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High Court hears potentially decisive East Jerusalem eviction case

Rights groups say decision could set precedent for dozens of other families in ongoing battle for control of Silwan neighborhood

Palestinians sit in a courtroom hearing on evictions in East Jerusalem at Israel's High Court on Monday, October 25, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)
Palestinians sit in a courtroom hearing on evictions in East Jerusalem at Israel's High Court on Monday, October 25, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

In a potentially decisive case, the High Court held a hearing on Monday on a Jewish religious endowment’s move to evict an East Jerusalem Palestinian family.

The Dweik family have lived in the house, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, since 1965, when they acquired it from the Jordanians. However, the land on which the house was built belonged to the Jewish Benvenisti Trust before 1948, when East Jerusalem fell under Jordanian control.

In 2002, the trust was acquired by individuals close to Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing group that aims to expand the Jewish presence in Silwan. Israeli courts have recognized the trust as the plot’s lawful owners, and the organization has waged a nearly two-decade-long battle to evict them.

“Even though they’re squatters, we’ve offered them generous compromises, but unfortunately there are outside elements that have prevented a compromise,” Benvenisti Trust lawyer Avi Segal told the High Court on Monday.

Since 2002, Palestinians in the area have fought house-by-house battles with the Trust. The cases can drag on for years or even decades and see dozens of hearings as they wind their way through the court system.

“I’m not a squatter by any means. They’re the ones who are invading my house,” fired back Nabil Dweik, one of the Palestinians threatened with evictions, in an interview with The Times of Israel.

The Palestinians’ attorney, Hussein Siyam, said that the hearing would likely be the final one before a verdict.

Palestinians await a hearing on evictions in East Jerusalem at Israel’s High Court on Monday, October 25, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Siyam argued before the court that the statute of limitations for a potential eviction had elapsed, as the families had lived in the homes for decades without any complaints from the trust. But the justices seemed skeptical of his arguments.

Rights groups, including the left-wing Peace Now, believe that the case will likely set a precedent for owners of dozens of houses in the area who are ensnared in similar litigation.

A few dozen left-wing Israelis demonstrated outside the High Court on Monday morning in solidarity with the Dweik family.

The Palestinian residents in the Dweik case had asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to get involved in the case, but in a letter to the court on Saturday, he declined to intervene in the proceedings.

Some right-wing Israelis, including Ateret Cohanim, have sought to increase the Jewish presence in Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods, such as Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah.

Several Jewish enclaves now exist within the mostly Arab neighborhood of Silwan. The area is known in Hebrew as the City of David, named after a local archaeological site that contains priceless antiquities believed to date back to biblical times.

The planned evictions in Silwan come on the heels of global controversy surrounding the planned evictions of four Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah.

The case made headlines around the world and led to repeated clashes between Palestinians and police. An appeal is currently pending before the Supreme Court. After clashes around the case led to high tensions across East Jerusalem in early May, the government was said to ask the Supreme Court to delay a decision on the matter.

Palestinians and left wing activists protest against the expulsion of Palestinian families from homes in a property dispute in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. April 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hamas has linked its firing of rockets at Jerusalem, which set off an 11-day conflict with Israel that month, to the Sheikh Jarrah case.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry has called the Sheikh Jarrah evictions “a real estate dispute between private parties” and denied any political dimension to the case.

Palestinians reject that argument, saying that the issue — whether in Silwan or in Sheikh Jarrah — is fundamentally part of their national cause. Many hope to see a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem as part of a future Palestinian state and view the evictions as an attempt to edge out Palestinians from the city.

Around 38 percent of Jerusalemites are Palestinian. The vast majority live in East Jerusalem, a cluster of neighborhoods captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967 and annexed by Israel in 1980, in a move not recognized by most of the international community.

East Jerusalem land that may have belonged to Jewish organizations prior to Israel’s 1948 War of Independence is managed by the Justice Ministry. A 1970 law allows Israelis to reclaim such property in East Jerusalem, but no similar law exists for East Jerusalem Palestinians, many of whom also fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948.

In the case of the Silwan plot under dispute, Yemenite Jews lived in houses in the area administered by the Benvenisti Trust endowment, leading the area to become known as the Yemenite Quarter. Only one of the original homes remains, according to the left-wing nonprofit Terrestrial Jerusalem.

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