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