Left to Right: Police and settlers talking to Ahmed Sumarin, a member of the Sumarin family that will be expelled. Picture by Wadi Hilweh Information Center. Aerial map showing the house’s location- next to the City of David Visitor Center, and close to Al-Aqsa. Map by Hagit Ofran.
Background and Call to American/International Action
Blue Boxes and Upcoming Expulsions
Remember dropping pennies into those blue JNF boxes in your synagogue and JCC growing up?
In seven days from now, on November 28th, the JNF, under the guise of “Himnuta,” will use the pennies dropped into those blue boxes towards the expulsion of a Palestinian family, the Sumarin family, from their home in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. For more background, see Nir Hasson’s Haaretz article and Hagit Ofran’s blog post.
What is the JNF?
The Jewish National Fund was set up in 1901 to purchase land in the Land of Israel on behalf of the Jewish People. The JNF also has become Israel’s forestry service, and is known for its ecological work. However, in addition to all of the wonderful and holy work the JNF does, there is sadly a dark side. All too often the JNF has become an instrument for creating facts on the ground and controlling land, even when that land was not purchased or obtained fairly. Throughout Israel, one can often find the ruins of an Arab village at the heart of many JNF forests.
What is Himnuta?
For details, please see this blog, which includes the following: “The JNF established Himnuta in the 1930s, mainly to circumvent legal restrictions on its own land dealings. For instance, Himnuta can buy lands as an investment or exchange lands with Arab dealers, both of which are forbidden for the JNF.”
Over the past few decades, Himnuta has purchased and continues to purchase territory over the green line.
Another settler organization. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is this: Himnuta is not an independent company. Himnuta is part of the JNF.
How is that possible? The JNF’s policy is that is doesn’t buy land over the green line.
Exactly. The JNF is an organization whose ecological projects in Israel have won it much acclaim, and it was the recipient of the Israel Prize in 2002. The JNF is, according to its website, a United Nations NGO that has a “4-star rating from Charity Navigator” and “earned the Better Business Bureau seal of approval.”
As such, the JNF does not want to be perceived as an extremist, right wing organization responsible for the expulsion of Palestinian families in the some of the most sensitive areas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus, they carry out their more shady dealings through Himnuta.
Search the word “Himnuta” on the JNF’s website and you will find zero results. Search the word Himnuta on Israel’s Company Registrar, and you will find a company whose offices are located in the JNF’s Jerusalem headquarters. You will see that out of Himnuta’s 30,000,000 company shares, 30,000,000 of them are owned by the JNF. You will see that the head of Himnuta, David Lazarus, also serves as JNF-KKL’s CFO.
Himnuta is part of the JNF.
So what’s the story with the Sumarin house in Silwan?
In summary, the case is as follows: This house belongs to a Palestinian family. Twelve members of the family currently live in the house, including five children, a pregnant mother, and a grandfather on dialysis. The house is directly inside the City of David National Park, next to the visitor center run by ELAD (explanation below).
In the mid-1980s, the Israeli government took legal possession of the Sumarin home under what is known as the Absentee Property Law. In short, this law is used by Israel to take over land belonging to Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. If an owner is not physically present, the land can be given to the Custodian of Absentee Properties. The Custodian almost always either transfers the property to Jewish ownership or allows the State to use it for Jewish needs. Violating the principle of “eifah v’eifah,” (according to double standards), this law would never be used to take over Jewish owned property, and the Custodian would never allow the land to be used by non-Jews.
More specifically: The law includes a stipulation that if the owner of a house in East Jerusalem is residing in “an enemy country,” the house may be transferred to the Custodian. The enactment of the law was possible in the case of the Sumarin family because the original owner of the house, Musa Sumarin, passed away in 1983. At the time of his death, all three of his sons- unilaterally declared as “heirs” of the house by the Israeli government- were out of the country (one in Jordan, two in Saudi Arabia). As such, the State declared that the property should be considered Absentee Property, and the Sumarin property was subsequently transferred to the Custodian for Absentee Properties.
Then, in 1991, the government then transferred the Sumarin property directly to JNF-subsidiary Himnuta, along with seven other properties in Silwan, in exchange for other lands located in Wadi Ara.
Wadi Ara? How is Wadi Ara connected?
It’s not really. Here is yet another level of crooked, subtle politics: the Israeli government can’t just take control of property in East Jerusalem and say that it is for sale to Jews only. Even if that’s their intent, they knew/know that would not look good.
The JNF/Himnuta, on the other hand, according to its mandate, can take control of property with the intent “for those properties to be under Jewish ownership.” (Again, see Hagit’s blogpost).
So the government enacted a deal in Wadi Ara and transferred the properties in Silwan to Himnuta/JNF.
All sorts of complicated legal proceedings throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, about which you can read more in the 2005 Haaretz article by Amiram Barkat, or in Hagit’s blog. In short, the intent of the legal proceedings was this: once the properties were soundly in the hands of Himnuta/JNF, they would be transferred to Jews, most likely through ELAD, the extremist settler organization responsible for Jewish settlement in Silwan and in control of the City of David. (For more background on ELAD, see the alternative archeology group Emek Shaveh’s page on ELAD). ELAD is an incredibly complex and important player in Silwan, but for the purpose of keeping this discussion on point (the JNF and the Sumarin House), the following equation will suffice: ELAD=Powerful Settler Organization (with a budget larger than the seven largest Left Wing NGOs in Israel combined) whose purpose, according to their articles of incorporation, is Judaizing (ie. de-Arabizing) Silwan.
What will happen after the Sumarin family is evicted?
Now, this is not officially publicly documented, but it seems clear what JNF/Himnuta will do with the property after expelling the Sumarin family. They have transferred properties to ELAD in the past, and, again, the Sumarin house is directly inside the City of David National Park, next to the visitor center run by ELAD. As Attorney and expert on Jerusalem Danny Seidemann wrote to me in an email:
“Virtually all of the JNF/Himnuta lands in the Wadi Hilweh section of Silwan – almost 1/3 of the total area – have been handed over covertly to the settler organization ELAD. On May 5, 1998, senior JNF/Himnuta official Avraham Halleli testified before the Jerusalem District Court:
“To the best of my knowledge, all of the JNF areas [in Silwan] were leased by the ILA to the ELAD Association…it is the lands policies of JNF… that [its lands] be leased to Jews for the purposes of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.”
So will the Sumarin house be transferred to ELAD? There seems to be an extremely good chance. But you can make your own assumptions.
So does Himnuta “legally” own the Sumarin house?
As Hagit put it, the method was/is as follows:
Settlers (ELAD) initiate declaration of “Absentee Property”à Property is transferred to the [Israeli Government’s] Development Authorityà Property is transferred to JNF/Himnutaà Property is transferred to the settlers (ELAD).
The use of the Absentee Property Law in East Jerusalem, while technically within the government’s “legal” purvey, is extremely controversial. Following Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, according to Ir Amim, “then-Attorney General Meir Shamgar issued an opinion that there was no justification to apply the Absentee Property Law to East Jerusalem. As a rule, the State of Israel rarely applied that law to the annexed territory; this policy changed in 1977 at the initiative of then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, and also during the 1980s when used in East Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and the neighborhood of Silwan.”
In short, the very decision to apply the Absentee Property Law in Silwan in 1991 was extremely controversial and, according to many, highly immoral. The Sumarin family lives in a house that they built, prior to 1967. What possible reason is there to justify the property being transferred to the Custodian of the Absentee Properties, other than the then [and now] Right-Wing Israeli Government’s and ELAD’s shared goal to “Judaize (ie. De-Arabize) East Jerusalem?”
Even if we bracket the questionable moral status of the Absentee Property Law as applied in East Jerusalem, “all these properties,” writes Danny Seidemann, “should have been placed at the disposal of the public at large, both Jewish and Arab, in the framework of an equal, fair and transparent tender process. They were not.”
This is an extremely important issue, both in humanitarian terms and in political terms. The Sumarin family has been living in their house for decades and they have nowhere else to go. If they are expelled from their house, and ELAD takes over, that will set the tone of the houses in Silwan. This is the first time in five years that there will be an expulsion in Silwan, which is a point of extreme tension, is close to the Old City and Al-Aqsa, and has been the site of violence and clashes in the past.
This expulsion could ignite dormant tensions in Silwan.
But more certainly that igniting violence, if this expulsion is carried out, it will be a sign to the settlers, to ELAD, to the government and, in this case, to the JNF/Himnuta, that they can expel Palestinian families from their houses in Silwan, near the City of David, without too much international outcry/pressure/opposition. And if they can, they will.
What should we do?
We need all of you journalists, bloggers, students, Rabbis, community leaders, Rabbinical Students, activists and other partners—to put public pressure on the JNF and its donors with some version of the following ask:
‘JNF/Himnuta- Do not expel the Suamrin Family. Such an action would be both unjust and dangerous. Sell/rent the house to them. For the sake of justice and for the sake of peace in Jerusalem and Israel, do not expel the Sumarin family.’
How do we make that ask?
That is to say: Blogs, Op-Eds, public letter campaigns, facebook, twitter, etc. RHR-NA and RHR Israel will both issue public letter campaigns saying: “Tell JNF not to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem.” Sign on to the letters, publicize the campaigns, contact representatives of the JNF in the USA and in Israel (and elsewhere), tell them to do what is right.
Will this work?
It is impossible to say for sure, but if we make this loud enough, there is a good chance we could at least get the JNF to delay the expulsion, which would give all of us more time to figure out how to expand and strengthen our campaigns and efforts. Combined with the other channels running (potential direct action, legal efforts, Israeli media and awareness campaigns by Israeli and Palestinian partners), this could actually make an impact.
According to Hagit Ofran, “the eviction can be stopped: Himnuta can decide, instead of giving the property to settlers, to give it to the Palestinian family that has lived in it for years.”
And according to Danny Seidemann– “In the 1990’s Himnuta tried to evict the Gozlan family – which saved Jews in Silwan during the 1929 Palestinian uprising from their home in Silwan. On the other side of town, at Yad vaShem, families like this were being honored as righteous gentiles – here in Silwan they were evicted. A public campaign caused them to desist, and even Ariel Sharon (then Infrastructures Minister) instructed them not to evict the family. Ultimately they gave up – the exposure of the JNF/Himnuta scheme to displace the Gozlan family so sullied their public image that they turned the property to the government of Israel (the family was eventually forced out by the Israeli government in 2005). So there is a precedent allowing public opinion to compel them to act wisely and responsibly.
There is a chance. We must act, for the sake of Jewish values, and for the sake of peace and justice in Israel and Palestine and Jerusalem.
We only have a few days!