A version of this article originally appeared in Plus61J, an Australian-Jewish publication.
“This is breathtaking stupidity. That’s what it is.”
This is how Michael Benyair, 75, Israel’s Attorney General from 1993-1996, under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu, sums up the efforts by religiously and nationalistically motivated Jewish groups to create hubs of Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem by evicting the Palestinian families living in homes that, before Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, were owned by Jews.
The most recent eviction occurred Tuesday morning, when dozens of uniformed and covert police, including a SWAT team, evicted the eight-member Shamasneh family, including the elderly and disabled grandparents, from their home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. It was the first such eviction since 2009.
“This is wrong, stupid and immoral,” Benyair says.
He is speaking both legally and personally.
He grew up in this neighborhood, in a house his grandmother owned, not far from where the Shamasneh family lived until Tuesday. In mid-August, he met with the Shamasnehs to express his solidarity against the then-looming eviction. “My grandmother was the mukhtar,” he recalled, using the Arabic word for the traditional role of sheriff and mayor, as the locals laughed. “She took care of everything. Even the men were afraid of her –- but in a good way.”
Until 1948, many properties in East Jerusalem were owned by Jews -– just as there were entire neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, including some that are now Jerusalem’s most prestigious, that were owned by Palestinians. After the War of Independence in 1948, the city was divided — West Jerusalem became Israeli and East Jerusalem became Jordanian, and both Jews and Arabs were forced to flee their homes and abandon their properties and run to the other side.
The houses abandoned by the Jews were transferred to the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property, which permitted some families to move in but never provided title and charged monthly rental fees. The Israeli Custodian for Absentee Property settled Jews in the properties on the Israeli side and, within a few years, provided them with title and ownership.
Benyair’s family was one of those families. “My family was forced to leave the neighborhood in January 1948 and got the properties of Palestinians refugees in Jaffa street and in Katamon neighborhood, West Jerusalem, that were valued much higher than the properties that we left in Sheikh Jarrah,” he explains. “Every Jew without exception who lived in this neighborhood in 1948 was compensated with properties on the western side.”
“If it is possible to speak about justice in war,” he writes in a booklet that he published in 2013 on Sheikh Jarrah, “then a form of justice had been partly implemented … The Jewish families that fled from East Jerusalem received title to the Palestinian properties in the Western part of the city. And the Palestinian families received land in East Jerusalem, and that could have been finalized, too … True, the numbers and value of the properties that the Palestinians abandoned in the Western part of the city were greater than what the Jews had abandoned … but that is as close as it is possible to come under conditions of war.”
But then came the 1967 war, when the city was reunited under Israeli control. Writes Benyair, “Following 1967, if the Israeli government had acted decently toward all its residents, it would have appropriated the properties in the neighborhood [from their Jewish owners who lived there before the War of Independence] and given these properties to the Palestinians who live there today.”
Instead, Israel passed legislation that permits Jewish owners of those properties in the East to claim their property back – while denying that right to Palestinians with regard to their properties in the West. In some cases, if they can prove title, Palestinians are entitled to compensation, but at what Benyair refers to as “ridiculously low rates”, according to their absolute value in 1948.
“This is Israel’s ‘equality’ legislation,” he writes. “This is clear discrimination between Jews who can claim their land and Palestinians who cannot. And so, the seventh day of the Six-Day War is continuing on until today.”
On the basis of this legislation, right-wing organizations, and, in particular, the Israel Land Fund, a non-profit organization that is well-funded by private donations, mostly from wealthy Jews abroad, initiates contact with the original Jewish owners. The Fund attempts to convince the owners to reclaim their properties, and then buys it from them, evicts the tenants, and moves in Jewish families. Motivated by religious and nationalist zeal, these settlers seek to Judaize Jerusalem and to make it impossible to divide the city between Israelis and Palestinians in any future peace agreement.
The settlers contend that their actions are legally and morally valid, the fair results of war. Benyair and other critics argue that they are abusing private property rights for ideological reasons, creating unrest and tension in the city and, worst of all, causing damage to Israel’s own long-term political interests.
Furthermore, he says, the settlers are giving legitimacy to Palestinian claims to the Right of Return in Jerusalem. “They are using the law to pull the rug out from under our own feet. This is lunacy.”
The Shamasnehs have been living in this small, semi-underground structure since about 1964. When the property was purchased by the Israel Land Fund, and the eviction notices arrived, the family, supported by Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, appealed to the Israeli courts, but they ruled that the land should be restored to its original Jewish owners. The courts, however, deferred the eviction on humanitarian grounds, but when the Shamasnehs defaulted on their rent, the settler group turned to the state Bailiff, leading to this week’s eviction.
Fahima Shamasneh, 77, sits on a white plastic chair under a stunted tree that offers a sliver of shade in the heat.
Known to all, according to Palestinian custom, as Umm Mohammed (Mohammed’s mother, after her first-born son), her face is deeply lined, her dark eyes are dull. Mechanically, she sips water from a disposable cup.
“They came in the dark. They threw us out,” she repeats.
She points to her house — more a hovel that is three steps below street level, made of poured concrete — on the other side of the narrow, poorly paved street in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
Umm Mohammed gestures to her disabled husband, Ayyub Shamasneh, 84, who is sitting with the men a few metres away in a wheelchair. Tight compression socks cover his swollen legs. “He is sick. He fainted when they threw us out. Where will he go? Where will we sleep?”
She points to an unpaved field at the end of the street. “The police and the settlers threw all my things there –- our beds, our mattresses, our clothes. They destroyed everything. They have no shame.”
For the settlers, the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah has particular religious-historical and, more crucially, geopolitical importance. Jews identify a structure there as the tomb of biblical figure of Simon the Just. It is located just on the crossroads between the Old City and the road to Mount Scopus, between East and West, and numerous consulates, international organizations, and think tanks are located here. At least four Jewish construction projects are slated for this neighborhood, which will lead to the eviction of dozens of additional Palestinian residents.
Sitting next to Umm Mohammed, neighbour Fatma Salim, 63, says she is one of them and that they, too, have received eviction notices. “I’m afraid. We all are.”
On the other side of the narrow street, three young religious Jewish men, accompanied by a private security guard carrying a semi-automatic weapon, are sweeping the two and a half rooms where the Shamasneh family had lived until a few hours earlier. They are shut and covered over, and the door is sealed, to prevent protestors from tossing anything in. The small stairwell is filled with raw garbage that the demonstrators have thrown there.
The heat is oppressive, the stench almost overwhelming. “We’re young,” says Yonatan Yosef, 37, a graduate student in special education, who is wearing the white shirt and dark pants of a very devout, Orthodox man. “This discomfort is nothing compared to our mission here.”
One of the windows has been covered with a sign that reads “End the Occupation,” obviously left by protestors. Mockingly, Yosef points to the sign and says, “Yep, we’re ending the occupation, that’s for sure. The Arab occupation.
“These properties are legally ours,” he continues. “And I’m not afraid to say that we will take back or conquer all of the Jewish properties that were stolen from us in 1948. And the properties of the Jews who had to flee the other Arab countries, too. The Arabs started the war, and they lost, and we will take what is ours.”
He continues, “For a few years, because of Obama, the Israeli authorities were afraid to fulfill our rights. But now we know that President Donald Trump supports us. Zionism didn’t come to an end in 1948 –- we must continue to redeem the land, another acre, another stone, another house. Those values are just as important now as they were then.”
In 1971, Benyair and his family turned down the Custodian’s offer to regain ownership of his grandmother’s house in the neighborhood. But now, enraged by the eviction, he tells +61J that he intends to go to the registrar and demand ownership of that building. “And then I will give it to the Palestinians who live in it today. That is the only moral and just thing to do. It is also the only smart thing to do.”
Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.