|On December 27, Ir Amim, together with the Sheikh Jarrah community association, representing residents of the Um Haroun section of the neighborhood, filed a legal petition to the Israeli High Court against the General Custodian, which sits within the Ministry of Justice.
Sheikh Jarrah, along with Silwan on the opposite edge of the Old City Basin, is a site of concerted ideological settler activity, marked by numerous settler-initiated eviction demands against Palestinian families with the assistance of state authorities, including the General Custodian.
Approximately 40 families in the Um Haroun section of Sheikh Jarrah and an estimated 35 more families in the Kerem Al'ajoni section are at risk of eviction. A total of some 75 Palestinian families stand to be displaced from their homes and supplanted with settlers in the entire neighborhood.
The Petition’s Framework
The petition concerns the General Custodian's absence of written and published procedures regarding the management of assets in East Jerusalem and the manner in which it exercises its authority under the Legal and Administrative Matters Law of 1970. In East Jerusalem specifically, the General Custodian is the Israeli body responsible for managing properties which were owned by Jews in East Jerusalem prior to 1948.
Pursuant to section five of the 1970 law, properties which belonged to Jews in East Jerusalem before the 1948 War and subsequently controlled by the Jordanian authorities between 1948 and 1967 were transferred into the management of the General Custodian following the 1967 War and the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem. The General Custodian is then required to release these properties to their pre-1948 owners or their heirs when a claim is submitted. Section five therefore grants Jews the exclusive right to reclaim assets previously owned in East Jerusalem prior to 1948 despite many having already been compensated with alternative properties and after decades of Palestinian families residing in these homes or on the respective lands.
For decades, ideological settler organizations have exploited these legal mechanisms and the support they enjoy from state bodies like the General Custodian to advance evictions of Palestinians and takeovers of their homes as a means to establish settler strongholds in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods.
The opening clauses of the petition underscore the unconstitutionality and systemic discrimination created under the auspices of the law through affording Jews the right to retrieve lost pre-1948 properties in East Jerusalem, while no parallel legal mechanism exists for Palestinians who lost assets in West Jerusalem. Instead, the 1950 Absentee Property Law enshrines that properties of Palestinians who were forced to abandon their homes due to the war are deemed absentee and therefore transferred into the possession of the state with no legal recourse to recover them.
Although the petition stresses the implicit discrimination in the law, the petition itself does not address its unconstitutionality, but rather the General Custodian's obligation to operate in a transparent, fair, and ethical manner within the existing framework.
A Stark Rise in Eviction Cases since 2017
As noted in the petition, in 2017 the East Jerusalem portfolio was transferred with no clear explanation into the Custodian's economic unit, which was at the time overseen by rightwing activist, Hananel Gurfinkel, known for his support of Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. Under his management, collaboration with settler groups and the number of filed eviction claims grew substantially. While one to three eviction cases were opened per year between 2012 and 2016, that number increased to 11 eviction cases in 2017 and 14 in 2018. The General Custodian's economic department is currently managing some 600 files, involving approximately hundreds of Palestinian families and thousands of individuals across East Jerusalem, many of whom have resided in these properties for decades, including before the aforementioned law was even enacted. The families often suffer from harassment and arbitrary treatment both in terms of the General Custodian’s ongoing mismanagement of the assets and the eviction lawsuits filed against them due to its operations and cooperation with settler organizations.
Lack of Procedures Enables the General Custodian to Operate with Impunity
In the absence of clear published procedures, the General Custodian can continue to facilitate evictions of Palestinians in favor of settler groups with no accountability, transparency and proper governance, while the rights of Palestinian families, many of whom enjoy protected tenancy status, are severely infringed upon.
The petition calls upon the court to instruct the General Custodian to publish ethical procedural regulations concerning property management in East Jerusalem. It likewise requests that special arrangements would be made within their framework on behalf of Palestinian residents, which take into account the years that have passed and the circumstances that have changed since the 1970 law’s enactment. The petition goes on to lay out various recommendations for these arrangements which would better serve and protect the properties’ current Palestinian tenants, while also upholding their rights.
The aim of the petition is to therefore challenge, within the existing legal framework, the severe misconduct of the General Custodian in its complicity with settler-initiated eviction lawsuits and to ultimately facilitate the freeze of these eviction proceedings.
As of December 29, the Israel High Court has given the General Custodian until February 28, 2021 to respond. Ir Amim will continue to update concerning subsequent developments.