On April 3, 2023, the Israel Supreme Court denied the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) eviction action (through the Himnuta Company) against the Sumarin family and thereby ended the possibility of evicting the Palestinian family from its home in Silwan. The family’s legal struggle has been going-on for 32 years, with proceedings having been held at all of the judicial levels. Against the family were arrayed settlers, the JNF, the Israel Attorney General and a determined and strong governmental apparatus.
A broad public campaign on behalf of the Sumarin family and a request that the management of the JNF desist from efforts to evict the family from its home ended with the relief granted by the Supreme Court that saved the family from eviction.
The Supreme Court’s decision to recognize the Sumarin family’s right to live in its home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem is based on a decision of the Jerusalem Magistrate Court from 1999 which recognized the family’s right to be in possession of the property. That decision clarified that it was permissible for the Sumarin family to live on the property.
The Supreme Court did not deal with the question of the ownership of the property. The Court accepted the family’s assertion that the property was legally sold to them in 1983 in a transaction between family members and that since that time they have lived in the property. Therefore, the courts did not directly deal with the Absentees’ Property Law, which led to the legal struggle. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez related to the difficulty of declaring the Sumarin family’s home as absentee’s property and criticized the expansive and disproportional use made of the Absentees Property Law:
In my opinion, there is a need to devote consideration and the deriving of lessons from the manner in which the government operated in this case. As I have already noted, the property, upon which the entire controversy is centered, was at one point declared absentee’s property, with no basis in law for such a declaration, because there was doubt as to the fact that the owner was a resident of Jerusalem at the time of the first declaration regarding him. It was explained that this declaration was the result of a mistake. After the owner died, the property was again declared to be absentee’s property, taking into consideration the place of residence of his children. This is not property that became absentees’ property directly on the background of the events of the War of Independence. This is property that belonged to the Sumarin family and became absentee’s property due to the vicissitudes of the family’s life.
It bears mentioning that the Sumarin home is strategically located in close proximity to Al Aqsa, and that the settler organization, the City of David Foundation (El’ad) has established the City of David visitor’s center adjoining the Sumarin property. Taking over the Sumarin property would have enabled El’ad to complete a vast continuum of control at the entrance to Silwan, to carry out excavations, and in that manner to enlarge the visitor’s center and to further reduce the Palestinian presence in this sensitive area.
This is a victory of the weak against a strong and wealthy apparatus, that operates behind the scenes with support from governmental bodies, politicians, and strong settler organizations. They all operated in concert and did not balk at the use of any means to evict the Sumarin family from their only home. The Sumarin’s victory is also a victory for the entire Silwan neighborhood, which is at the forefront of the struggle regarding the character and future of Jerusalem. The strategic location of Silwan, at the foot of the Temple Mount and adjoining the Old City, puts it at the heart of the political struggle over all of Jerusalem. For thirty years, the settlers and the State of Israel have been working to alter the Palestinian character of the city and to present the neighborhood as an integral part of Israeli Jerusalem.
A Brief Review of the Legal Struggle
The action against the Sumarin family was first filed by the JNF in 1991 through its subsidiary company Himnuta. After it lost and appealed and again lost, Himnuta re-filed the action. This time it prevailed in both the Magistrate Court and the District Court because the Sumarin family had chosen not to appear in court until the matter was brought before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decision last week puts an end to the 32-year struggle of the Sumarin family to prevent being evicted.
The Sumarin family was the victim of a corrupt method developed by entities within the Likud party in the 1980’s, together with settlers’ associations and the JNF, according to which the settlers and the JNF initiated the declaration of properties in Silwan as properties of absentees and thereafter the properties were sold by the State to the JNF, which in turn transferred them to settlers. The method was exposed and stopped by the Rabin administration which established a commission of inquiry regarding the matter (the Klugmann Commission) but the properties themselves that had already been transferred in this manner were never returned to the Palestinians.
This is the way the method was used in the case of the Sumarin family: In 1987, the Custodian of Absentees’ Properties declared the Sumarin family home as absentee’s property, without the family’s knowledge. The Custodian relied upon an affidavit filed with him at the initiative of the JNF and the settlers, according to which the owner of the property, Haj Moussa Sumarin, the uncle of the Sumarin family living in the home, was absent. It transpired that Haj Moussa Sumarin was not absent but rather had lived in Silwan until his death in 1983 (even the most basic search of the residents’ registry was not made), but this did not keep the Custodian for Absentees’ Properties from declaring the property to be absentee’s property because Haj Moussa’s children were absent. This declaration was also made without making any inquiries and it was not ascertained whether the children were indeed considered to be absentees and if they were indeed Haj Moussa’s sole heirs. The members of the Sumarin family living in the house were not contacted. In this manner, the property was declared to be absentee’s property and afterwards it was transferred from the Custodian to the Development Authority and then to the JNF. The JNF, for its part, signed a secret agreement with the El’ad Foundation, according to which the foundation would take care of legal representation in the eviction action and, in return, would receive possession of the property.