On 1 January 2018, a discussion was held at the Jerusalem Magistrate Court regarding the Jewish National Fund’s claim (via its subsidiary, Himnuta) against the Sumarin family in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Five(!) lawyers led by the JNF brought large suitcases to the courtroom, where experts and Sumarin family members were giving testimonies in a hearing. The family has lived for decades in its home in the Wadi Hilweh area of Silwan, not far from the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall. In the early 1990s, the Israeli authorities announced that the house had been declared “absentee property,” and that it was transferred to the JNF, which in turn intended to transfer it to settlers. Twenty-six years later, the JNF continues to try again and again, even after losing in court, to sue for the eviction of the family.
Peace Now: This is cruelty for cruelty’s sake. KKL-JNF has recruited a powerful battery of lawyers to throw a Palestinian family out of its house and has not let go of this pursuit for the past 26 years, despite losing multiple times in court on this matter. The JNF plays a central role in the draconian use of the Absentee Property Law on the basis of questionable evidence, all in order to take property away from Palestinians and to give it to a settler organization 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 Himnuta (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 Himnuta 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 Himnuta to transfer property in Silwan to the settlers.On May 23, 1991, a barter deal was signed between the Development Authority and Himnuta, according to which the Development Authority was to transfer 30 dunams of absentee property in Silwan to Himnuta 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 Himnuta, 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 Himnuta and leased to settlers. Himnuta 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) – The machine was stopped but did not die – 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 (Himnuta) 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.
1996 – In an appeal filed by Himnuta on the verdict (Civil Appeal 21/95), the District Court found that the declaration of absentee property was valid, 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 Himnuta’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, Himnuta 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 – Himnuta 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 Himnuta 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. At that stage, Himnuta also included in its claim a demand for the Sumarin family to pay NIS 500,000 for having stayed so many years on the land which Himnuta considered its property.
2017-Present – After delays, various requests and appeals for interim decisions, the parties are now in the stage of presenting evidence. Another hearing has been set for April 2018, and a verdict is expected to be issued a few months.
The eviction can easily be prevented: The JNF can decide to drop the case. The JNF can also decide, instead of giving the property to settlers, to give it to the Palestinian family that has lived in it for years. This is the right thing to do – morally and politically for the future of Jerusalem.
ٌRead more about KKL-JNF at the research by Maya Rosen and Daniel Roth: A Progressive Jewish Response to the Discriminatory Policies of JNF-KKL