How the government and the settlers conspire to take over houses and land

Michal Schwartz

Collusion in Jerusalem


Since the mid-eighties, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem have been victims of settler organizations whose aim is to "redeem" all property that belonged to Jews before 1948, as well as any other piece of real estate they can get. One prominent group is Ateret Cohanim ("The Priestly Crown"), which concentrates on the Old City's Moslem Quarter as well as the Mount of Olives. Another is El Ad (an acronym: "To the City of David"); this group focuses on the village of Silwan, which includes the original Jerusalem.

Ateret Cohanim and El Ad are registered as non-profit organizations. In fact, they enjoy full government assistance. This was especially the case during the years of the previous Likud administration, which channelled money to them for making "pay-offs" and buying up houses. The authorities gave them privileged information about the ownership of houses, helped them flaunt legal procedures, countenanced ??? the forgery of documents, hastened bureaucratic procedures, and provided police protection. Their chief patron before the Labor victory of 1992, and once again since 1996, has been Minister Arik Sharon, himself the owner of an Arab house in the Moslem Quarter. Sharon has always made sure to get ministerial positions that would give him control over land and building. In the past he was Minister of Housing, today he has a post, designed by himself, called Minister of National Infrastructure. It gives him power over the Israel Lands Administration (ILA).

The scope of this murky cooperation first came to light six years ago in a document known as "The Klugman Report." On the night of October 9, 1991, El Ad invaded several houses in Silwan, claiming ownership. Knesset Member Haim Oron (Meretz) decided to investigate. His work raised suspicions that El Ad had acted illegally, with implicit government knowledge and support. In August 1992, the new Labor government appointed Haim Klugman, Director of the Justice Ministry, to make a full inquiry. The Klugman Report, issued on September 13, uncovered evidence that tens of millions of dollars had been given to the settler groups by government ministries; that false documents supplied by Arab collaborators had been used to classify Palestinian houses as "absentee property" (see below); that the ILA and the Jewish National Fund had allotted this property to the settlers without offering it up for tender; and that public funds had been used to finance the settlers' legal expenses. The Ministries of Justice and Housing were clearly implicated. In short, the ILA, the Jewish National Fund and government ministries had all aided settler groups, financially and otherwise, to oust Arabs and take over their property.

(A word about "absentee property": During the fighting in 1947-1948, many Palestinians left their homes and villages, sometimes moving only a few hundred yards. In 1950 the Knesset passed a law, creating a "Custodian of Absentee Property." This highly euphemistic person then sold the houses and land to a Development Authority, which in turn sold them to the state or the Jewish National Fund, which in turn leased them out to the Jewish families or settlements that had already squatted there." Of 370 Jewish settlements founded between 1948 and 1953, 350 were on absentee property. In 1954 more than a third of Israel's Jewish population lived on absentee property." [Howard Sachar, A History of Israel, New York, Knopf, 1979, p. 438.] Ateret Cohanim, El Ad, and the government were merely carrying on a venerable tradition. The sole difficulty was to get the property declared "absentee.") The Labor government gave The Klugman Report to the State Comptroller, Miriam Ben Porat, for further scrutiny. The investigation continued until 1995, revealing grave evidence of misconduct. One might have expected Ben Porat to recommend legal action. But this case, it seems, was too hot a potato. On June 14, 1998, Ir Shalem –a non-profit organization affiliated with Peace Now – asserted in a press release: "The State Comptroller approached Rabin and suggested ending the investigation because of the damage it would cause Israel's good name. Unbeknownst to the other ministers, Rabin and the State Comptroller decided to halt the investigation."

In November 1997, Haim Oron (the Knesset member who had started the inquiry) met Miriam Ben Porat and reaffirmed his suspicion that the government had acted illegally in cahoots with the settlers. Along with Ir Shalem, he demanded that the investigation be continued. In May 1998, Ben Porat notified Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the inquiry would begin again within a month unless he ordered otherwise. On June 4, 1998 she announced: "I have received an order from the Prime Minister, classified as secret. In accordance with this message, I have informed my office to stop the investigation." (From the press release of Ir Shalem.) Thus, despite the evidence, no one has been taken to court, no public funds have been paid back, no property restored. The Klugman Report has twice been dumped, by Rabin and by Netanyahu. The old system of plunder goes on. Haim Oron and Ir Shalem have petitioned the High Court on this issue, citing Ateret Cohanim, El Ad, Minister Ariel Sharon and the Jerusalem Local Committee for Planning and Building.

Three foci of increased settler activity in East Jerusalem have turned the months of May and June from hot to boiling. The areas of dispute are familiar: the village of Silwan (in settler parlance, the City of David), Herod's Gate in the Old City, and the adjoining Moslem Quarter. These sites have been flashpoints for at least fifteen years, ever since Ateret Cohanim and El Ad began taking over property, turning Palestinian lives into a nightmare.

Herod's Gate

On the night of May 26, dozens of Ateret Cohanim settlers took over an empty three-dunam plot inside Herod's Gate. The Israel Lands Administration (ILA) has the ownership, but the lot has been designated a conservation area. The settlers installed water pipes and made temporary structures, which several families moved into. The next day they clashed with the Palestinians. The chief archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority applied for to the courts to stop the occupation. Mayor Ehud Olmert issued evacuation and demolition orders, which were promptly implemented. How did Ateret Cohanim establish claims to the plot in the first place? We find a clue in a section of The Klugman Report, which Ir Shalem quoted in its recent petition to the High Court. The Report cites Eliyahu Babai from the ILA: "Figures at policy-making levels decided that all property (in Jerusalem) which is given to the ILA would be rented (without tender) to Ateret Cohanim ... In 1982 a special committee was established to deal with property in the Old City ... The committee followed the instructions of Ariel Sharon. Property that was purchased in full (by the ILA) was given to Ateret Cohanim." (Page 10 of The Klugman Report).

In pursuit of this policy, Ariel Sharon gave Ateret Cohanim permission, in July 1997, to "guard and take care of" the plot for one year - all without tender. The right-wing group was even allowed to build sports facilities. On May 26, before the year of "custody" ended, the settlers made their move. The municipality ordered them out, indeed, and demolished the structures. Behind the scenes, however, additional steps were taken, ensuring that those who had been ousted from the windows could come back through the front door. The two sides reached an agreement: the Antiquities Authority would conduct salvage excavations on the plot of land, after which it would be possible to start construction. Ateret Cohanim would be permitted to work in the excavations, finance them, and remain in the area as guardians. On June 8 the group presented a plan (No. 4398) to the Jerusalem Committee of Planning and Construction. The idea is to construct four buildings in the area, each six stories high, including a religious college, a student residence and two roads passing beneath the walls of the Old City to an underground parking lot. According to the Jerusalem Master Plan (M9), areas adjacent to the Old City walls are supposed to stay open, and in no case should the construction of buildings taller than the walls be permitted. Yet Ateret Cohanim relies on the support of the Mayor and his municipal coalition.

House Grabs Continue

Two cases mentioned in the Klugman Report have come up again. Both Na'ila Zaro in the Old City (Challenge #15) and Fatme Qarain in Silwan (Challenge #s 10 and 11) have recently lost their houses after years of court deliberation. We have followed Na'ila Zaro's brave struggle for more than a decade. She was born in the Moslem Quarter. Her family had lived in the house of her birth for eighty years as protected tenants. After 1948 they rented it from Saleh Nabulsi, who had rights to the house (they later learned) as a guardian of absentee property recognised by Jordan. In June 1985, Na'ila escorted her elderly mother to Jordan for a three-month medical treatment. On the night she left, settlers of a Jewish Hassidic faction called Atara Le'Yoshna broke into the house, threw her furniture into the street, changed the locks, and began making alterations. They had already managed, by sheer brutality, to evict other families from houses adjoining Na'ila's. They claimed that Nabulsi had sold them his rights. But Na'ila was not one to give up. She returned from Jordan and began a long court battle. In 1992, after six years of fighting – and practically penniless – she won her case in the High Court. Na'ila returned to her home and lived there six more years. Last May 25th she was evicted again. In 1992, it seems, the judge had commented that the brutality of the settlers had moved him to decide in Na'ila's favor. It was as if he had hinted to them: "If you behave yourselves and try again in court, you might have a chance". The settlers tried again. Na'ila attempted to prove she was a protected tenant, but this time she lost. Today she lives with neigbors in the Old City. Who can she turn to for help?

Fatmeh Qara'in, a mother of seven, is another victim of the Custodian of Absentee Property. She was born in a big house in Silwan. In 1966 (before the Israeli occupation), she and her husband bought it from her father, who was living in Jordan. Although Fatmeh had a legal contract, she did not register the house in her name. In the Israeli land registry, therefore, it appeared under her father's name – which made it absentee property. The house was divided into apartments, and another four families lived there as well. Silwan contains twelve housing units that are claimed by settlers. Five can be traced back to Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who bought land there before the turn of the century. The other seven, comprising 12 dunams, are categorized as absentee property. All the plots were turned over to El Ad without tender. On the night of October 9, 1991, settlers accompanied by Knesset Members invaded the houses and put their inhabitants into the street. Among them was Fatmeh Qara'in and her family. This commando-style operation was criticized to such a degree that the El Ad people were ordered, at first, to leave. As in previous cases, however, they were finally permitted to remain as "guardians". Fatmeh's apartment remained and empty and sealed. After the brouhaha following the settler takeover in Ras al Amud last September (Challenge # 46), Prime Minister Netanyahu decided that settlers must consult with him before occupying Arab houses in Jerusalem. On June 11 he revoked that decision. Udi Arnon, the director of Ir Shalem, believes that in return for this move, Netanyahu will receive the support of Ateret Cohanim's Rabbi Aviner on redeployment in the West Bank. Recent events indicate that all the proceedings connected with these cases, legal and otherwise, were only devices to gain time and a veneer of legitimacy. Governments come and go, but settler activity in Jerusalem will always find support. The fact remains, nonetheless, that thirty-one years of Occupation and settlement have not made a dent in the Arab character of East Jerusalem. The Old City, East Jerusalem and Silwan will not become Jewish. It is madness to try to make them so. The result will be an appointment in Gehenna.