The High Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday that four Palestinian families in the flashpoint East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah will not be evicted until the Justice Ministry settles their ownership claims to the property.
According to the left-wing Ir Amim nonprofit, some 300 Palestinians are currently under threat of eviction in Sheikh Jarrah, mostly in private cases filed by right-wing Jewish groups. The case involving these four families could set a precedent for other proceedings making their way through the courts, experts say.
For decades, courts have held that Nahalat Shimon, the Jewish organization seeking to evict the four families, was the rightful owner of the land. The Palestinians claimed the Jordanians had been in the process of issuing them deeds to the property before Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967.
In an unprecedented move, the High Court ruled that the Palestinians could not be evicted unless the Justice Ministry examined the Palestinians’ claim to the homes. The Justice Ministry is responsible for sorting out land registration and issuing titles to property but has effectively frozen the process in much of East Jerusalem, citing political and logistical difficulties.
In the meantime, the Palestinian families will deposit a symbolic amount of rent — NIS 2,400 ($740) per year — in a bank account belonging to both sides’ lawyers. If the Justice Ministry rules against them, the funds will be transferred to Nahalat Shimon.
Sami Irsheid, an attorney for the Palestinians, hailed the ruling as “preserving the presence of the Palestinians in their homes.”
“There’s no eviction, and the ownership of the land will be revisited. From the 1970s until today, the courts have always held that the Jewish organizations were the owners. This is a very positive development,” said Irsheid.
The evictions in Sheikh Jarrah have become a global symbol of the Palestinian cause, sparking raised tensions in Jerusalem that helped touch off the May war between Israel and the Hamas terror group. Israeli officials have warned that the tense situation in the neighborhood could lead to another escalation between Israel and the Palestinians.
An attorney for Nahalat Shimon, the Jewish organization seeking to evict the Palestinians, hung up when he realized he was speaking with a journalist.
The framework imposed by the court is similar to a compromise floated by justices last year. Both the Palestinians and the Jewish group seeking to evict them rejected the deal. This time, the court did not ask for their approval.
“At this point, I will repeat the principle of the compromise issued by the assembled justices. But this time, not as a compromise, but as a court ruling binding the two sides,” wrote Justice Yitzhak Amit for the majority.
The original compromise proposal had been more favorable to the Jewish organizations than the current ruling. Under that proposal, the Palestinians could be evicted after 15 years regardless of whether the ownership claims were sorted out or not. Tuesday’s court ruling expunged that clause.
The four Sheikh Jarrah homes were built on empty land owned by Jewish religious associations before the 1948 war. After Israel conquered East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, the government passed laws allowing Israelis to reclaim properties that had been taken over by the Jordanian government.
But Israeli law only allowed the reclaiming of properties that had been held by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property. In cases where the Jordanian government had transferred the property to individuals, the new owners maintained their title to the land.
The Palestinian defendants in Sheikh Jarrah have presented documents purporting to show that the Jordanian government was in the process of registering them as the land’s owners before the 1967 war. The court has now said the Palestinians cannot be evicted until that initial land registration question is resolved.
Amit was joined in his position by Justice Dafna Barak-Erez, who articulated different legal rationales but came to similar “practical conclusions.” Barak-Erez said she would have canceled the evictions without having the Palestinians pay anything at all, but joined Amit’s opinion nonetheless.
Justice Noam Sohlberg dissented, noting that the Palestinians had failed to pay rent for several decades. “They have violated their commitments as protected tenants, and it was only right that the [lower] courts ordered their eviction,” Sohlberg wrote.
Sohlberg further argued that existing jurisprudence had no precedent for granting a right to examine the ownership claims of tenants.
“My colleague [Amit] is creating a new legal construct through which he seeks to prevent the eviction of the holders from the properties,” Sohlberg said.
Prof. Ronit Levine-Schnur of Reichmann University, who advised the Palestinian legal team, described the ruling as “a great victory for justice.” According to Levine-Schnur, the court’s decision would immediately influence the pending cases of “at least three other Palestinian families” in the neighborhood, with the potential to impact more cases further down the road.