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Backed by court, East Jerusalem settlement expands into Palestinian home

In Israel, a settler’s pre-1948 property claim provides legal grounds for the takeover of private Palestinian land. The property deeds of scores of Palestinians are disregarded, because there is one set of laws for Jews and another for Palestinians. Separate and unequal.

By Moriel Rothman

Jewish settlers dance during a ceremony inaugurating a new Jewish settlement in Ras al-Amud in May, 2011. (Photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

Last month, as last minute wrangling over the Democratic Party platform offered Americans a front-row seat to the farce that often accompanies discourse about Jerusalem, events in the holy city reached their own new level of absurdity, though with far more serious and immediate consequences.

Early on Sunday, September 2, Jewish settlers took over a single room in a Palestinian house in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud. Backed by the decisions of Israeli courts, and protected by both the Jerusalem police and the Modi’in Ezrahi, a government-subsidized private security force that guards Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, the settlers seized the property and began to lay the groundwork for the eventual expansion of the adjacent Ma’ale Zeitim settlement. Like other East Jerusalem settlements, Ma’ale Zeitim, the biggest of its kind within a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, is largely funded by American billionaire Irving Moskowitz.

The settlers’ claim to the room was based on alleged Jewish ownership of the property before 1948. The Israeli court system – regarded internationally as a bulwark against Israel’s increasingly conservative legislative and executive branches – held this claim as sufficient justification for the settlers to take over private Palestinian property and erect a barbed wire fence down the middle of the family’s yard.

There is no denying the fact that there were Jews who lived and possessed property in East Jerusalem before 1948. Just as there were, of course, thousands of Palestinians whose homes were located inside what is now Israel, and who today possess deeds to those lands. Yet the idea of a Palestinian family getting permission from Israeli courts and protection from the Jerusalem police while they “reclaim” a house in West Jerusalem is unthinkable, for a single reason: in Jerusalem, and in the Israeli legal system, there is one set of laws for Jews and another for Palestinians. Separate and unequal.

For many Palestinians and some Israeli activists, the partial takeover in Ras al-Amud was reminiscent of another series of evictions that took place in 2009 in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. There, too, Jewish settlers wielding documents from Israeli courts and guarded by police expelled a number of Palestinian families from their homes. One of these families was forced to vacate part of its home so that Jewish settlers could move in.

The story of that takeover, and of the ensuing nonviolent struggle of Palestinian residents and Israeli activists against such evictions is told in My Neighborhooda new short documentary currently premiering in cities around the United States. It is a story both of human suffering and of Palestinian and Israeli efforts to oppose political injustice and racism in Jerusalem, backed by the highest echelons of Israeli politics.

The grassroots efforts highlighted in the film continue in different forms and locations, but the situation in Jerusalem is growing increasingly dire. A few weeks before the takeover in Ras al-Amud, a 17-year -old Palestinian boy named Jamal Julani was almost beaten to death by a group of Jewish youths in downtown Jerusalem, while chanting “Death to Arabs” as a crowd of hundreds watched without intervening. Following the attack, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat joined a chorus of Israeli politicians clucking their tongues at the violence and calling for coexistence. Such words cannot but ring hollow when less than two weeks later, the same Israeli politicians give their blessing to continued ethnic displacement of Palestinians in Jerusalem, and Mayor Barakat sends his police officers to protect another group of extremist Jews as they take over part of a home in the middle of yet another Palestinian neighborhood.

The mob attack against Julani was widely condemned, easily brushed aside, neatly glazed over. But this attack was not an aberration. And as indicated by additional instances of racially-motivated beatings of Palestinians in Jerusalem in recent weeks, it is unlikely to be the last of its kind. If such racist and discriminatory practices are acceptable for Jerusalem’s and Israel’s policymakers, who can truly be surprised when a gang of youth follow suit?

Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli writer and activist. He is based in Jerusalem and is active with the Solidarity Movement.

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    1. Mareli

      Do those Jews wielding pre-1948 deeds realize they are giving legitimacy to those Arab property owners who have pre-1948 deeds to lands within the state of Israel?

      Reply to Comment
      • Mahmoud

        No, they don’t. Because they insist at the same time that this law only applies to them but not to Arabs, Armenians, Turks etc.

        They are convinced that there are no equal rights, as far as I have understood them.

        Reply to Comment
    2. sh

      They aren’t giving them legitimacy, that’s the whole point. In the eyes of Israeli law it’s one sauce for the goose and another for the gander. International law, since it has so far never been enforced here, doesn’t get a look-in.

      Legally permitting the most uncouth members of Israeli society, because that’s what the settlers willing to make a point of sharing the yard and part of the home of a normal Palestinian family are, amounts to inflicting serial emotional abuse on both the adults and the children of that family. A rolling cast of armed settlers, handpicked for their devotion to the cause and protected by the forces of so-called law and order are there to cow those families into leaving “of their own free will” and sending a message to the neighborhood.

      It’d be useful to see an up-to-date map that illustrates how Sheikh Jarrah, “Maaleh Zeitim” and the other so-called settler enclaves in Jerusalem link up with each other, dissolving Palestinian contiguity. Same concept as that successfully inflicted on the West Bank. In case eventual transfer proves too much for the world to swallow in the 21st century, it will enable us to claim once again to the world that they left of their own accord because they hate Jews and refuse to live “in peace” with us.

      Reply to Comment
      • Andrew

        “It’d be useful to see an up-to-date map that illustrates how Sheikh Jarrah, “Maaleh Zeitim” and the other so-called settler enclaves in Jerusalem link up with each other, dissolving Palestinian contiguity.”
        Yes, it would.

        Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Peace now “facts on the ground’ web application is a decent start, though I think not entirely current and doesn’t have the approved plans for parks, roads and construction.

        Reply to Comment
        • Since warrant for expulsion rests on pre 48 deeds held by Jews, those holding these deeds were absentee; and almost certainly the present case arose when these deeds were hunted down and title transfered; descendents are (likely) not asking to live in this property. There have to be reverse cases in Jerusalem where Jews are living against pre 48 deeds; but perhaps here the land is owned by Israel under its land trustee laws, voiding prior claim as right of the Crown (think common law). And there, sir, is your well settled law–and ethnic discrimination. The State of Israel acts against the right of its Declaration of Independence via trustee land law. As Justice Stevens in the US said, precedent against constitutional right is no precedent.

          Reply to Comment
          • This is actually a reply to K9’s comment immediately below. Sorry.

            Reply to Comment
    3. If Palestinians holding old deeds to now Jew occupied homes anywhere in Jerusalem have not gone to court, now is the time to reveal the double standard (which might try to find a ground in Israeli citizen vs not citizen). The contradiction might then be appealed to the High Court, which would be in conflict internally, I think. Likely a loss. Sometimes all you can do is document losses, for later. But the people being hurt now will be forgotten.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        The legal system has heard these cases repeatedly. There is an extensive body of law and precedent, primarily based on the Absentee Property Laws. It isn’t even worth the legal fees to file another lawsuit.

        The way the laws describe the absentees as a group has nothing to do with ethnicity. The group includes all those who were not in their homes at a certain specific point in time immediately after the war because they were in territory controlled by hostile Arab forces. pretty creative stuff.

        Reply to Comment
    4. sh

      Which doesn’t, of course, prevent a country with Absentee Property Laws of that kind from claiming the property of Jews (without asking their permission) who were in territory controlled by Israeli forces at a certain specific time, from territory they had lived in for centuries controlled by (by then pretty hostile) Arab forces. Hallucinatory stuff.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Not really. Israel has compensation laws on the books for property acquired via the Absentee Property Laws. So, there is no contradiction in asking for compensation for Jewish houses abandoned in the Arab countries.

        Reply to Comment
    5. “In Israel, a settler’s pre-1948 property claim …”

      Uh? When was the territory legally annexed to Israel? UNSC Res 252 (1968) of 21 May 1968, 267 (1969) of 3 July 1969, 271 (1969) of 15 September 1969, 298 (1971) of 25 September 1971, 465 (1980) of 1 March 1980, 476 June 30 1980 and 478 August 20 1980, UNSC Resolution 1860 (2009)

      Reply to Comment