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Following KKL-JNF Suit: Court orders Sumarin family to evacuate their home in Silwan

On 20 September 2019, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court accepted a KKL-JNF evacuation claim (through its subsidiary, Himanuta) against the Sumarin family of Silwan and ruled that the family should be evacuated from its home within three months.

The Sumarin family has been living in its home in Wadi Hilweh in Silwan for decades, not far from the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. In 1989, KKL-JNF initiated a move whereby the Custodian for Absentee Property declared the house as absentee property behind the family’s back and without its knowledge. Following this, the property was transferred to KKL-JNF along with a host of other properties in Silwan to be declared absentee in a similar manner. As KKL-JNF attorney Abraham Hilleli testified at the time: “We have an interest for those properties to be under Jewish ownership.”

Immediately after taking over the home’s ownership, the KKL-JNF filed an eviction suit against the Sumarin family in 1991. The lawsuit was dismissed but KKL-JNF appealed and continued the proceedings repeatedly for nearly 30 years, until some of the original residents of the house had passed away. The court now ruled to vacate the house.

Peace Now: This is a cruel story that did not need to happen. KKL-Jewish National Fund has become a settler fund. It has repeatedly tried to throw a Palestinian family out of its home by exploiting a legal method that is stacked against Palestinians, and has not let go for nearly 30 years even after losing in court. This is part of an ugly process of using absentee property law based on questionable evidence to take Palestinian assets and give them to settlers, and to destroy the delicate fabric of life in Jerusalem.

 A: How did the property come to the JNF?

A dubious declaration of the property as absentee property – pursuant to the Absentee Property Law of 1950, assets whose owners are in an enemy country are given to the Custodian of Absentee Property and can be sold to the Development Authority for the purpose of developing the country. In the 1980s and early 1990s, dozens of properties in Silwan were declared absentee properties and sold to the Development Authority (a government committee that investigated the declarations, the “Klugman committee,” found serious defects in the declaration procedures and determined that in some cases settler organizations had initiated the declaration).

The barter deal with Himanuta (JNF’s subsidiary) – The Development Authority and the Israel Land Administration are required to administer their assets equally without discrimination based on nationality. Conversely, the JNF and Himanuta operate according to a JNF memo that provides that its assets be leased or transferred to the possession of Jews only. In order to bypass the requirement of equality, the authorities in the early 1990s used the JNF and Himanuta to transfer property in Silwan to the settlers. On May 23, 1991, a barter deal was signed between the Development Authority and Himanuta, according to which the Development Authority was to transfer 30 dunams of absentee property in Silwan to Himanuta in exchange for land it owns in the Wadi Ara area. The purpose of the deal, as defined by the director of the Land Department in the JNF and Himanuta, was “for those properties to be under Jewish ownership.” Later most of the properties were leased to the Elad settler organization without a tender.Most of the properties were inhabited by Palestinian families that did not even know that their homes were declared absentee property, sold in a barter deal to Himanuta and leased to settlers. Himanuta began demanding the Palestinian tenants be evicted from their homes through legal actions. Among the properties transferred in this way to Elad are Beit Hamaayan (“the well house”), which serves as a tourist and archaeological excavation site, and Beit Hatzofeh (“the lookout house”), which serves the organization as part of its tourist site and visitors center as well as serving as a settler residence.

The Commission of Inquiry on the Transfer of Assets in Silwan (Klugman Report) – On 16 August 1992, the Minister of Justice and Minister of Finance in the Rabin government appointed an inter-ministerial team to examine the structures transferred to settlers in East Jerusalem (Klugman Report). The report stated, among other things, that “the function of the Custodian of Absentee Property was carried out according to a very poor standard . . . The grave findings regarding the function of the Custodian of Absentee Property require, in the Committee’s opinion, a thorough examination and immediate consideration.”Following the report, the mechanism established for the purpose of transferring property in East Jerusalem to settlers was halted; however, the steps that had already been taken were not made null and void, and the legal procedures that had already been underway have continued to this day, including the case of the Sumarin family.

B: The Development of the Eviction Suit against the Sumarin Family

1991 – The JNF (Himanuta) submits an eviction claim against the Sumarin family (Civil Claim, 5980/91).

1994 – Judge Yehudit Tzur rules that the declaration of the property as absentee property was made unlawfully and therefore the claim for eviction is denied. It turned out the the person who was declared “absentee,” Mussa Sumarin, lived all his life in Silwan until he died in early 1980’s

1996 – In an appeal filed by Himanuta on the verdict (Civil Appeal 21/95), the District Court found that the declaration of absentee property was valid (because the three sons of the “absentee” Mussa Sumarin lived abroad and they are considered absentees), but sent the case back to the Magistrate Court to determine whether the Sumarin family has rights to the property by virtue of an agreement or authority that can override Himanuta’s rights to the land.

1999 – The Magistrate Court (Justice Rafi Strauss) ruled that the Sumarin family had a right to the property by virtue of a purchase agreement signed between the landlord (whose sons were later declared absentees) and the father of the family. à Himnuta’s appeal therefore was rejected.

1999 – The Sumarin family filed a claim in the District Court to declare ownership of the property based on the authority given them by the landlord to live in the property and on the basis of a purchase contract signed between him and the father of the family in 1983 (Legal Proceeding 633/99). In the hearing, there were expert testimonies that placed doubt on the reliability of the purchase contract.

2004 – The Sumarin family decided to withdraw the lawsuit, with Justice M. Gal hinting in the ruling that the authenticity of the purchase contract is dubious.

2005 – Following the rejection of the Sumarin family’s claim, Himanuta returned and demanded the eviction of the family (Civil Claim 12797/05).

2006 – The Sumarin family did not respond to the claim, and therefore it was ruled that in the absence of a defense the family must be evicted from the house.

2011 – Himanuta waited five years to implement the ruling, but in 2011 it began executing proceedings and was determined to see the family be evicted in November of that year. The family, which first heard of the ruling given in absentia (without its presence) in 2006, submitted a request to the court to allow it to defend itself.

2013 – After the two parties entered into negotiations for the duration of a year, and after Himanuta asked to submit its response to the request, the court gave the Sumarin family an opportunity to defend itself, and the hearing on the eviction was reopened.

2018 – After preliminary proceedings came the stage of proof and various witnesses were heard in court.

20 September 2019 – The Magistrate’s Court issued a verdict to vacate the property. The Sumarin family is expected to appeal to the District Court and possibly to the High Court (a procedure that usually takes several months), after which the verdict will be final. If the District or High Court does not override the verdict, the Sumarin family is expected to be evicted.