When Israeli settlers turned up at Rafat Sub Laban’s family home last week it was not entirely unexpected. The settlers had arrived with a lawyer to demand the family vacate the property immediately. The Sub Labans have been embroiled in a legal battle to hold onto their house for decades. As Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, their battle is by no means unique.
In the 1980s the family needed to hold some maintenance work but the Israeli custodian barred it, forcing them relocate to another house in Jerusalem. Soon after that, all the Sub Laban’s Palestinian neighbours in the building were evicted and Israeli settlers replaced them- subsequently blocking the entrance of their house. In order to gain access, Rafat says: “My family started a legal battle that went on for over 20 years in Israeli courts.” Their success in the courts in 2000 did not spell an end to the family’s battle- the settlers that arrived on their doorstep have been attempting to evict the family from their home for the past 5 years.
Despite the Laban family’s status as protected tenants, a court order arrived in 2010 stating that the Israeli General Custodian had transferred control of the property to the notorious settler organization Ateret Cohanim– who had filed an eviction order. Protected tenancy was a status granted to certain East Jerusalem Palestinians who had had rental agreement with the Jordanian Custodian for “Enemy Property” (property previously inhabited by Jewish residents) prior to the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. After 1967, the management of these properties was taken over by the Israeli General Custodian, who continued the rental agreements with the Palestinian families.
Jewish settlers have made use of a 1970 Israeli law that allows Israelis to reclaim East Jerusalem properties that, prior to 1948, were owned by Jews and abandoned when the city was divided. Heirs to the original land can make a legal claim and—theoretically—take it back and evict the residents. Tenants are protected only if they have rented continuously since before 1968. One of the conditions to maintaining the protected tenant status is that you remain in the house. Ateret Cohanim, a non-profit organisation, is stating the Sub Labans have been absent from the property since 1999 until today, using evidence from a settler neighbour to support this.
“The aim when it comes to my house specifically- it is actually to make the whole building exclusively Jewish. We are the only Palestinians left in these apartments,” said Rafat. In regards to a decision on the family’s appeal of the eviction order due this May, he says: “We know it’s not a fair court, a fair trial- it is already based on fake evidence. There is no actual evidence that suggests we are not living there.”
Since the early 1990s groups such as Ateret Cohanim and Elad- another settler organisation- have worked towards a goal of a ensuring a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. Backed by right-wing American Jewish millionaires and Israeli government money they appropriate Palestinian land and properties for the settlement enterprise. When not recruiting the law to get what they want, they use illegal forged or fake documents (for example- a house in Wadi Hilweh, East Jerusalem was sold to the settlers, among other things, on the basis of documents signed posthumously by the owner of the property), middle men and straw companies-or simply desperate Palestinians who need the money.
In 2010 Haaretz exposed the level of support these groups receive from the Israeli government. Via rentals, sales or leases, it found that the Israel Lands Administration, the Israeli government authority responsible for managing land in Israel which is in the public domain, had transferred buildings and land to the two groups- hundreds of assets. A report conducted by Klugman Committee, a committee formed in 1992 to review relations between the state and non-profit associations, concluded that Palestinian houses were confiscated on the basis of affidavits submitted by the two organizations, without either verifying the reliability of the people who made the affidavits or checking whether anyone was living in these houses.
It found that in its transactions with these organizations, the state made excessive use of the Absentee Property Law. The 1950 law classified every citizen or persons that owned property in Israel but were present in an “enemy” territory (such as the West Bank) or country (Jordan or Lebanon) as an “absentee”, therefor allowing the state to become the custodian of the property. Thousands of Palestinians fled to “enemy” countries to escape the violence surrounding the birth of Israel- the law has served to confiscate the land and property left behind by the Palestinians who were forcibly displaced in 1948.
Employing discriminatory laws and shady dealings these groups have managed to cut huge inroads into Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. Each property appropriated is a step towards their stated goal- a Jerusalem for Jews only. But by their logic- “redeeming land” based on claims of pre 1948 ownership, surely Palestinians will be able to return to the ruins of Beit Jibrin village or the old Arab houses now populated by young Israeli n Jaffa?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.