Ir Amim Initiates Further Legal Action Following Reversal Of Freeze On Heritage Center In Silwan

18 August 2022
On July 19, the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage officially announced the renewed plan to establish a Yemenite Jewish heritage center in the home of an evicted Palestinian family in Batan al-Hawa, Silwan. This is despite the fact that a freeze had been imposed on the plan since June 2021 as a result of legal action initiated by Ir Amim. According to the announcement, an agreement was reached between Justice Minister, Gidon Sa’ar, and Jerusalem Affairs Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, and the Benvenisti Trust, controlled by the Ateret Cohanim settler organization, which enabled them to circumvent the freeze and the legal obstacles preventing its advancement. It should be noted that these procedures were carried out with little to no transparency. In light of this development, Ir Amim has initiated subsequent legal proceedings and just concluded its exhaustion of administrative remedies. See details below.
In 2020, Ir Amim together with Batan al-Hawa residents filed two legal petitions, which ultimately forced the state to suspend plans for the establishment of the Jewish heritage center in the neighborhood.
Petition Against the Registrar of Trusts/Ministry of Justice Concerning the Benvenisti Trust
The first petition was submitted in June 2020 against the Registrar of Trusts, a department within the Ministry of Justice, claiming that it had facilitated Ateret Cohanim’s acquisition of the Benvenisti Trust. This trust was a Jewish endowment fund which allegedly held title to land in Batan al-Hawa in the late 19th century. Citing allegations of lack of due diligence, gross misuse of the trust and a conflict of interest on the part of the trustees, Ir Amim’s petition called for the revocation of Ateret Cohanim members' appointment to the trust's management.
In the petition, Ir Amim underscored that the settler group's mission, which is to expand Jewish settlement through seizure of Palestinian properties in the area, directly contradicts the Benvenisti Trust's original charter and mandate. According to the charter, the trust was established to specifically provide assistance and housing for impoverished Jewish (and non-Jewish) residents of Jerusalem in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather than aiding the poor of the city, Ateret Cohanim has been exploiting the trust to advance Jewish settlement through evictions of Palestinian families (many of whom are in fact poor) and settler takeovers of their homes. 
Since the appointment of several of the organization’s members as trustees to the Benvenisti Trust in 2001, Ateret Cohanim has filed dozens of eviction lawsuits against Palestinian families in Batan al-Hawa based on application of the 1970 Legal and Administrative Matters Law. This discriminatory legal mechanism affords Jews who allegedly owned property in East Jerusalem prior to 1948 with land restitution rights, while Palestinians are deprived of the same rights to recover lost assets on the Israeli side of the Green Line. As a result of these lawsuits, over 700 Palestinians in Batan al-Hawa are at risk of displacement. Among these is the Duweik family, which the Supreme Court recently ruled to accept their appeal in part and instructed the case return to the Magistrate’s Court for further deliberations on the issue of statute of limitations. Such a decision has provisionally frozen the family’s eviction.
Following the submission of Ir Amim’s petition, the Registrar of Trusts announced the opening of an in-depth investigation into the management and actions of the trust and its trustees in September 2020. Despite repeated requests for updates over the past two years concerning the investigation and its expected date of conclusion, little to no information has been provided to Ir Amim.
Petition against the Jewish Heritage Center in Batan al-Hawa
Subsequently, in December 2020, Ir Amim filed an additional petition against a tender issued by PAMI (East Jerusalem Development Company) for the establishment of a Jewish heritage center in the home of the Abu Nab family, who was evicted in 2015 from Batan al-Hawa. Although publicly depicted at the time as an initiative of the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and the Ministry of Culture (including funding allocation), the project was spearheaded in close collaboration with Ateret Cohanim via the Benvenisti Trust.
The petition argued that the tender must be frozen pending the investigation into the Trust and its flagrant misconduct. Ir Amim underscored the direct involvement of Ateret Cohanim in the initiative and cited further allegations of a conflict of interest due to a member of PAMI's board of directors being married to a senior representative of Ateret Cohanim, who was responsible for conducting tours for those interested in the tender. The petition went on to emphasize the concern that major public funds were ultimately being allocated to advance the goals of a private organization with an explicit political and ideological bent.
As a result of the two petitions, the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and Ministry of Justice announced in June 2021 that the plans for the center had been effectively frozen. It was stated that the project’s suspension was due to the ongoing investigation into the trust and the Registrar of Trusts’ decision that establishment of a heritage center was inconsistent with the original mandate of the Benvenisti Trust. According to the Registrar, the trustees could only advance such a project if and only it submitted a formal request to amend the trust’s official goals and is subsequently confirmed by court order.
Settler Group Together with the State Circumvent Legal Barriers
In spite of this decision, as noted above, the freeze was officially lifted with the announcement by the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry last month. According to the statement, Ateret Cohanim via the Benvenisti Trust filed a petition to the District Court against the freeze, leading to the abovementioned outcome. As a means to bypass the legal restrictions, a settlement was purportedly reached by which the existing building designated for the heritage center would be leased to “some other organization” who would ultimately establish and operate the center on behalf of the trust. The announcement likewise stated that the project’s budget stands at 4.5 million NIS and that the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry would allocate 3 million NIS, while the remainder would come from additional unidentified sources.
Ir Amim Initiates Subsequent Legal Proceedings
Despite multiple attempts and requests, including submission of a Freedom of Information request, to obtain all relevant documents and a copy of the petition, Ir Amim is still waiting to receive a response. Due to these developments, Ir Amim is now pursuing subsequent legal action against both the Benvenisti Trust/the Registrar of Trusts and the revived plan to establish the Jewish heritage center. As part of protocol, Ir Amim submitted this week two formal letters to the respective parties, citing the exhaustion of administrative remedies in lead up to returning to the courts.
In the letter to the Registrar of Trusts/Ministry of Justice, Ir Amim repeated its request for an update on the progress of the investigation into the Benvenisti Trust and cited its intent to proceed with a civil lawsuit should no adequate updates be provided.
In the letter concerning the heritage center plan, Ir Amim called again for suspension of the project, stating numerous arguments, including the fact that announcement of such an initiative by Ministers Elkin and Sa’ar (the new State Camp Party) during a transitional government constitutes "campaign advertising" and therefore violates election campaign regulations. Moreover, the letter emphasized that leasing the property to “some other organization” for the establishment of a tourist site still violates the trust’s charter and designated purpose of the property, which is for residential use only. In light of the conduct of the trustees’ (i.e. Ateret Cohanim) and state authorities’ to date, there is reason to believe that this purported organization is a subsidiary or affiliate of Ateret Cohanim.

As the letter states, “if this is indeed the case, this is yet further decisive proof that the Benvenisti Trust is clearly being harnessed for the purposes of Ateret Cohanim and its affiliated bodies. This is another layer of a serious conflict of interest in the trustees’ activity to the point of attempting to alter its official goals, which the Registrar of Trusts considered not in accordance with the law and the opinion of the original grantor. It likewise evades the obligation to comply with the grantor’s instructions concerning the trust’s assets through creating a measure to try and underhandedly circumvent these barriers.” As such, Ir Amim demands the complete suspension of the project and an immediate freeze on the state's allocation of public funds.  
Ir Amim will continue to update on further developments.

The building marked for the "Yemenite Jewish Heritage Center" is shaded in blue with the number 6.