Non-News Recap: Israeli Court Rules in Favor of Ruweidi Family in Silwan, Against JNF

[Note: This post is about events from a few weeks ago, and is intended more as a recap of an important story than any sort of breaking news article].

An Israeli district court in Jerusalem ruled that a house located on what is known as “Plot 51” in the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood of Silwan indeed belongs to a Palestinian family, the Ruweidis, and is not “absentee” property, as the JNF-KKL, their subsidiary “Himanuta” and the extremist settler organization, ELAD, had sought to prove over the past two decades. This decision comes as a reversal of a previous ruling, and although it failed to call into question the legitimacy of the application of the “Absentee Property Law” in Jerusalem, it comes as a serious challenge to ELAD and the JNF’s methods of property appropriation in Silwan.

Background: JNF-KKL, ELAD and Silwan

Over the past two decades, the JNF-KKL, an organization best known abroad for its work planting trees in Israel, has been working hand in hand with ELAD, an extremist settler organization whose name is an ackronym for “Towards the City of David” and whose explicit goals include the “Judaization [read: De-Arabization] of Jerusalem.” Together, the JNF-KKL and ELAD have, since 1991, succeeded in wresting control over an increasing number of Palestinian houses in the neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan, where ELAD runs a tourist site, the City of David, which attracts over 300,000 paying visitors annually. ELAD’s method of property takeover has ranged all the way from quasi-legal sales processes to forceful confiscation in the middle of the night by its armed (and government subsidized) semi-militia to murky legal processes in the Israeli courts. This video explains, in brief, the various methods of takeover used by the organizations:

For more on the ELAD’s (and the JNF’s) actions in Silwan, see Ir Amim’s must-read report, Shady Dealings in Silwan.

The JNF-KKL and the campaign to stop the eviction of the Sumarin family

The JNF-KKL’s involvement in Silwan evictions, which has been ongoing since 1991, was spotlighted this past fall when they sought to evict the Sumarin family from their home, directly next to ELAD’s tourist site. The JNF-KKL’s claim to the property was based on a law called the “Absentee Property Law,” which is applied only against Palestinians. In response to the JNF-KKL’s plans, an international campaign was launched by Rabbis for Human Rights, its partner organization in the US, RHR-NA, Palestinian activists from the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, the Solidarity Movement in Israel, the US-based Jewish Alliance for Change, and the liberal UK Jewish group Yachad. The campaign resulted first in the JNF’s US branch attempting to claim that it was not involved in the case, and then, when faced with documents proving otherwise, agreeing to temporarily delay the eviction. Meanwhile, a board member of the JNF in the US resigned in protest of his former organization’s actions. The eviction processes against the Sumarin house remain frozen. The Ruweidi house  A few months later, in February of 2012, another case involving the JNF-KKL, the Absentee Property Law, and a Palestinian family from Silwan, the Ruweidi family, was brought to the public by the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, along with Peace Now, who had been involved in the Ruweidi case for years, and Rabbis for Human Rights. The Information Center published a letter by Juma’a Muhammad Saalim al-Ruweidi, the 85 year old owner of the house, who wrote to the JNF-KKL,asking them not to evict his family. In this letter, Ruweidi described the bizarre circumstances of their case, including a falsified declaration of “Absentee Property” signed by a Palestinian man with no connection to the family or the neighborhood:

“His claim was that the house was owned by a man named Muhammad Saleem Darwish who died in Jordan, and not in the house. There is no one named Muhammad Saleem Darwish. The real owner of the house, my father Muhammad Saalim Darwish, was in possession of an Israeli ID-card when he died, in 1969, in this very house and not in Jordan. The reason that the false claim was approved by the courts had to do with the fact that during the Ottoman and British period, documents were written in Latin characters, and thus both “saleem” and “saalim” were spelled S-A-L-I-M. We tried to explain this to the courts and to fix this simple and strange mix up, but they did not listen to us, and our property was declared Absentee Property. They did so for a reason. Under the “Absentee Property Law,” if the Palestinian owner of a house in East Jerusalem is abroad in a country that does not have relations with Israel, the property can be declared Absentee Property. This law is unfair because it is only applied against Palestinians. In 1995, the Israeli government admitted that its use in East Jerusalem was unfair. And our case is one of an unfair law being used unfairly.”

Rabbis for Human Rights in North America and Israel picked up the story, and sent another wave of letters to the JNF, calling on them to cancel their plans to evict both families, and to sever ties with ELAD. (See Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ Op-Ed here and JNF President Russell Robinson’s response here, in which he waxes about the Holocaust and Israel’s Supreme Court, concluded by saying: “There are great opportunities for the 1,500 email protestors to be part of building and creating [with the JNF]. That’s the human rights cause in which the JNF is involved.” Note that the JNF-KKL, in addition to it’s contributions to the well-being of Silwan, has recently resumed work forresting over what once was the Bedouin Village of Al-Arakib) The decision on the Ruweidi case was issued last week by Judge Miriam Mizrahi, following a final discussion, and the Ruweidi family was elated. According to Sameer Abu Alaa al-Ruweidi, Juma’a’s nephew, originally quoted by +972 magazine.:

“This house was one of the first four houses in Wadi Hilweh, built by my great great great great grandfather. First of all, we give thanks to God. We also pray that the rest of the land that we own, which has been taken by the settlers, will be returned to us, and that all of the palestinian houses that have been taken over by settlers in Jerusalem will be returned to their owners.”

According to Nir Hasson’s article in Haaretz, the man who had signed off on the false declaration about the Ruweidi home, Mohammad al-Nabulsi, was known to have signed “10 to 15” similar false affidavits. Mizrahi’s decision to reject the legimitacy of Nabulsi’s declarations comes as a sharp rebuke to ELAD and the JNF and their actions in Silwan. However, the struggle is not over, as there is still a chance that the JNF-KKL and co. will decide to appeal this decision. Rabbis for Human Rights expressed in their statement following the ruling hope that this decision will serve as a precedent for other cases in Silwan involving the Absentee Property Law. Specifically RHR emphasized that “it is important to note that the Sumarin family remains under threat of eviction by the JNF and its partners, through the Absentee Property Law. We call, again, on the JNF to cancel all efforts to take over the Sumarin property.”