Supreme Court Hearing Next Week on Legal Petition Filed by Ir Amim with Sheikh Jarrah Residents against the General Custodian

10 December 2021
On December 14, the Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the legal petition filed in December 2020 by Ir Amim together with Umm Haroun, Sheikh Jarrah residents against the Israeli General Custodian—a department within the Ministry of Justice. The petition concerns the General Custodian's absence of official procedural regulations pertaining to its management of assets in East Jerusalem and the manner in which it exercises its authority. In East Jerusalem specifically, the General Custodian is the Israeli body responsible for managing properties, which were owned by Jews in East Jerusalem prior to 1948. Many of these properties have since been inhabited by Palestinians for decades. Based on application of the discriminatory 1970 Legal and Administrative Matters law, previous Jewish owners are afforded the right to reclaim these assets, while no parallel legal mechanism exists for Palestinians to retrieve properties lost in West Jerusalem or other areas in Israel.

According to the petition, the lack of defined administrative regulations facilitates the General Custodian's gross mismanagement of the assets, which leads to the infringement of Palestinian property rights and ultimately serves as a mechanism of Palestinian displacementSee here for the full description of the petition.

Over the years, it has become evident that the General Custodian is one of the state bodies that works in close cooperation with settler groups to enable the evictions of Palestinians and settler takeovers of their homes in strategic locations throughout East Jerusalem. Indeed, the General Custodian is explicitly involved in both Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, two sites of concerted ideological settler activity, which are marked by dozens of eviction demands against Palestinian families.
Approximately 40 families in the Umm Haroun section (western part) of Sheikh Jarrah in addition to the 30 families on the Kerem Al'ajoni side (eastern part) of the neighborhood, who garnered massive media attention over the past year, are at risk of eviction as a result of these exploitative practices. One of the families from Umm Haroun recently received an eviction notice issued by the Execution Office, ordering them to evacuate their home by December 29. Having exhausted all legal avenues, the Salaam family, comprised of 11 individuals, including four children, is now under imminent threat of eviction.

As a means to challenge, within the existing legal framework, the General Custodian's severe misconduct in its complicity in settler-initiated evictions of Palestinians and Israeli settlement expansion, the petition calls upon the court to order the General Custodian to establish ethical regulations for its asset management in East Jerusalem while upholding Palestinian property rights.

Moreover, in light of the recent alarming settlement advancements in East Jerusalem and concurrent progress in the government's formal settlement of title/land registration procedures, the petition has assumed an even greater relevance and urgency.

The Emerging Thread between the General Custodian, Land Registration and Settlement Expansion

As Ir Amim recently exposed, in a highly unusual move, the General Custodian under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice initiated an outline plan for a new Israeli settlement ("Givat HaShaked") in the area of Sharafat, the northwestern tip of the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa. According to reports, the General Custodian claims that the plan is designed to enhance the value of the property.

On Wednesday, the Jerusalem Local Planning Committee recommended the plan be deposited for objections. The Director of the General Custodian's Economic Unit, Hananel Gurfinkel, who is a rightwing activist and known supporter of Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, attended Wednesday's session at the Local Planning Committee. It should be noted that Gurfinkel has been deeply involved in the measures in Umm Haroun and likewise appears to have initiated the promotion of the "Givat HaShaked" plan.  According to our findings, under his management, collaboration between the General Custodian and settler groups and the number of eviction claims filed have grown substantially over the past number of years.  
During the session, a representative of the Jerusalem Municipality's planning department inquired as to how the General Custodian, which is responsible for solely managing properties whose claimants are unknown, can in fact initiate a building plan and subsequently market housing units. In response, Gurfinkel stated that it does not constitute an aberration in the Custodian's mandate and that in the event the original owners are located, they will be afforded monetary compensation as is standard procedure elsewhere in the country. It should be stressed, however, that when it pertains to properties inhabited by Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, in for example Sheikh Jarrah or Silwan, the state conveniently refuses to offer financial compensation to the alleged owners (i.e. settler groups) in exchange for allowing the Palestinian families to remain safely in their homes.

As Ir Amim reported last week, a formal land registration process was initiated in the Sharafat area of Beit Safafa in the framework of the government's settlement of land title procedures, which are being carried out across East Jerusalem in a first since 1967. At the time of publication, it remained unclear whether the area designated in the "Givat HaShaked" plan is the land in Sharafat undergoing formal settlement of title. It has since been confirmed that the plan is indeed intended for the precise bloc of land where settlement of title procedures have been carried out. It should be underscored that the General Custodian is one of the state institutions formally and integrally involved in the settlement of title process.

These procedures were initiated as part of Government Decision No. 3790, a five-year plan, which aims to ostensibly reduce socio-economic disparities and promote economic development in East Jerusalem. Although depicted as a measure to theoretically aid Palestinian residents, there has been acute alarm that the settlement of title procedures would serve as a tool to further confiscate Palestinian properties, leading to the expansion of Israeli settlement and widespread Palestinian dispossession in the city. Indeed, measures carried out over the past year in the framework of these procedures and in tandem with them confirm such suspicions.

In April 2021, Ir Amim uncovered that the Israeli government had initiated a settlement of land title process in Umm Haroun, Sheikh Jarrah, formally registering the title of properties to alleged Jewish owners without the Palestinian residents' knowledge. The land registration procedures have been conducted alongside the ongoing eviction lawsuits leveled against Palestinians in the neighborhood. In addition to Umm Haroun and the area designated for "Givat HaShaked," the settlement of title procedures have also been strategically initiated in Atarot and Givat Hamatos, where two other settlements are simultaneously being promoted, as well as in other areas that would benefit the state and/or Israeli Jews.

It should be noted that these are neither isolated exceptions nor mere irregularities in the process. Rather, these cases are representative of a systematic and calculated tactic used to aid Israeli authorities and settler groups in taking over more land in East Jerusalem for the expansion of Israeli settlement under the guise of an initiative theoretically intended for the welfare of Palestinians.

Moreover, these developments further underscore the General Custodian's role in these measures and the severe misuse of its authority. It all the more reinforces the need for the Custodian to formulate official administrative regulations to provide accountability, transparency and proper governance and ultimately contribute to a change in policy in East Jerusalem property management.