaulyan NIS 30,000 in compensation to evacuate. On appeal, the higher court raised the sum to NIS 50,000 and set December 15 as the last date to vacate. But the Shaulyans have refused the money and are determined to stay.
Nener’s partner Azriel Jacobowitz explains that some of the site today belongs to the Israel Lands Authority, and other parcels were held privately and were recently acquired by Malibu. Confused issues of ownership were rampant in Jerusalem 40 years ago, he adds.
Even squatters have rights, he explains. No eviction order was ever issued as required by law for someone occupying a property for more than 30 days, he says. “Otherwise, there would be anarchy.”
Sometimes judges are focused too much on the outcome of the legal proceedings and ignore the human dimension, Jacobowitz adds.
In a further twist, Avi’s parents have not been offered any compensation for their property, while two neighbors accepted money and have already left. Their buildings have already been demolished.
“No one sent us a letter. Nothing,” says Miriam. “These tycoons are making life for us simple people one long misery. Four people with NIS 50,000 – it’s not a sum to start a new life.”
Project manager Erez Madmon of Ortam declined to speak about the pending evacuation other than to say that the parties involved are squatters.