One Palestinian family’s legal battle to remain in their own house is a microcosm of Israel’s institutionalised discrimination.
In the 1920s, Salim Khoury Shaya built a large house in Jaffa where his seven children were born and raised. Shortly before the unilateral establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, three of the siblings travelled to Lebanon, and when war broke out, were unable to return.
In 1950, following the Israeli government’s passing of the Absentee Property Law – more on which below – the siblings who went to Lebanon were declared ‘absentees’, and the Israeli authorities took over the house, despite the fact that the rest of the family was still living in it. Nine years later, the state made a ‘concession’; it would retain its hold over 40 per cent of the house.
The property is now managed by Amidar, a public housing agency. In 2007, Amidar went to court to force the Shaya families to pay 471,000 shekels in backdated rent. The state agency also asked the court to dissolve the partnership, enabling it to sell the house to the highest bidder.
Last month, a Tel Aviv court ruled that the family would not have to pay the sum demanded for rent – but at the same time, also ruled that the family would have to buy the 40 per cent stake of the property from the state, in order to regain ownership (of their own house).
According to reports, the 40 per cent stake is valued at 2 million shekels, which the families cannot afford. They thus face being evicted from a home passed down the generations for almost a century.
In 2009, the lawyer representing the family gave his assessment of the case thus: “The state is cynically and aggressively seeking to dispossess citizens of their home that was built before the state’s founding, solely because they are Arabs.” Family member Mary Kusa added: “I have no doubt that if we were Jews the state would not be doing this.”
This story is not unique. A report a few years ago estimated that 40 percent of the Palestinian population in Jaffa lives in absentee ownership properties – one in four of whom were facing eviction (497 homes). In 2007-’08, Amidar issued at least 400 eviction notices in Jaffa’s Ajami neighbourhood.
A 2014 article described how, “in recent years”, Israeli authorities have “issued hundreds of eviction orders to tenants who breached contract conditions.” For example, “any tenant who renovated without permit, or overstayed the protected tenancy agreements (which expire past the third generation) were forced out.”
But the significance of this case goes beyond Jaffa; the legislative framework that first took the Shaya family home from its owners, and now forces them to buy their own home or face expulsion, is at the heart of what it has meant, in practice, for a ‘Jewish state’ to be established in Palestine.
The Absentee Property Law was a key tool used to transfer land from ethnically cleansed Palestinians to the new State of Israel. It declared land ‘abandoned’ if its owner was absent for just one day from November 1947 – but excluded Jewish Israelis from its provisions.
The Law of Return and Citizenship Law, meanwhile, meant that any Jew could emigrate to Israel and receive citizenship, while Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 – or, who like the Shaya siblings, were simply outside the country at the time – were denationalised and prevented from returning.
All these laws remain in force, and, as this case in Jaffa demonstrates, continue to effect even those Palestinians who remained and have Israeli citizenship. Thus any discussion about Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ is incomplete without reference to the Shaya family (and those like them); fragmented and part-exiled, and forced to buy their own home or face eviction – simply because they are Palestinian.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.