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In East Jerusalem, only Palestinian property seized as 'Absentee'

To this day, Palestinians are being legally evacuated from their properties in East Jerusalem due to the application of a racist 1950 Israeli law. 

By Moriel Rothman

My parents moved to Jerusalem from San Francisco in 1986. They bought a house in Baq’a, and my older sister and I were both born there. In the summer of 1989, my father, a professor of anthropology, was awarded a Fulbright to conduct research at the University of Amman. My mother, sister and I stayed in our house in Jerusalem.

One day, in the winter of 1990, we got a letter in the mail saying that our house had been declared “Absentee Property,” because its owner, my father, was living in Jordan. Our family would need to leave immediately, and we would not be given any sort of compensation. Once we left, the house would be transferred to a wealthy private organization whose goal is to rid Jerusalem of American Jews, “ALO’T” (Americans Leave Our Town). Over the past twenty years, our family has been embroiled in an emotionally exhausting and fiscally crippling legal battle with “ALO’T.” Last week, we were informed that our plea had been rejected, and that we will be expelled from our home within a month.

If the reader finds him or herself thinking that my situation sounds ridiculous, impossible, surely made up, the reader is correct.

The situation described above is ridiculous and impossible for the following reason: my family is Jewish. To find a case that resembled the one described above, one need only to travel a bit under two kilometers northeast of Baq’a, to the neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh in the East Jerusalem village Silwan (known on official Israeli maps as “The City of David”). East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel in 1967 and all Israeli laws were applied  there, including a law called the “Absentee Property Law.”

Legislated in 1950, the law, according to Ir Amim, was used as “the legal basis to transfer the property of Palestinian refugees into the possession of the State of Israel.” According to this law, all property belonging to a Palestinian living outside of the newly declared State of Israel could be – and was – transferred to the possession of the “Custodian of Absentee Property,” meaning, the state.

Although the law was not immediately applied in East Jerusalem following its annexation in 1967, after the Likud’s rise to power in 1977, the law became an integral tool in the government’s unabashedly expansionist belt, and was used sporadically to take over East Jerusalem properties and houses throughout the 1980s, particularly in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and Silwan. These properties were then, for the most part, turned over to Jewish settler organizations, including ELAD (Hebrew acronym for “to the City of David”), Ateret Cohanim, and, most astonishingly, the Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL).

Despite the Rabin government’s admission in the mid-1990s that the use of the Absentee Property Law in East Jerusalem was unjustified and should be discontinued, the ramifications of its application in the 1980s and early 1990s are ongoing.  The properties seized by the law’s application were never returned to their owners, and as a result further evictions have been carried out.

Two families in Silwan, the Sumarin family, and the Ruweidi family, are currently embroiled in such legal battles to save their homes. The Sumarin case was temporarily frozen, after immense international and public pressure, and the final discussion of the Ruweidi case is slated to take place next month. Here is a public letter to the JNF written by 85-year-old Muhammad Juma’a Saalim al-Ruweidi,.

The real question that needs to be asked, a question that is constantly distorted by the complicated bureaucracy, by what Judge Boaz Okun called, in 2005, “legalism without law,” is this: why is it legitimate for the Absentee Property Law to have been applied in East Jerusalem in the first place?

The answer is simple: It is not. The law is applied against Palestinians and Palestinians only. There is absolutely no “security rationale,” and the sort of archeological claims made by groups like ELAD are an easily peeled-back façade. The reason for the Absentee Property Law’s usage in East Jerusalem was made quite clear by ELAD: to further settle Jews in Silwan and East Jerusalem.

This law is racist, its application is racist and arguments for its legitimacy are racist. My father could move to Syria or to North Korea, and I would not be kicked out of my home because I am Jewish. The Sumarin family and the Ruweidi family, however, are both waiting anxiously for the results of their respective cases, run by the JNF-KKL and ELAD.

The real “Absentee” in these cases is justice.

Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli active with Rabbis for Human Rights and Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah. This piece was originally published in Hebrew on on Haoketz

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    1. bobby

      How do you feel knowing that the house you r living in in israel was taken the same way that families in silwan’s houses are being taken?

      also the absentee law was un acceptable throughout all of historical palestine, palestinians who were forcibly expelled were not allowed back in. the majority still have the keys to those homes settled today by american israelis like yourself and other Zionists!

      Reply to Comment
    2. directrob

      Even when not racist the Israeli absentee law is in violation with international law.
      GA Resolution 66/75
      “… the Palestine refugees are entitled to their property and to
      the income derived therefrom, in conformity with the principles of equity and justice…”

      Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      One has to start somewhere and rolling back what’s happened to the Rwaidis and the Sumrains is as good a place as any because of JNF/KKL involvement. I imagine anyone who has ever given to JNF/KKL over the years and thought they were greening an arid country to improve life for all its citizens rather than brutalizing a captive population must be appalled by its involvement.
      Since we’re mentioning JNF/KKL, bulldozers destroyed Al-Araqib
      in the Negev for the 36th (or 37th) time today (one loses count). The project the Bedouin are expected to be eager to make way for is a Christian-Zionist God-TV Peace Forest.
      Many have written to JNF/KKL representatives about these cases and received unctuous (well, best not to generalize, but in my case) replies designed to soothe rather than promise a solution. Many who collected for that organization as children and, as adults, donated to it themselves feel betrayed, deceived, outraged.

      Reply to Comment
    4. @Bobby. You are clearly not looking for justice for all people, but rather to prove how righteous you are. You have no idea who are you talking to, nor what my views are on the Nakba or 1948. You know that I have Israeli citizenship, and that I feel that what my government is doing today is appalling. As good a target for attack as any, right?

      I agree that the absentee property law was unjustified in all of its iterations. I never stated otherwise. As for the Nakba and the question of refugees, those are enormous issues that require continued, serious, empathic discussion. You do an injustice to the Palestinian cause and to true human rights activism when you flop around left-wing Israeli blogs telling Israeli writers how hypocritical they are for searching for justice today and for trying to remedy some of the injustices that Israel has caused and continues to cause.

      Reply to Comment
    5. DTA

      Very nauseating. In a perfect world organizations like JNF would get sanctioned, but on the other hand the donations they collect are tax-deductible in the US.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Bill Pearlman

      You see Moriel. You can search for “justice” whatever that is. March, protest, do whatever. You can say I’m one of the good Jews, not like the settlers in Hebron or where ever. And guess what, the Arabs, the left wing assholes from mondoweiss. The right wing assholes from the american conservative. THEY STILL HATE YOU.

      Reply to Comment
    7. sh

      Bill Pearlman, you seem to have missed the point. Whether someone hates you or not, there are still rights and wrongs concerning how you interact with them if you have power. That’s where justice, a word which needs no quotes to isolate it, comes in. Sure it’s an ideal that’s difficult to even define, but struggling with that’s a lot more rewarding than obsessing endlessly about things that are up to those you cite to change, not you.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Kibbutznik

      “Whether someone hates you or not, there are still rights and wrongs concerning how you interact with them if you have power. That’s where justice, a word which needs no quotes to isolate it, comes in. Sure it’s an ideal that’s difficult to even define, but struggling with that’s a lot more rewarding than obsessing endlessly about things that are up to those you cite to change, not you.”
      LOL @ SH
      You lost your ” power ” when you lost your forum .
      Was that enough “justice” for you SH ?

      Reply to Comment
    9. Charlie

      Hi Moriel,
      Thanks for the interesting article.
      I’ve searched online for ALO’T and found nothing.
      Is this an English version of a Hebrew acronym?
      If so, what is the original name and acronym please?

      Reply to Comment