An urgent lawsuit filed yesterday (11 October 2020) revealed that the Jewish National Fund (JNF, the Keren Kayemet Leyisrael KKL) transferred its properties in Silwan to the settler organization Elad. The suit, filed by a right-wing party representative at the JNF’s board against JNF officials, also revealed that JNF’s 30-year-long eviction lawsuit against the Sumarin family in Silwan has been funded and managed by Elad using the JNF’s name. According to the agreement between the JNF and Elad, Elad finances and manages the eviction proceedings and in return it receives the property after the Palestinian family is evicted.
The lawsuit was filed against the backdrop of an attempt by JNF officials to freeze the eviction proceedings against the Sumarin family and to sever ties with Elad. The CEO of Elad, David Be’eri, contacted the members of the board of directors and threatened to take personal action against them if they made a decision which would harm Elad.
Peace Now: Over the course of 30 years the JNF has pursued a long, cruel eviction lawsuit against a Palestinian family from Silwan, recieving fierce public criticism in Israel and the Diaspora, and suddenly it turns out that it was actually Elad behind the suit, pulling the JNF’s strings. The JNF, for its part, to this day hides this fact and abandons its principles and its good name in order to serve the interests of settlers.
The JNF’s eviction suit against the Sumarin family
In the late 1980s, a governmental mechanism was established that transferred Palestinian properties in Silwan and the Muslim quarter into the hands of the settler organizations Ateret Cohanim and Elad. One the methods used to take possession of the properties was taking advantage of the Absentee Property Law. The JNF participated in these proceedings and its subsidiary, Himanuta, purchased, in a barter deal, a series of properties in Silwan from the Custodian of Absentee Properties. Following the transaction, Himanuta began to sue the families for eviction from these properties.
One of the properties was the Sumarin family home in Silwan. In 1991, Himanuta filed an eviction lawsuit against the Sumarin family, who have been struggling to remain in their home for nearly the past 30 years throughout a long, expensive, exhausting legal process.
Attempts by JNF officials to freeze the eviction proceedings against the family and sever ties with Elad
Following the pressure exerted on the JNF by the public (including a letter-writing campaign that produced thousands of emails, appeals from 34 Israel Prize recipients, opinion pieces in the press, organized by the the Sumarin Coalition – of activists and organizations– Peace Now among them), JNF officials began trying to freeze the eviction proceedings against the family. On July 20, 2020, the chairman of the board of directors of Himanuta, Matityahu Sperber, wrote a letter to the chairman of the JNF, Danny Atar, requesting that he get involved in freezing the proceedings against the Sumarin family and in severing ties between Himanuta and Elad. In the letter, Sperber expresses concern about the JNF’s public image in Israel and in the diaspora as well as its legal status in terms of the tax laws of various countries around the world, following public criticism of its controversial use of the Absentee Property Law to evict a Palestinian family from their home in Silwan.
In the letter, Sperber also sharply attacks the conduct of Himanuta’s attorneys during the eviction suit. The attorneys, from the Law Office of Zeev Sharf, are paid for by and take instructions from Elad. Sperber describes how they deny him information and refuse to share with him documents sent to the court on behalf of Himanuta. He describes that though the attorneys formally represent Himanuta, they in fact act solely in the interests of Elad. This creates a conflict of interest and provides grounds for replacing the legal representation.
All this information about Elad’s involvement in the proceedings and the JNF’s internal criticism would not have been revealed if the JNF’s right-wing party representative had not filed an urgent lawsuit yesterday (11 October 2020) to prevent the Himanuta board of directors from convening.
The lawsuit filed to prevent the Himanuta board of directors from convening
On 12 October 2020, the Himanuta board of directors was supposed to convene in order to make a decision about freezing the proceedings and replacing their legal representation in the eviction lawsuit against the Sumarin family. A day before the meeting, the Jewish Home Party’s representative on the JNF board, Nachi Eyal, filed an urgent lawsuit in the Jerusalem District Court. The suit demanded that the board of directors be kept from meeting because, according to Eyal’s claim, the meeting was set hastily with very short notice and because the composition of the board of the directors stands to change in a few weeks. The court issued a temporary order forbidding the board’s discussion of the matter and gave Himanuta a seven day period to respond to the lawsuit.
Along with the lawsuit, the CEO of Elad, David Be’eri, sent a scathing letter to the heads of the JNF in which he complained about the intention to interfere with the proceedings against the Sumarin family. In the letter, he details how over the past 30 years of Elad funding the eviction proceedings, the JNF permitted Elad to manage the proceedings as it wished. According to him, the JNF is legally bound to agreements that were signed in the past and therefore is prohibited from cancelling them now. He also threatens the members of the board of directors that if they vote in favor of a decision that would infringe on Elad’s rights, personal proceedings will be taken up against them.
The pressure had an effect, but the struggle is far from over
For decades, the JNF has been conducting a difficult, exhausting eviction proceeding against a Palestinian family in Silwan. In all those years, it was actually Elad, using the JNF’s name, conducting the proceedings. The JNF, which purports to represent the Jewish people, kept its agreement with Elad secret and absorbed public criticism.
It seems that it was only following the recent public pressure on the JNF that internal voices finally stepped up and tried to change the shameful picture. The public pressure succeeded in bringing about an attempt to change the JNF’s policy, but the struggle is still far from over. It is important to emphasize that alongside the leaders in the JNF who are stepping up for change, there are others who support and assist settlers. As of now, the court has prevented the board of directors from making a decision. Stopping the eviction will require the JNF’s internal leaders to fight with full force both in court and in the face of Elad’s threats to take action against them personally.
The Sumarin family’s struggle is also far from over. This coming April, the Supreme Court will hear the family’s appeal, which they filed after losing in the Magistrate’s Court and on appeal in the District Court. But even after the legal decision, the story will still not be over. The JNF can choose what to do with its properties, and can decide to allow the Palestinian family to continue living in their home in one way or another.