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In 1968, then Attorney General Meir Shamgar (who would become President of Israel’s High Court from 1983-1995), determined that the “Absentee Property Law” may not be used in East Jerusalem. All Israeli governments complied, until now.

The “Absentee Property Law,” passed during the fledgling years of Israel (1950), allows the state to seize and assume ownership of lands abandoned by Palestinians after November 29, 1947 who left to live in Arab states, the West Bank or Gaza. In their absence their forfeited property could be taken over by the Absentee Property Custodian and title could be transferred to the State of Israel.

To accommodate East Jerusalem Palestinians after the 1967 War, the Knesset passed a law (1970) excluding them from exposure to the Absentee Property Law. [Note: East Jerusalem Arabs are not “citizens” of the state of Israel, though they are entitled to vote in municipal elections.]

Ir Amim (lit. “City of Peoples/Nations”) is an Israeli non-profit and non-partisan organization that has monitored East Jerusalem neighborhoods since 2004. Its mission is “to … engage in those issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city.” Among its chief concerns is the status of East Jerusalem Palestinian land.

My synagogue group toured one of East Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, Sheikh Jarrah, which is wedged between formerly Jordanian held-East Jerusalem and Israeli-held West Jerusalem (1948 to 1967) on the slopes of Mount Scopus very near to the American Colony Hotel and Old City.

After the 1948 war, Jews fled the neighborhood while many Arabs remained. In 1957, the Jordanian government moved 28 Palestinian families to houses in Sheikh Jarrah who had fled their homes in West Jerusalem during the 1948 War.

Founded in 1865, Sheikh Jarrah was once home to Jerusalem’s Muslim elite. At the turn of the 20th century, 30 large homes housed 167 Muslim families (about 1250 people), 97 Jewish families, and six Christian families.

In 1972, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Yisrael Committee went to court to justify Jewish claims of property ownership in Sheikh Jarrah using documents from the days of the Ottoman Empire. Based on a supportive Israeli court ruling, Palestinian Arab residents could remain as tenants as long as they paid rent to the Jewish community.

The Palestinians, however, also produced Ottoman Empire documents showing their ownership. Though the Absentee Property Law superseded Palestinian claims, there were no efforts to evict them from their homes based on Shamgar’s 1968 decision.

Beginning in 2008, Palestinians began receiving eviction notices initiated by Jewish settler groups. In August 2009, an Israeli court evicted two Palestinian families from two homes in Sheikh Jarrah, followed almost immediately by Jewish settler families moving in.

In applying the Absentee Property Law, Palestinians have no rights, no redress, no appeals, and receive no compensation. In contrast, relative to the same contested land, Jews have certain legal rights based on their Israeli citizenship.

In Sheikh Jarrah we met with Sara Beninga, a 30 year-old Israeli Jewish activist, and Salach Diab, a Palestinian resident, who told us the story of this small neighborhood. Sara has been the inspiration of the “Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement” (now called simply “Solidarity”) formed in 2010. She is a bright, principled and passionate Israeli who believes that gross injustice is being done to the Palestinian Arabs living in this neighborhood.

From 2010-2012 every Friday afternoon, hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians gathered on the main street of Sheikh Jarrah to protest the government’s unfair policies and the Jewish settler land grab.

As we arrived, Sara pointed out settlers returning to the house they occupy yards from Salah’s house, and Salah showed us photographs of settler violence against him and his neighbors.

Daniel Seidemann, a founder of Ir Amim and an attorney who has advocated on behalf of the Arab residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods for the past nine years, explains the nature and importance of this property conflict:

“After 45 years, you now have 2300 Jewish settlers [living] in existing Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, [and while] that’s negligible numerically, symbolically it’s nuclear fusion, because you take the two radioactive subjects of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, which are Jerusalem and refugees, and you fuse them…By insisting on a Jewish right of return to Sheikh Jarrah, Israel is opening the 1948 file and strengthening the Palestinian claim of a right of return to Israel.” (Reported by Sarah Wildman, visiting scholar at the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University).

Jewish settlers are clear about their larger goal; to prevent, through the establishment of facts on the ground in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement resulting in two states for two peoples with Jerusalem as the shared capital of each state.

I will continue this discussion of East Jerusalem neighborhoods and Israeli land policy in my next blog.