Archival records show planned US embassy located on Palestinian property - Arab NGO

Lease agreements and maps show Palestinians owned land designated for a new US embassy in Jerusalem, according to Israeli-based Arab rights NGO Adalah.

The US Embassy in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The US Embassy in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Lease agreements from 1947 show that land situated within the area designated for a planned US diplomatic compound in Jerusalem belonged to Palestinians before the State of Israel was founded, according to a report by the Adalah NGO and legal center published on Sunday.

The planned diplomatic compound for the US includes an embassy, offices, residences for staff and other structures in an area known as the Allenby Barracks. The plan is at the advanced stage of the zoning approval process at the District Planning Committee of Jerusalem after it was resubmitted to planning authorities last year after the original plan expired in 2008.

The lease agreements shared by Adalah show that the land in at least part of the area known as the Allenby Barracks was owned by a number of Palestinians, including the El Fitiani family, Habib, Qleibo, El Khalidi, Razzaq and El Khalili families.

According to Adalah, the land was seized under Israel's Absentees' Property Law of 1950, which states that any property belonging to Palestinian Mandate citizens who "left their ordinary place of residence in [the Mandate]" to either outside the Mandate before September 1st, 1948 or to a place in the Mandate area held at the time by forces which fought against Israel would become property of the state's Custodian of Absentee Properties Department.

According to the Absentees' Property (Compensation) Law of 1973, absentees who were Israeli residents on July 1, 1973 or became residents afterward and owned or leased absentees' property before the custodian took control of them, are entitled to compensation of a value established by the law.

 Proposed plan for US diplomatic complex in Jerusalem (credit: JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY) Proposed plan for US diplomatic complex in Jerusalem (credit: JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY)

"The US Embassy Plan will violate the private property rights of Palestinian landowners and the internationally established right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and gain restitution of their properties," wrote Adalah in a press release.

The Absentees' Property Law to confiscate land in Jerusalem also violates the city's special status under intentional law, the NGO stressed, as, under UN General Assembly resolutions, Jerusalem has a special separate status which the law would violate.

In 1953, a press release by the US State Department stated that it was opposed to the Israeli Foreign Ministry being located in Jerusalem as this would "embarrass the United Nations, which has a primary responsibility for determining the future status of Jerusalem." The State Department added in that press release that it did not intend to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

"The US government...is actively infringing on the property rights of the legitimate owners of these properties."

Rashid Khalidi, a descendant of the some of the owners of the affected properties

“The fact that the US government is now participating actively with the Israeli government in this project means that it is actively infringing on the property rights of the legitimate owners of these properties, including many US citizens," said Rashid Khalidi, a US citizen and a descendant of some of the owners of the affected properties.

Adalah called on the US and Israel to "immediately" cancel the plan to build the complex on the land in question and called on the State of Israel to release confiscated land to Palestinian owners.

Adalah’s Legal Director Suhad Bishara is consulting descendants of the original owners of the properties in question in order to determine possible courses of legal action to object the plan and demand restitution of the property, according to the press release.

The history of the planned complex

The facility in question in Israel was first authorized by the US Congress in 1988, when an amendment authorized funding for the construction of two diplomatic facilities, one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, with the understanding that the president would select which of the two would be the country's embassy.

On January 18, 1989, an agreement was signed between Israel and the US leasing a plot of land in Jerusalem to the US government, with later reports revealing that the land was located in the area known as the Allenby Barracks.

A law passed in November 1995 legislated the requirement for the US embassy to be eventually transferred to Jerusalem but was sidestepped by a presidential waiver until 2019 when the ambassador's official residence was transferred to Jerusalem.

Not the first time Palestinian ownership claims have been raised at the site

The issue of the ownership of land on which the planned US diplomatic complex is located was also raised in a special report titled "The ownership of the US embassy site in Jerusalem" written by Walid Khalidi in an Autumn, 2000 edition of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

That report presented evidence collected by Palestinians from the records of the United Nations Conciliation Committee on Palestine (UNCCP) in New York, the Public Records Office (PRO) in London, the US State Department (DOS), the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israeli Land Registry Records (Tapu), the Israeli Justice Ministry, and heirs of the original owner.

According to that report, at least 70% of the site was private property belonging to seventy-six Palestinians as of May 15, 1948. Over a third of the land is Islamic waqf (trust), according to the report.

In late 1999, the American Committee on Jerusalem (ACJ) addressed then secretary of state Madeleine Albright with the findings detailed in Khalidi's report, receiving a reply that the data should be communicated to the State Department to "be kept on file."

The report published by Khalidi mentioned research by Palestinian academic Nur Masalha which found that the greater part of the Allenby Barracks was occupied by bloc 30113 in the Mandate's land records which were largely described as leased land.

One of the parcels of land was sold by the UK to Israel in 1965 but was shown in Jerusalem Land Registry Records to have been part of an Islamic waqf when it was requisitioned by the British high commissioner of Palestine in 1930.

According to the report, a series of maps, zoning records and transfer of ownership records revealed that the location set aside for the diplomatic complex was on parcels of land that had been sold by the Custodian of Absentee Property to the Israeli Development Authority.

The researchers in that report compared the parcels in question to the names and shares of the owners of the parcels on May 15, 1948, the last day of the British Mandate. One of the parcels that were listed as leased land and made up as much as 35% of the site designated for the diplomatic complex at the time was found to have been waqf as well.

Four of the parcels were found to belong to 19 Jerusalem Palestinian families, 15 of the families were Muslim Arab and four were Christian Arab. The researchers were also able to obtain leasing agreements between the British Mandatory government and owners of the parcels in question, correspondence between the two parties including offers to rent the properties, requests by the owners to the British for payments and receipts of rental payments, as well as certificates of registration based on the Ottoman and British Mandatory Registers of Deeds and maps of the site.

Some of the British rental payments were made as late as July 11, 1951. About 90 US nationals and 43 Canadian, Austrian, Belgian, British, French, German, and Swiss nationals were identified in the report as heirs of the owners and their dependents.

The size of the planned complex listed by the report is slightly larger than the size listed by the newest plans for the complex although the approximate location of the site has largely unchanged.

It is unclear if the findings of the report published in 2000 are different from the findings published by Adalah on Sunday.

The report comes shortly before Biden visit

The Adalah report comes just days before US President Joe Biden is set to visit Israel and other countries in the region. While Biden is expected to reaffirm his intention to open a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem during the trip, he is not expected to announce any progress on the matter, a US official said on Monday.