Inside story

After a century, mystery owners of coveted Petah Tikva plot identified

A central site that contains a historic first well is on course for redevelopment after a global search turns up dozens of collective owners from the US to Sweden

A view of the center of Petah Tikva, 1936. Illustrative. (Zoltan Kluger/GPO/The National Photo Collection)
A view of the center of Petah Tikva, 1936. Illustrative. (Zoltan Kluger/GPO/The National Photo Collection)

In what is now the center of Petah Tikva, a prime stretch of land has remained undeveloped for a century because no one could find the owners of a small puzzle-piece plot in the middle of it. The plot contains the ruins of one of the city’s early wells, used for agriculture, in the late 19th century.

The parcel of land measures a scant 100 meters square (1,076 square feet) and is part of a larger area of some 500 square meters (5,381 square feet) that has been zoned for residential development. Over time, many developers looked at the space and proposed plans — but the whole area was unusable because ownership of the land couldn’t be traced.

A few years ago, an experienced real estate developer in the city (who prefers to remain anonymous) decided to pursue the issue. The site’s potential was so great that he was determined to find the owner of the missing piece and purchase it.

The developer turned to Oz Shoshan, a Modiin-based attorney who specializes in locating historic property owners.

Shoshan knew that many people before him had tried — and failed — to trace the owners of this plot. But he also believed if he could start at the true beginning of the development of the land, he might stumble upon a clue.

Sharing his experience of this unique quest, Shoshan told The Times of Israel he began an extensive research process to try to uncover the history of the Petah Tikva settlement in its early days in the late 1870s.

“This meant going through numerous archives containing information about the settlement and its development, as well as legal and genealogical research,” he said.

Oz Shoshan, forensic real estate lawyer. (Courtesy/ Bartzi Goldblat)

Petah Tikva was founded in 1878 and became a permanent settlement in 1883. By 1906, when David Ben-Gurion spent a few months working in the orange groves there, it was a town of 1,000 people. But its real growth began under the British Mandate in the 1920s.

This appears to be around the time when the city well was dug — or at least ownership was established.

Shoshan said he spent “months doing forensic research and found that the plot didn’t have one owner, but many — each of whom owned a stake in the minuscule lot.” The owners of the orange groves in the area had also been “partners in the well,” he explained.

Through the 1920s and 1930s, many of these farms changed hands. The problem was, Shoshan said, “more than 30 of these owners sold their orchards to other farmers but failed — they most probably forgot — to also sell their shares in the well itself.”

This explained part of the reason why no one had yet succeeded in tracing ownership. But another problem arose.

“The Land Registry entry for the well dated to the British Mandate period and was originally in English,” Shoshan said, “but when it was copied into Hebrew shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel, mistakes were made while spelling out the owners’ names, making it difficult to identify who they really were. And of course, there were no ID numbers [then] or anything similar that could help.”

But once he had the names, Shoshan was able to start to try to trace the Petah Tikva families on the original ownership document. Among them were several individuals who were heavily involved in building up Petah Tikva, including Gedaliah Bublik, a founder of the Hapoel Mizrachi political party and a leading activist in the Religious Zionist movement, and Benjamin (Beinisch) Slor, the son of Hanoch Slor, a well-known Zionist activist and an associate of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild.

Original Land Register entry for Petah Tikva’s agricultural well (courtesy Oz Shoshan)

With the original owners clearly deceased, Shoshan embarked on the difficult task of finding their living heirs to facilitate a transfer of ownership.

With a large number of co-owners to start with, this meant identifying dozens of people who had unknowingly inherited a share of the land — most of whom lived outside Israel.

Shoshan eventually identified family members in the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark, second- and third-generation descendants of the original owners of the land.

Negotiations to allow the land to be bought and developed are now at an advanced stage, and agreements have been reached with the majority of heirs, Shoshan said.

Once the process is complete, his part in this adventure will end. Shoshan told The Times of Israel that the developer who commissioned him aims to bring forward residential development plans for the whole area, and a gap in Petah Tikva’s urban landscape will be filled.

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