High Court to rule on eviction of Arab families from Silwan

After receiving ownership of the land, Ateret Kohanim began lawsuits in efforts to evict the Arab residents of the neighborhood. 

People run after Israeli security force fired tear gas canisters during clashes with Palestinians following Friday prayers amid tension over expected home demolitions in the Silwan neighborhood in east Jerusalem July 2, 2021. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
People run after Israeli security force fired tear gas canisters during clashes with Palestinians following Friday prayers amid tension over expected home demolitions in the Silwan neighborhood in east Jerusalem July 2, 2021.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

The High Court of Justice failed to issue a ruling during a hearing on Monday on the appeal of an Arab family from the Silwan neighborhood of east Jerusalem concerning an eviction order which was issued against them on the grounds that the land was owned by Jews before 1948.

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 the site of the ancient city of Jerusalem during and before the Davidic dynasty and First Temple Period.

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.

After receiving ownership of the land, Ateret Kohanim began lawsuits in efforts to evict the Arab residents of the neighborhood. 

 Protesters clash with Israeli police forces after a shop was demolished by Israeli authorities in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, on June 29, 2021.  (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90) Protesters clash with Israeli police forces after a shop was demolished by Israeli authorities in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, on June 29, 2021. (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)
 

The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court and the Jerusalem District Court have both already rejected appeals by the Duweik family, who filed the appeal to the High Court, against the eviction orders. A number of other families' appeals against the orders have also been rejected and a number of families have already been evicted. 

When the High Court issues a ruling, it could affect dozens of other Arab families in Silwan who are facing similar lawsuits attempting to evict them from their homes.

A representative of Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit was present at the hearing in order to express his position on a number of legal issues concerning the case.

According to the Peace Now NGO, Mandelblit's position was required on three main legal issues: the statute of limitations, the Law of Endowments and the issue of building in good faith.

The Duweik family claims that because decades passed between the time they purchased the home in 1965 until the eviction claims were filed, the statute of limitations determines that Ateret Kohanim has lost its right to demand the eviction, according to Peace Now. Ateret Kohanim, on the other hand, claims that the statute of limitations should only be counted from the moment that it took control of the property from the Israeli Administrator General in 2002, as until then it was considered "public land" on which the statute of limitations did not apply. The courts so far have accepted Ateret Kohanim's argument.

The family additionally claimed that the Benvenisti Trust had owned the buildings it had built in the neighborhood, not the land they sat on, meaning that since the buildings were demolished, the trust has no more assets. The courts have not accepted this claim so far.

Finally, the family claimed that the houses in which they live in Silwan were built in "good faith." meaning that those building the homes believed themselves to be the owners of the land on which they were building. According to Israeli land law, under certain conditions, they could then purchase the land and could not be evicted. The courts have rejected this claim so far, because the land was considered "public land" when it was held by the Administrator General on which the good faith clause does not apply and not all the conditions of the clause applied in this case.

The discussion during the hearing on Monday largely centered around the status of the property in question before 1948 when the Jordanians took over the area, during the period when it was controlled by the Jordanians and after 1967 when the Israeli Administrator General took authority over the property.

While Ateret Kohanim's lawyers argued that the status of the property was clear, the judges and the representative of the attorney-general at the meeting were insistent that the matter is not so clear and requires further deliberation.

During the hearing, the judges also questioned the representatives of Ateret Kohanim concerning the deed of dedication issued on the property in 1899 which stipulated that the property was meant to house poor Sephardic Jews, according to Haaretz. The judges questioned whether the organization intended to house poor Sephardic Jews in the houses if the Arab residents were evicted. The organization responded that the people who would live in the homes would be people who required subsidized rent.

Ateret Kohanim's attorney stressed during the hearing that they had offered the families "substantial compensation" and claimed that foreign bodies were intervening in the matter and preventing a compromise. The organization's attorney additionally claimed that the families had other houses to live in in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and in Abu Gosh.

The attorney representing the family responded by saying that "there is no compensation for someone who is uprooted from the home they were born in and lived in all their life," according to Haaretz. The attorney also claimed that Ateret Kohanim's claim that the families had other homes to live in was a lie.

Peace Now has also stressed that the courts are ignoring the context of the situation, as the Arabs living in these homes are a weakened population in terms of legal rights, policies and resources facing the state which seeks to deprive them of their homes.

According to the NGO, a group of experts in international human rights law has filed an application to the High Court to submit an amicus brief presenting arguments against evicting the Arab families. 

The brief claims that according to international law, the Arab residents' right to housing includes a right to continue living in properties that they've lived in for decades and Ateret Kohanim, even if it proves that it has ownership of the properties, may be entitled to compensation instead of the evacuation of the families.

The amicus brief brings examples of international jurisprudence on human rights law which shows cases in which vulnerable occupants were allowed to remain in their homes, even if they were not the original owners.

The High Court stated on Monday that it did not see a need to discuss the amicus brief, at least in the meantime.

"We will not remain silent as the settlers and the government take advantage of a discriminatory law to expropriate Palestinian families from their homes, with the aim of 'Judaizing' east Jerusalem," said Peace Now during a protest in front of the High Court on Monday. "This is a protest in favor of justice, equality and morality and against the attempt to sabotage the prospect of peace on the basis of a two-state solution."

Monday's hearing came just months after the planned eviction of a number of Arab families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem based on the same law used in Silwan sparked weeks of violent clashes and was quoted by Hamas as one of the reasons for rocket fire on Jerusalem which launched Operation Guardian of the Walls in May.

Earlier this month, the High Court presented a compromise to four Arab families in the Sheikh Jarrah case which would allow them to remain in their homes for 15 years.

During that time the issue of land ownership could be adjudicated, but in the interim, the court would recognize the families as protected tenants and the Jewish-owned Nahalat Shimon company as the owners of the property.

As protected tenants, the families would have the right to make repairs or renovations to the property. They would be required to pay rent biennially in the sum of NIS 2,400.

The two sides in the Sheikh Jarrah case were given until November 2nd to reply to the offer, with judges saying that they would accept any amended compromise agreed upon by both sides. They warned, however, that should the compromise be rejected, they would issue a binding ruling.

Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.