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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Court pushes deal for Palestinians to stay in Sheikh Jarrah homes

A three-hour debate in Jerusalem ended without any conclusion, however. The three-judge panel asked the families to consider an offer by which one member of each family would be granted lifetime protected tenancy on the property in exchange for annual payments of NIS 1,500.

“This is the practical solution,” said Judge Yitzhak Amit, who led most of the proceedings. “We recommend it precisely because… you do not want anyone to be thrown out of their home.”

Any compromise that was struck would be an “empty agreement,” said attorney Ilan Shemer, who represents the Nahalat Shimon Company, which owns the Sheikh Jarrah property where the families live.

“I have been handling this case for years, and they have not abided by any decision, so why do you think they would do so now?” he asked.

The families’ previous refusal to pay a minimal amount of rent due on the property had led to the decision to evict them, Shemer said.

This case is so old that there is not a judge in Jerusalem who has not dealt with it, he said.

Attorney Sami Ersheid, who represents the four Sheikh Jarrah families, said his clients feared that by accepting the status of “protected tenants,” they would have given up their ownership claims to the property.

He was not assuaged by assurances from the judges that the designation of protected tenancy and the rental would not prejudice any further legal proceedings with respect to property rights.

“The parties did not reach any compromise or conclusions,” Ersheid said after the hearing.

“The judges heard our arguments… and we are waiting for a decision that might come today or tomorrow or in the coming days,” he told dozens of reporters who crowded around him.

A second hearing might be held, Ersheid said. Should the compromise move forward, he would have to inform the court who would receive the protected tenancy.

The High Court is the last venue of appeal for the families, who have received two lower-court rulings that allow for their eviction.

Their case is considered precedent-setting for the additional 24 families in their neighborhood who are in the midst of similar legal battles.

The case has garnered international attention, including from the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. Fear of the Palestinians’ eviction helped spark the 11-day Gaza war in May, with Hamas claiming that it had to defend Jerusalem.

A number of diplomats were in court to observe the proceedings, as were some Israeli politicians, including Joint List MK Ofer Cassif, who has been very vocal in support of the Palestinians.

The diplomatic community, the Israeli Left and the Palestinians have framed the issue as an attempt by the Israeli Right to increase the Jewish presence in Jerusalem by evicting Palestinians who have residency rights in the city but who lack Israeli citizenship.

At issue is a property battle between the Nahalat Shimon Company, which owns property that once belonged to the Sephardi Community Council and the Ashkenazi General Council prior to the 1948 War of Independence.

It has asserted ownership based on land documents that predate the War of Independence and that were legally reactivated in 1972 in the aftermath of the Six Day War.

During the War of Independence, Jews fled the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, also known as Shimon HaTzadik in honor of the Second Temple-era high priest who is buried there.

They were replaced by Palestinians who fled from west Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa.

In the 1950s, the Jordanian government offered 28 families homes in that neighborhood if they would relinquish their refugee status.

But the Jordanians never registered the property in their names. These families are also prevented by Israeli law from pursuing property claims to property they owned within sovereign Israel.

In advance of Monday’s hearing, Ersheid and his co-counsel Husni Abu Hussein presented new documents to the court showing that the Jordanians had taken initial steps to register the property, but they did not complete the process prior to the Six Day War in 1967 when east Jerusalem passed from Jordanian to Israeli control.

The panel of three judges – Amit, Noam Sohlberg and Daphne Barak-Erez – attempted to bypass the thorny diplomatic and property issues and find a compromise that worked within the existing legal paradigm, according to which the Nahalat Shimon Company is the legally registered property owner, and the Palestinians are protected tenants.

Hussein and Ersheid said this paradigm was too narrow and asked the court to consider rescinding all past property rulings in the case dating back to 1972 so that the property status could be reexamined.

The judges paused the debate for 20 minutes to enable Hussein and Ersheid to speak with each other and confer with their clients. They asked the attorneys not to leave the courtroom.

Hussein and Ersheid spent the time surrounded by some 20 members of the four families to explain the situation to them in Arabic, being that no translation of the proceedings was provided.

Dozens of supporters and opponents of the families waited in the hallway outside, prevented from entering the packed courtroom due to lack of space. Others held a small protest outside, holding signs that said, “Sheikh Jarrah is Palestine.”

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