|On October 25, the Supreme Court convened a hearing on the leave to appeal request filed by the Duweik family (five households) who is facing eviction from their home in Batan al-Hawa, Silwan. The hearing adjourned with no verdict. A court decision will be issued at a later unspecified time.
After the lower courts ruled in 2020 to evict the Duweik family in favor of the Ateret Cohanim settler organization, the family filed a request to appeal to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court rejects the leave to appeal, the lower courts' decisions will remain in force, ultimately leading to the family's eviction.
The Duweik family is among 85 Palestinian families, numbering over 700 individuals, who stand to be displaced from Batan al-Hawa due to eviction lawsuits filed by Ateret Cohanim via its co-optation of the Benvenisti Trust – a Jewish trust which once owned property in the area from over a century ago. As a result of the state's appointment of two Ateret Cohanim members as trustees to the trust, the organization has initiated dozens of eviction demands based on the exploitation of the discriminatory 1970 law, which affords Jews the exclusive right to reclaim pre-1948 assets in East Jerusalem. Palestinians, however, are denied the same right to retrieve lost properties in West Jerusalem and other areas on the Israeli side of the Green Line.
Among the 85 families, the Duweik family case was the first to reach the Supreme Court level, and its outcome will inevitably set a precedent, significantly impacting the rest of the cases in the neighborhood.
The nearly two-hour hearing was comprised of mainly deliberations on the parties' contested claims concerning the respective plot of land and specific questions posed by the three-justice panel. While many topics were discussed, the proceedings revolved primarily around two central questions pertaining to the issue of statute of limitations and the existence of potential property rights (beyond that of ownership) which the Duweik family may possess.
According to the Duweik family claims, the statute of limitations should preclude Ateret Cohanim from the right to demand the family's eviction since decades had passed between the family's land purchase in 1965 and the filing of the eviction lawsuit in 2014. Ateret Cohanim contests such argument and asserts that the statute of limitations should only apply from the time the General Custodian transferred the property into their hands in 2002, which would still grant them the right to file an eviction demand. Israeli law treats officially registered land and non-registered land differently. Hence, one of the central questions which emerged was how to treat the respective plot of land and from which date and if the statute of limitations can be applied in this circumstance.
The other main question revolved around the potential existence of other property rights the Duweik family may be entitled to beyond the right of ownership. It appeared that the court accepted the claim that the family purchased the land in good faith from an individual who held rights to the land during the Jordanian period. Based on this claim, they would not be viewed as squatters. Under Israeli law, there are certain conditions and/or circumstances in which an individual who builds in good faith on land owned by another party cannot be evicted and therefore enjoys certain property rights to the asset. While the Duweik family claims such an argument, the settler organization asserted that the law does not apply to the land in question as it was considered public land when under the management of the General Custodian.
It should be noted that despite repeated requests, the court declined to allow for the presentation of an amicus curiae brief submitted by four leading Israeli legal experts on international human rights law, which could have further reinforced the family's claims of certain property rights to the land. Initiated by Peace Now and represented by human rights attorney, Michael Sfard, the brief is based on a legal approach in international jurisprudence on human rights law, which focuses on group vulnerability of occupants facing eviction while subject to institutional discrimination. It holds that in certain circumstances, occupants' rights to continue residing in their homes trump ownership rights and/or the right to land reclamation (if in the event the court ultimately recognizes Ateret Cohanim's ownership of the land in question).
While the court did not allow for the brief's presentation, it does not imply that it has outright rejected the request to file the amicus brief in the Duweik family case. However, it does indicate that during the hearing the justices chose not to adjudicate from a broader legal perspective, which would include consideration of the human right to housing and shelter and the right to family and community life.
In addition, the justices referred to the fact that the Attorney General decided not to provide an explicit position on the legal questions posed by the Supreme Court earlier this year. The court likewise expressed bewilderment that the Attorney General requested repeated extensions to the deadline despite only submitting a two-sentence response last week. When the justices further pressed the issue during the hearing, the Attorney General's representative provided a vaporous and abstruse response, again giving the impression that the state has intentionally evaded expressing a concrete position on the case and its overarching implications.
As noted previously, the Attorney General and by extension, the state, was given a rare opportunity to take a moral stand by providing a legal opinion and/or policy position to help prevent the mass displacement of these families. Yet, as in the eviction cases in Sheikh Jarrah, the Attorney General has again declined to intervene and left a decision with far-reaching geopolitical and humanitarian ramifications in the hands of court.