High Court rejects petition against evacuation of 700 East Jerusalem residents

Justices uphold 2002 decision to give site of former Yemenite Jewish village to right-wing Jewish group, but call on state to compensate Palestinians living in homes

The Israeli flag is mounted on a building owned by Ateret Cohanim in the Batan al-Hawa neigbhorhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem, July 31, 2018. (Sue Surkes)
The Israeli flag is mounted on a building owned by Ateret Cohanim in the Batan al-Hawa neigbhorhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem, July 31, 2018. (Sue Surkes)

The High Court of Justice has rejected a petition by 104 Palestinian residents of an East Jerusalem neighborhood who have been ordered to evacuate homes that are owned by a right-wing group that settles Jews in Arab areas of the city.

In its Wednesday decision, the court said under Israeli law, the Ateret Cohanim group was the rightful owner of the land and entitled to evict the Palestinian residents from the buildings. However, it also called on the state to do more to compensate long-time residents. The Haaretz daily said some 700 Palestinians lived in the buildings.

A human rights watchdog slammed the ruling, saying it paved the way for the “cleansing” of Palestinians from the Silwan neighborhood.

“The issue of freed land is directly upheld by article 5 of the legal code from 1970 so long as the identification of the land was done accordingly and the rightful owners identified,” the court wrote.

“However, evacuating people who have occupied the land for decades, some of them without knowing that the land belongs to others, creates a great human difficulty, especially when it is done without compensation or any other solution,” the court said, urging the state provide for the evacuees.

“Property rights are important, but so are protecting the rights to have a roof over one’s head,” the judgement said.

The dispute centers around the Batan al-Hawa section of Silwan, an East Jerusalem neighborhood next to the Old City, currently home to 20 Jewish families who live among some 6,000 Palestinians. The Israelis live under heavy guard and the area is a frequent flashpoint of violence.

View of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on December 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was also the site of Kfar Hashiloah, a village built for poor Yemenite immigrants on the slope of the Mount of Olives in the early 1880s. Jews lived in Kfar Hashiloah from the 1880s until 1938, at the height of the 1936-39 Arab riots, when the British removed them.

Some of the land there was restored to Ateret Cohanim in 2002 under the Legal and Administrative Matters Law of 1970, which gives Jewish owners and their descendants (but not Palestinian ones) the right to reclaim from the Israeli custodian general property lost in 1948 when the Jordanians assumed control over East Jerusalem, including the Old City. Those areas were won by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.

In Batan al-Hawa’s case, the organization succeeded, on the back of this reclamation law, to reactivate a trust named for a long-dead benefactor named Benvenisti that was created in the 19th century to buy a 5,500-square-meters (60,000-square-feet) fish-shaped area of land on which to build homes and a synagogue for Yemenite Jews.

In the appeal, the Palestinian residents questioned whether the original trust covered the land or merely the buildings constructed on it, all but one of which no longer exist. The residents argued that the trust covered the former buildings and not the land and that the evictions should therefore be halted.

Private security guards funded by the state escort a Jewish family to Ateret Cohanim’s Beit Rachel in the Batan al-Hawa district of Silwan, East Jerusalem, on July 31, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel.)

Critics say that Ateret Cohanim has no link to the original Yemenite residents and is just trying to make these neighborhoods Jewish again. Ateret Cohanim has broad support from the Israel government and the Jerusalem municipality.

The government is providing $1.23 million toward a $3 million project to turn one of the buildings into a Jewish heritage center that will tell the story of the Yemenite Jews’ immigration to Israel.

There was no immediate comment from Ateret Cohanim.

Israeli rights group B’Tselem slammed the court decision, saying it “paves way for cleansing of Palestinians from Silwan.”

“The judgment proves, yet again, that the Israeli High Court gives its seal of approval to almost any infringement of Palestinians’ rights by the Israeli authorities,” B’Tselem wrote.

“The judgment was written without addressing the context whatsoever: as though the land were not ‘freed’ by an association whose goal is to drive Palestinians out of their homes; as though the body of law does not allow Jews alone to file ownership for land abandoned in 1948; as though the Court were not sanctioning the broadest move to dispossess Palestinians since 1967,” B’Tselem said.

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