NOVEMBER 30, 2011
Two methods – eviction and demolition – are favored by settlers and their government supporters to coerce Silwan’s residents into leaving their neighborhood. Silwan is an area of East Jerusalem that reaches to the gates of the Old City, on the southeast corner, and comprises part of the area understood by some to be the historical “holy basin” of the city.
This makes it important for Jews to settle here, say Elad, a settler group bent on removing Palestinian locals and installing ideological Jews in their stead.
Silwan’s population of 55,000 Palestinians already share the neighbourhood with 320 Jewish settlers, who began moving in during the ’90s.
The latest expulsion attempt is of the Somrein family, who live in a particularly coveted piece of land next door to the City of David archaeological park, just beyond the Old City walls, at the entrance to Wadi Hilweh.
Wadi Hilweh is a small area of Silwan. The neighborhood is under increasing pressure because the site is where biblical Jewish kings – namely David and Solomon – are believed to have lived and walked. The City of David continues development – under the management of Elad – attracting a steady stream of tourists.
Groups of soldiers can regularly be found perusing the site, led by guides who explain to them the importance of the place. More specifically, they highlight its ancient Jewish history.
Two families forced out
The Somrein family, who have lived on the street for over 60 years, were issued an eviction order two months ago, giving them until 28 November to vacate the house.
Mohammad Somrein moved to the house when he was a small child, to live with his uncle, Musa Abdullah Somrein, the official owner. Musa died in 1981, after granting permission to his nephew to keep the home.
Several years after Musa’s death, the Israeli custodian of absentee property claimed his home was “absentee property” on the basis of his sons being out of the country at the time of his death, in Jordan, the United States and Dubai.
The family protested that Musa had lived in Jerusalem his entire life, that he was not “absent.”
Years later, in 2005, the custodian revived the case against the Somreins, arguing they were living illegally in absentee property – owned by the Israeli state – and without paying rent.
Documents in Hebrew were sent to the family at the time, who gave them to their Jewish lawyer. It is unclear how their first lawyer dealt with the case, according to Mohammed Dahleh, the Somrein’s current lawyer. The family remained unaware of the legal proceedings to evict them.
In the absence of a reply from the Somreins, the court came to a default judgement, deferring to the wants of the prosecution. The custodian got the eviction order he needed.
On top of this, the family have been fined 2 millionNIS(around 530,00 USD) in rent accumulation since 2005, when the court affirmed ownership of the house was with the state. The eviction date was temporarily postponed at the last minute.
The magistrate’s court made a last minute decision on Monday to postpone the eviction until 18 December, to allow Dahleh to present his legal case against the legality of Himnuta’s acquisition of the property.
The Somreins are not alone in their predicament.
Dahoud Abu Thiab and his nine siblings own a building in Wadi Hilweh, inherited from their father after his death. The property is divided into several apartments. Abu Thiab lives on the first floor while the ground floor has been rented to Hussein Wajou and his wife, along with their four children, for the past 18 years.
Over a year ago Wajou paid a sum of around 56,000 USD in “key money” to Abu Thiab. Key money is a fee which secures the tenant’s right to live in the home, after which the monthly rent is dramatically lowered.
Last year Hussein received an eviction notice, saying his family must vacate the apartment as it was now under the ownership of Elad, who had apparently bought the space from a brother of Abu Thiab in 2004 for 30,000 USD.
The purchase was made by a company called Lowel Investment –an arm of Elad designed to buy property in East Jerusalem – based in offshore islands of the Caribbean.
Two cases are being fought in the courts about this property. The Abu Thiabs are contesting the sale of the apartment, problematic for several reasons. Firstly, Abu Thiab’s father – the rightful owner – was still alive in 2004. Further, the nine siblings argue, the property is owned by ten people so cannot be sold at the behest of one.
Wajou’s case – in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court– argues that he recently spent his life’s savings on key money – effectively buying the right to live there – which makes him a protected tenant.
“If I had known about this I would not have bought the key,” Wajou notes.
The second eviction notice, which arrived on 27 October, gave the family the month of November to leave.
The court agreed that Wajou should leave the building by 30 November and give the key to the courts, which will reconvene in January to reach a decision.
The impending disaster for Wajou’s family has left him anxious and distracted. His six-year-old is in hospital with stomach problems after having had two heart operations.
“Are they going to throw my sick child onto the street?” he asks incredulously. “I don’t know what to do.”
The Absentee Property law
These cases are a continuation of policies followed in the ’80s and ’90s, when dozens of Silwan properties were declared absentee property.
The legal case against the Somreins, facilitated by the custodian, was actually brought by Himnuta, a company owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which the latter uses to carry out the transferral of Palestinian property to settlers.
The JNF’s protocol states clearly that property it controls may be transferred or leased to Jews only. The ILA, on the other hand, is forbidden to discriminate in the distribution of land.
The state circumvented this formality by using the JNF to deal with properties in Silwan to install settlers there.
Himnuta then leased the land to Elad without a tender, which is how they came to control the buildings and space that facilitate their archaeological complex.
The process – where land became absentee property, was transferred to Himnuta then finally leased to settlers – occurred unbeknownst to the Palestinian occupants of these homes.
Methods have varied little over time. The Absentee Owner law is still being manipulated to rid East Jerusalem of Palestinians.
Wadi Hilweh will be Disneyland
Jawad Siyam runs the Wadi Hilweh Information Centre, a few doors down from the City of David entrance, which offers support and legal advice to locals facing eviction.
Wadi Hilweh “will be a Disneyland,” he predicts. “In order to come here you will have to buy a ticket from outside the neighborhood, like a museum.”
“Elad is much smarter than the settlers of Hebron. They do it quietly and talk of coexistence,” Siyam notes. The coexistence they have in mind, he believes, looks more like state control over Palestinians and free reign for settlers.
The evictions fit into a broader project of entrenching Israeli control over East Jerusalem and creating a ring of Jewish settlement around the Old City. The location of Silwan makes it particularly salient for the state’s agenda.
The effect of Elad’s work will be the erasing of any other presence or history in Jerusalem other than the Jewish one.
Siyam remembers how the area of Hilweh originally got its name. Hilweh was an old woman who was shot dead by the Haganah – the pre-state armed Zionist forces —around 1948. Her neighbors commemorated her, naming the street on which she had lived after her.
Elad’s ruthless pursuit of their exclusivist agenda does not fail to shock Wadi Hilweh residents.
“They’re behaving like thieves,” Dahoud Abu Thiab remarks in exasperation. Mohammed Dahleh agrees. “Silwan is being attacked,” he reflects.
People here are used to life being hard though. During the Al Aqsa Intifada people referred to Silwan as “Gaza 2,” Siyam remembers. “Now it should be called Hebron 2.”
Meanwhile, Silwan residents look on in fear, worried that such prizes as the Somrein home will render the settlers more resolute and powerful in their bid to occupy the whole neighborhood.
Should settlers take over the residence it will deepen the oppressive character of life for Palestinians in Silwan – more security guards, more soldiers, and a wider system of surveillance cameras to keep a watchful eye on their daily lives.