Petitioners: Gov't seized Arab land and gave to Jews

Palestinian hotel company petitiones High Court claiming the state illegally confiscated 40 dunams.

olive harvest 88 (photo credit: )
olive harvest 88
(photo credit: )
A Palestinian hotel company has petitioned the High Court of Justice, charging that the state illegally confiscated 40 dunams of land it allegedly owned in east Jerusalem and gave it to a private Jewish businessman to build a hotel. The petition was filed three weeks ago by the company's receiver, attorneys Arnold Shpar and Elias Khouri. The petitioners charged that the state and particularly the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) working in collaboration with the Ateret Cohanim organization, conspired to cheat the hotel company out of the land. "The [government's] dominant motive is its policy of preventing the Arabs of east Jerusalem from building on their lands and developing, and of reducing the Arab presence in east Jerusalem," the petitioners wrote. They charged that the government was expropriating the land for "an improper, unacceptable, racist, discriminatory and disproportionate reason, which is to rent the land to the Ateret Cohanim organization." According to the petitioners, the land originally belonged to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The British deported Husseini in 1937 and he never returned to Jerusalem, dying in exile in 1971. The petitioners wrote that during the 1960s, Husseini sold the land to the Arab Hotel Company. The company already owned the adjacent Ambassador Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah quarter and intended to build another hotel nearby. In 1968, after Israel captured east Jerusalem, the government issued an order announcing its intention to expropriate the land in accordance with the Land Ordinance (Acquisition for Public Purposes). However, for the next 39 years, it did not act on the declaration with regard to this particular plot. During these years, the petitioners wrote, they acted as owners of the land. They rented it out to a farmer and his family to cultivate a large olive orchard and acted in other ways as the owners of the land without being challenged. In 1997, the petitioners decided to build a hotel and asked the government to lift its 1968 declaration of intent to expropriate the land. The government refused, saying it had indeed expropriated the land and intended to use it. At the same time, a man named Mahmoud Salhiyeh squatted on a section of the land and built a house there. The petitioners filed suit in Jerusalem Magistrate's Court to evict the trespasser. In 2006, the court upheld the petition. The trespasser appealed the ruling to Jerusalem District Court, which also upheld the eviction. Meanwhile, in 2000, the petitioners submitted a zoning plan to change the designation of the plot of land from open public space to hotel usage, with the intention of building the hotel. They said that after submitting the plan, they learned that the owner of the nearby Sheapherd Hotel, Irving Moscowitz, the key financial backer of Ateret Cohanim, had also submitted a plan, backed by the ILA, to merge the plot of land on which his hotel stood with nearby lands, including those claimed by the Arab Hotel Co. The Arab company objected to Moscowitz's plan on the grounds that it harmed their interests and that Moscowitz did not own the land. In light of the objection, the plan was suspended. Meanwhile, the city approved the Arab Hotel Co.'s plans for building a hotel on the land. On January 3, 2006, the local planning committee approved the plan. However, on June 27, 2007, the petitioners' architect, Moshe Margalit, was informed that the land no longer belonged to his clients and that he should stop preparing the plans for the hotel. Six days earlier, the government's Development Authority asked Jerusalem Magistrate's Court to order the Arab Hotel Co. off the land. It had never demanded the same of the trespasser, Salhiyeh, who had squatted on the same land for nine years. During a hearing several days later, the Development Authority told the court that Ateret Cohanim, and not the petitioners, had been in charge of the land, according to a contract it had signed with the ILA to cultivate it. Furthermore, the government informed the petitioners that one month earlier, in May 2005, it had acted on the 1968 announcement of intent and formally expropriated the land. The petitioners called on the court to declare the 1968 announcement of intent and the May 2007 act of expropriation null and void. They argued that it was illegal to expropriate the land from its Arab owners on the grounds that it was needed for the public good, and then hand it over to Moscowitz. The petitioners charged that the government's behavior was aimed at forcing east Jerusalem Palestinians to leave the city. Ateret Cohanim spokesman Daniel Luria told The Jerusalem Post the land had been expropriated from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and was now under Jewish sovereignty. The Arab Hotel Co. had only submitted plans to build a hotel on the land after hearing that Moscowitz had submitted a plan to the municipality to connect it to the Sheapherd Hotel land, he added. "It all boils down to a question of Jewish or Arab sovereignty over Jerusalem," Luria said. "The Fatah, the Hamas and the Arab states are funneling millions of dollars into the struggle. They want to prevent the Judaization of Jerusalem."