After a series of legal maneuvers, the Ateret Cohanim organization succeeded in having a Palestinian family evicted from the neighborhood of Silwan near the Old City of Jerusalem on the grounds that the land was owned by Jews before 1948 on Sunday.
Ateret Cohanim is a right wing NGO that aids Jews in facilitating legal purchases of residential Arab properties in east Jerusalem.
According to Haaretz, the ruling could set a precedent for the eviction of another 700 Palestinian residents living in Silwan. 100 families are facing possible eviction orders in the neighborhood.
Silwan is located at the southern end of the Temple Mount near the Dung Gate and is home to the City of David archaeological site, believed to be site of the ancient city of Jerusalem during and before the Davidic dynasty.
The Jerusalem neighborhood originally housed Yemenite Jews who arrived in Jerusalem in the late 1800's. The Jewish residents were forced out of the neighborhood and their homes were razed in 1938 by British authorities amid dangerous Arab revolts in the area.
Jewish heirs can reclaim property left in east Jerusalem, according to Israeli law.
The Jerusalem District Court accepted a request by the Ateret Kohanim organization in 2001 to be named trustees of the land on the grounds that it was Jewish property. The organization became the trustees of the Benvenisti Trust, a Jewish trust that had been active in the area in the early 1900's.
The state transferred the land to Ateret Cohanim in 2002 without informing the Arab residents. The organization then began efforts to evict the residents which culminated on Sunday with a decision by a Jerusalem judge to order the eviction of the Rajabi family, which has lived in the neighborhood since at least 1975.
The Rajabi family's three-story home houses 17 Palestinians. "There is no other home for me and my family to go to," said Nasser Rajabi, according to AFP. The family's lawyer, Mohammed Dahla, said that they would file an appeal.
"My father bought this house and I was born in this house. We didn’t take it from anyone. We’d never even heard about the Yemenites until they sued us. I’m not leaving the house, where would I go? We will die before they get us out,” said Rajbi, according to Haaretz.
The court refrained from imposing court fees on the Palestinian defendants and stated that "it would behoove the state to consider in appropriate instances providing a solution for those evicted from their homes."
The Benvenisti Trust has purchased additional tracts of land previously managed by the Israeli General Custodian, which manages land that may have belonged to Jewish trusts before 1948, according to Peace Now.
"This is an attempt to displace a Palestinian community and to replace it with an Israeli one, in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem," said Peace Now in response to the decision. "In addition to the hard blow to the prospects for a two-state solution by preventing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, this is an injustice and an act of cruelty to throw out families who have lived lawfully in their homes for decades."
The Jerusalem District Court's verdict stated that "It would have been good if the two sides had settled the conflict peacefully."
A report by Peace Now and Ir Amim in 2016 on the lawsuit filed by Ateret Cohanim claimed that in the cases that Arab houses were purchased by the organization, and not acquired through legal maneuvers, they used a Palestinian front man in order to conceal the identities of the true buyers and threatened occupants with eviction.
The report pointed to the Abu Nab family as an example of Silwan residents who moved to the area from west Jerusalem after the 1948 war and are now threatened with losing their homes for a second time. Peace Now stressed that while Jews were provided with a legal mechanism to return to properties they owned before 1948, Palestinians were not provided with the same right. Peace Now warned of an escalation in the friction and violence already experienced regularly in Silwan.
"We don't have any problem with Jewish neighbors; really we don't," said Zuheir Rajabi, a resident of Silwan, in the 2016 report. "But these aren't neighbors; these are people who come with police and guards and court orders, and all they do is try to throw us out of here."
Daniel Luria, Ateret Cohanim's executive director, dismissed the Peace Now report in 2016 as grossly “biased and flawed,” both ideologically and legally.
"The radical left-wing organizations behind the report simply have an agenda which opposes the realization of the centuries-old Zionist dream of returning to our Jerusalem...and an agenda which promotes [an] anti-democratic stance of free and open real estate sales, regardless of religion, creed, or race," said Luria.
“By returning to these old Jewish neighborhoods, and paying good money and acting in accordance to the law, we are both fulfilling the Zionist dream, and righting a historical wrong,” added Luria, stressing that “one should take some of the Ir Amim [and] Peace Now claims with a grain of salt.”
Ateret Cohanim has reportedly been informed by the Registrar of Nonprofit Associations that it was at risk of dissolution due to a lack of transparency, according to Haaretz. The organization has rejected the claims.
Daniel K. Eisenbud contributed to this report.