Last week, Ir Amim - together with 22 families from the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood of Silwan- filed a suit against the Israeli Registrar of Trusts (IRT), a unit of the Ministry of Justice, to the Jerusalem District Court. The suit demands the revocation of the appointment of Ateret Cohanim personnel as trustees of the Benvenisti Trust. The Ateret Cohanim settler organization has used its control of the Benvenisti Trust to file eviction suits against approximately 80 Palestinian families in the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood of Silwan. So far, 15 families have been evicted and the eviction suits against the other families are still being deliberated by the court.
According to Israeli authorities, the Benvenisti Trust owns several plots of land in the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood (see details below), therefore Ateret Cohanim's control of the trust means it is within their purview to demand the eviction of the Palestinian families with homes built on this land.
Ir Amim's suit claims that the IRT enabled Ateret Cohanim to take over the Benvenisti Trust. We show that –
- The appointed trustees of the Benvenisti Trust, being stakeholders of Ateret Cohanim as well, acted in a clear conflict of interest. They used the trust not for advancing the goals declared in the Trust’s registration documents, rather for the advancement of Ateret Cohanim's objective, which is to take over properties in Palestinian neighborhoods.
- The Benvenisti Trust is completely controlled by Ateret Cohanim. The trust itself has no bank account, despite the fact that it supposedly contracted services worth millions of shekels.Many of those services (ie: lawyer, accountant) also provide the same work for Ateret Cohanim. Additionally, Ateret Cohanim consistently presents itself as the owner of the properties that are registered under the name of the Benvenisti Trust.
- The appointment of Ateret Cohanim stakeholders as trustees of the Benvenisti trust was not done in accordance with the required procedures.
Following all of the above, the suit demands that the IRT revoke the status of the current trustees of the Benvenisti Trust. If the suit succeeds, we hope it will also stop the eviction suits which currently threaten hundreds of people in Batan al-Hawa.
Since 2001, the Ateret Cohanim settler organization has been working to transform the center of Batan al-Hawa into a large Israeli settlement. In 2004, settlers affiliated with Ateret Cohanim entered two buildings purchased by a Palestinian front man. The first, Beit Yonatan, is a six-story building illegally constructed for the settlers. The second, Beit Ha’Dvash, is a small one unit building situated approximately 100 meters from Beit Yonatan. Over the ensuing decade, settlement in the area was limited to these two buildings, comprising a total of seven or eight housing units.
Today, the primary tool used to realize settlement plans in Batan al-Hawa is the forced eviction and removal of Palestinian families who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. Claims are based on the argument that the title to the area was held by the Benvenisti Trust – a Jewish trust active in the area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The land in question covers an area of 5.2 dunams (1.3 acres) and is currently home to some 90 Palestinian families.
According to Israeli law, land that may have belonged to Jewish trusts prior to 1948 is managed by the Israeli General Custodian. In 2001, individuals with close ties to Ateret Cohanim were appointed as trustees to the Benvenisti Trust and in 2002 the General Custodian transferred the land to the possession of the trust. This status has empowered the trustees to advance their eviction claims. Ateret Cohanim has employed two additional strategies. First, with the assistance of the General Custodian, the Benvenisti trust has purchased additional tracts of land previously managed by the General Custodian. The sale was made without tender and without the residents currently living on the plots being given an opportunity to purchase them. Second, settlers have purchased properties from Palestinian residents using questionable means.
Since 2015, fourteen families have been displaced and based on the General Custodian’s conveyance of two parcels of land to a trust managed by Ateret Cohanim, the settler group now has the legal foundation to evict another 84 families. Please see Ir Amim’s and Peace Now’s joint report, “Broken Trust” for details and analysis.
If the settlers are successful, Batan al-Hawa is anticipated to become the largest settlement compound in a Palestinian neighborhood in the Historic Basin of the Old City, with the outcome of significantly tightening the emerging ring of settlements around the Old City and severely undermining the possibility of a future two state solution in Jerusalem.