Israeli land reforms threaten Palestinians’ mass expulsion

DM Monitoring

TEL AVIV: Mahmoud Haj Mahmoud, 56, spent a whole morning removing hundreds of rocks that carpeted the grounds of the courtyard of his modest, cement home in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
The night before, stone-pelting Israelis had attacked his home as tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers exploded in the neighbourhood. “We are suffering so much here,” said Mahmoud, a father of six children whose 19-year-old son is currently imprisoned by Israel.
Mahmoud wandered into his home in the Um Haroun section of Sheikh Jarrah and took a seat on a couch. “The Israelis are just waiting for the right moment to come to our door and throw us out,” Mahmoud said, his eyes appearing exhausted. Heightened tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the area have kept Mahmoud from getting much sleep. “They want Sheikh Jarrah to be a neighbourhood only for Jewish people.”
While periodic confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli settlers are the most visible aspect of settler groups’ attempts to transform Sheikh Jarrah into a Jewish neighbourhood, the actual dispossession of Palestinians from their properties occurs in the shadows of quiet and sterile Israeli courtrooms.
Now, Palestinian and Israeli rights groups have sounded the alarm about what Mounir Marjieh, international advocacy officer at Al-Quds University’s Community Action Center, told Al Jazeera is the “biggest Jewish settlement campaign in East Jerusalem’s history”.
Israel has begun the process of resolving conflicting ownership claims, known as a settlement of title process, in various Palestinian neighbourhoods, including Sheikh Jarrah.
In light of Israeli laws that eased the transfer of Palestinian property to Israeli ownership, such as the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law and the Legal and Administrative Matters Law of 1970, rights groups have said the current legal process is more than just a neutral way of settling a dispute, and will result in the mass dispossession of Palestinians from their lands and properties and their removal from the occupied city.
“The manner in which the settlement of title process is being implemented, alongside the existing legislative framework, clearly turns it into a mechanism that places entire Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem in danger of displacement,” Ir Amim, an Israeli rights organisation, has warned.
Following 1948, when Israel was established upon the displacement of about 750,000 Palestinians – including 60,000 Palestinians from the western side of Jerusalem, Israel deemed the approximately 10,000 Palestinian homes in West Jerusalem whose owners fled or were expelled by Zionist militias as “absentee property”. The Absentees’ Property Law regulated properties belonging to Palestinians, comprising about 70 percent of the overall land, who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war.
The state confiscated Palestinian properties and “these houses were given to Jewish immigrants”, Marjieh told Al Jazeera. “Israel carried out a final settlement of land title very quickly to ensure Jewish immigrants that moved to the Palestinian houses would have full ownership over the properties.”
More than 95 percent of the land on the Israeli side of the Green Line, or the 1949 border between Israel and its Arab neighbours, has undergone a settlement of title procedure.
However, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and subsequently annexed the territory, these proceedings were frozen by Israeli authorities, who feared backlash from the international community that viewed East Jerusalem as part of the occupied Palestinian territory. According to international humanitarian law, as an occupying power, it is illegal for Israel to conduct a final settlement of land title in the eastern half of the city.
Israeli authorities have stated that the land title settlement process would benefit Palestinians by buttressing and affirming their land ownership rights through formal registration. The decision aims to “create a better future for East Jerusalem residents”, Israeli authorities have claimed.
After 1967, the Absentees’ Property Law was applied to the eastern part of the city. Properties of Palestinians who were outside East Jerusalem at the time – including many Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank that held property in East Jerusalem – were transferred to the Israeli Custodian for Absentees’ Property and the Palestinian owners lost their rights to use them.
Throughout the decades, Israeli settler organisations, whose stated goal is to create a Jewish majority demographic in East Jerusalem, have worked together with the Custodian to identify these “absentee properties” and take them over, according to Marjieh. A spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Justice, however, denied these allegations.
This, Marjieh said, is “one of the scariest parts of the land title settlement in East Jerusalem”, as all these properties, which some have estimated to be about 60 percent of properties in the eastern part of the city, would be officially registered under a different owner, while the Palestinian owners outside East Jerusalem would have no rights to object to this transfer of ownership.
In Um Haroun, a different statute, the 1970 Legal and Administrative Law, has also become a way of forcing Palestinians from their homes.
The law gave Israelis the right to claim properties believed to have been owned by Jews in East Jerusalem before 1948, a right not extended to Palestinians who owned property inside Israel before 1948.
According to Muhammad Dahleh, a prominent Palestinian lawyer in Jerusalem, most of the land in Um Haroun was managed as a Palestinian family’s waqf property – a legal trusteeship that ensures the property remains in the family for future generations – during the Ottoman period (pre-1917).
Before 1948, thousands of Jews lived in East Jerusalem and many Jewish families had been granted leases for plots of land in Um Haroun owned by the waqf, to whom they paid rent.
Owing to a massive influx of Palestinian refugees after 1948, the Jordanian government, the new rulers of East Jerusalem, signed lease contracts with Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in what became Israel, allowing them to live in homes where Jews had formerly resided.