In battle for East Jerusalem, property deeds are the weapon of choice

The dedication of a former Yemenite synagogue in Silwan is part of an ongoing campaign to ensure Jewish sovereignty stymies any attempt to divide the city

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

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.)
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.)

The atmosphere at Wednesday’s dedication of an old synagogue in the mostly Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan was festive.

It is here, in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, that the government is to provide NIS 4.5 million ($1.23 million) toward a $3 million project to turn the building into a Jewish heritage center that will tell the story of the Yemenite immigration to the Land of Israel.

Israeli security had closed off the district of Batan al-Hawa, whose clutter of dwellings clings to a hillside just southeast of the Old City walls, within clear view of the Temple Mount.

But it was a celebration in a fortified bubble in the Palestinian neighborhood that is at the heart of a struggle by right-wing Jewish organizations, backed by the government and the Jerusalem Municipality, to create irreversible facts on the ground.

In the Batan al-Hawa section of Silwan, the struggle is being waged by Ateret Cohanim, which has settled some 20 families in a Palestinian community of 6,000 to 7,000.

A view of Batan al-Hawa from the west, July 25, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In Wadi Hilweh, on the opposite ridge, the advance guard is the City of David Foundation, also known as El-Ad. There, around 400 Jews are living among some 5,000 Palestinians.

Both organizations and their backers are committed to undermining the chances of a future deal that could divide Jerusalem and give any sovereignty in the city to the Palestinians. If they succeed, Silwan will become home to the largest Jewish enclave in any Palestinian neighborhood outside of the Old City.

A peaceful story it is not.

On Tuesday, while Palestinian children were off the streets, enjoying a morning summer camp organized by locals because there are no city-built play facilities,  private security guards, paid for by the state, were escorting Jewish families to and from buildings acquired by Ateret Cohanim in Batan al-Hawa, or the Yemenite Village, as its Jewish residents call it. Those same families have to be ferried in and out in armored minibuses.

Batan al-Hawa is a flashpoint, where a single comment or curse or spit from either side can spark a riot.

Ateret Cohanim says there were 1,720 incidents of attacks by Palestinians against Jews using Molotov cocktails and other objects during the past two years. Palestinians say that some of the Jews provoke them and that the security guards are too trigger-happy when it comes to live fire.

When Palestinian families are forcibly evicted, a whole police force turns up to secure entry for the Jews.

Zuheir Ragbi, spokesman for Batan al-Hawa’s Palestinians, showed this reporter a video clip he had taken of one Jewish resident smiling, his legs astride the front wheels of Ragbi’s son’s motorbike to stop it advancing. “We know him. He also throws stones at the children. He spat at me that day. How do you think my son felt? I lodged a complaint with the police.”

Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim, says that Jewish residents have to contend with “some of the Arab clans, who are exceptionally violent. Parts of Arab society are sick, demented and full of hate and incitement.”

A fortified minibus owned by Ateret Cohanim which takes Jewish residents into the mainly Palestinian area of Batan al-Hawa, Silwan, East Jerusalem, July 25, 2018. (Sue Surkes)

Evoking the Israelites’ biblical-era enemies, the Amalekites, he added, “It’s the Amalek character to attack someone for no reason. Nobody is losing a home. Nobody is being treated unfairly. Everything is aboveboard. An Arab is always selling. The sellers always know that it’s Jews who are buying.”

Ragbi’s father left Jerusalem’s Old City for Batan al-Hawa in 1948. There, he built two rooms as the base on which his children could add their own homes when they grew up. Today, all seven of his sons have apartments in the building. None were built with a permit.

“In 1989, one of my brothers went to apply for a building license,” Ragbi said. “They gave him permission to build just 30 meters (325 feet) square. In the end he built without a permit. He gets fined and he just pays. That’s true for 98 percent of the residents of Batan al-Hawa. Either they tried to get permits and were turned down, or they can’t afford the process.”

It is Ragbi’s misfortune that his home is sandwiched between what the Jewish residents call Rachel’s House, Honey House and the Yemenite synagogue, all acquired by Ateret Cohanim in this section of Silwan.

Beit Rachel (Rachel’s House), left, owned by Ateret Cohanim in the Silwan district of Batan al-Hawa, East Jerusalem, with a view to the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque, with its black cupola roof, on the Temple Mount, July 31, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Ateret Cohanim, founded in 1978, is committed to acquiring land and buildings to settle as many Jews as possible in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City (where some 3,000 reside today) and in a ring of Jewish enclaves in Palestinian neighborhoods beyond.

It uses 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.

Palestinian pogroms in the first half of the 20th century forced those Jews to flee.

In 2002, with the backing of the custodian general, and despite the fact that none of its officials were connected with the original trustees or the Yemenites, Ateret Cohanim managed to establish control over the trust and use it to justify acquiring property and evicting residents.

Batan al-Hawa spokesman Zuheir Ragbi stands near the Yemenite synagogue in Silwan, July 31, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“I was served an eviction order on May 19, 2015,” Ragbi says. “I’m the owner. It’s my father’s house. But they say it’s their land on which we built without a permit.”

He reeled off stories behind the acquisition of other houses along the same drag.

“This is the building they call Rachel’s House. The son of the Palestinian owner went behind his father’s back and sold the building to Ateret Cohanim to finance his drug addiction. He had no right to sell,” Ragbi said.

“There, at the building they call Frumkin House, the owner was led to believe that the buyer was a wealthy Arab who wanted to ensure the neighborhood remained Palestinian,” he pointed out.

“My cousin bought an apartment next to mine. Later, it was discovered that the Arab seller had also sold it to Ateret Cohanim two years earlier,” he added. “When we went to court, Ateret Cohanim offered to pay what my cousin paid, with an extra zero on the end, if we’d drop the suit.”

The court ruled in favor of the first buyers, Ateret Cohanim, and the cousins were evicted without compensation.

Cramped housing conditions in the Batan al-Hawa district of Silwan, East Jerusalem, on July 31, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

So far, Ateret Cohanim has acquired six buildings in Batan al-Hawa and settled some 20 Jewish families.

Some Palestinians were evicted on the basis of the Benvenisti Trust. Others agreed to take cash.

Beit Yonatan — Jonathan’s House — named for the US intelligence analyst turned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard — was originally built without a permit by an Arab who had either inherited or purchased the land.

Despite orders by the courts and by then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein to evacuate and seal the building, Jewish families still live there, their right to do so supported by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who has declared he will run for a Knesset seat on the Likud party’s ticket.

Five properties followed, including the Yemenite synagogue, which at the time was home to the Abu Nab family. After a long legal battle, the courts ordered the Abu Nabs to leave in 2015, some of them having agreed to take money when the legal situation looked lost. One member still has an apartment in the complex but the access to it is in the hands of Ateret Cohanim — an issue that is still being contested in the courts.

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

Ragbi says Ateret Cohanim has eviction orders against the roughly 800 residents of a further 21 buildings and that those living in an additional 12 buildings are at immediate risk of notices being served.

A hundred residents are currently testing the legality of the custodian general’s decision to transfer the Benvenisti Trust land to Ateret Cohanim without consulting the Palestinian residents beforehand.

In question is whether the original trust covered the land or the buildings constructed on it, all but one of which no longer exist. The residents are arguing that the trust covered the former buildings and not the land and that the evictions should therefore be stopped.

Last week, the government asked for a second extension until October. The court gave it until August 12 to reply to two questions and until September 2 to respond to a third.

“If the court sides with Ateret Cohanim, it could lead to the second mass displacement of Palestinians since the eviction of the Mughrabi Quarter opposite the Western Wall in 1967,” said Hagit Ofran, who follows Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem for the left-wing watchdog Peace Now.

Said Ragbi, “If someone wants to buy a house here and live among us, I have no problem. But if you see settlers coming in, buying a house, and then the neighbors’ houses, it’s a different thing.

“I don’t want this violence. I don’t want to spend my life fighting,” he said. “I just want to be left alone, like any normal human being, to educate my kids, and to feed my family.”

Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim. (Sue Surkes)

“Every acquisition is very difficult,” said Luria, the Ateret Cohanim director. “We’re up against a mobilized Arab world, parts of which are violent. There is huge pressure and millions of dollars are being pumped in to strengthen the Arab hold on the city.”

The “biggest problem,” he continued, is “trying to get the Jewish world to understand what needs to be done.

“We have the best relations ever with a US administration. For [US Vice President Mike] Pence and [US Ambassador to Israel David] Friedman and the others, [settling Jews in East Jerusalem] is a no-brainer.

“What’s our right-wing government waiting for? It’s not about what the US says. It’s about what we do.”

He went on, “We are not doing anything to stop the peace process but will not compromise on a millimeter of Jerusalem.

“You have to show strength of conviction and sovereignty to have peace and coexistence,” Luria said. “This can only happen when you live together under Jewish sovereignty.”

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