Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement Report, covering everything you need to know about Israeli settlement activity this week.
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April 7, 2023
- In Rare Ruling, Israeli High Court Rejects JNF/Settler Effort to Evict Palestinian Family from their Home in Silwan
- Israel Advances Plans for 6,500 New Settlement Units in East Jerusalem
- Israel Doubles Funding of Settler Surveillance of Palestinians
- Bonus Reads
In Rare Ruling, Israeli High Court Rejects JNF/Settler Effort to Evict Palestinian Family from their Home in Silwan
On April 3rd, a three-judge panel of the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against the Jewish National Fund, which has pursued a 32-year legal battle to evict the Palestinian Sumreen family from their longtime home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. In its ruling the Court criticized the government for declaring the Sumreen home to be absentee property “without any basis in law.” The Court further ruled that the JNF’s subsidiary Himnuta (which was created to take the lead for JNF in litigating aggressive settlement takeover cases like this) must compensate the family with 20,000 shekels ($5,560).
The case to evict the Sumreen family has been viewed as a key test of the State’s use of the Absentee Property Law to seize Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, with the fate of the Sumreen case likely to set a precedent that could impact the many other ongoing eviction cases brought by settlers against Palestinians in Silwan.
Reacting to the ruling, the Sumreen family lawyer told Haaretz:
“This decision is precedential and just. The Supreme Court brought justice after two proceedings in which [the court] ordered the eviction of several families from their homes. The decision includes criticism of how the authorities behaved on this matter and the declaration of absentee property despite the fact that the owner is a living resident of Jerusalem.”
The Free Jerusalem activist movement said in a statement:
“There are few moments in which we feel like a bit of justice has been done in the reality of the occupation. This is one of those movements. Amal Sumreen and her children have lived in their home in Silwan for decades. For the first time in those decades, Amal will be able to sleep soundly tonight” and vowed to continue working “until this racist law, which allows the seizure of homes, is struck down, until the occupation ends, until there is full equality for all.”
The Sumreen family home is located in the middle of what today has been designated by Israel “the City of David National Park” (the home existed long before that designation). The Israeli government has handed over management of the area to the radical Elad settler organization, which for years has also been pursuing the eviction of Palestinians from the homes in Silwan. For nearly three decades, the Sumreen family has been forced to battle for legal ownership of their home, after the state of Israel, prompted repeatedly by the JNF, declared the home to be “absentee” property”. As a reminder, that law (as summarized by the Israeli legal NGO Adalah),
“Defines persons who were expelled, fled, or who left the country after 29 November 1947, mainly due to the war, as well as their movable and immovable property (mainly land, houses and bank accounts etc.), as ‘absentee’. Property belonging to absentees was placed under the control of the State of Israel with the Custodian for Absentees’ Property. The Absentees’ Property Law was the main legal instrument used by Israel to take possession of the land belonging to the internal and external Palestinian refugees, and Muslim Waqf properties across the state.”
Based on that designation – which was not communicated to the Sumreen family, which of course was not “absentee” but was living in the home – Israeli law permitted the state to take over the rights to the building. The state then sold the rights to the home to the JNF in 1991. The JNF has pursued the eviction of the Sumreen family ever since, with the secret funding/backing of the Elad settler group.
Israeli courts ruled in favor of the Sumreen family’s ownership claims to the home for years. This changed, arguably as a direct result of a deliberate policy (led by then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked) to pack the courts with right-wing judges) in September 2019, when the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court tossed out the previous rulings to grant ownership of the family’s home to the JNF — a decision the family immediately appealed to the Jerusalem District Court. Notably: in 2020, the JNF came under considerable international scrutiny for its handling of the Sumreen case, and was pressured to call off its eviction campaign (it did not).
In 2022, the Israeli Attorney General issued a legal opinion supporting the JNF’s legal claim to the home and the eviction of the Sumreens. In his opinion, the Attorney General did not address the broader political context of widespread dispossession of Palestinians in Silwan, or the legally dubious actions on the part of the Elad settler group and the Jewish National Fund in having the property declared to be absentee in order to take control over it. Instead, the Attorney General decided simply that there is no new basis on which to overturn the JNF’s ownership of the home, and therefore the Sumreen family does not have a legal right to reside there.
A full history of the saga involving the Sumreen family – which is similar to dozens of other Palestinian homes in Silwan that were declared Absentee Property in the 1990s – can be found on the Peace Now website here. For more on the collusion of the JNF and the Elad settler group, see reporting by +972 Magazine.
Ir Amim reports that over the past week various Israeli agencies have advanced plans for a total of 6,500 new settlement units slated for incredibly sensitive areas of East Jerusalem.
On March 29th, the Jerusalem Local Planning Committee took the following actions:
- Wadi Joz Business Center (Silicon Wadi) – the Committee discussed and rejected all objections submitted against this plan, recommending the plan for final approval. The “Silicon Wadi” plan seeks to establish a major high-tech hub along the western side of East Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz neighborhood. While touted as a plan that will benefit Palestinians, its implementation will require the eviction of many Palestinian businesses in the area. You can read Ir Amim’s in-depth reporting on the Silicon Wadi project here.
- Lower Aqueduct Plan – the Committee discussed and rejected all objections submitted against this plan, recommending the plan for final approval. This plan would see a new settlement of 1,465 units built on a sliver of land located between the controversial settlements of Givat Hamatos and Har Homa – and is intended to connect the two. In so doing, it will establish a huge, uninterrupted continuum of Israeli settlements on the southern rim of Jerusalem, and will destroy Palestinian contiguity between the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For more background on the Lower Aqueduct plan, see resources by: Terrestrial Jerusalem and Ir Amim.
- Ramot North A and B – The Committee recommended these two plans, outlining a total of 1,918 units, for deposit for public review. Both plans will expand the existing settlement of Ramot northeastward towards the Palestinian town of Bir Nabala. See more details from Ir Amim here.
On April 3rd, the Jerusalem District Planning Committee was slated to advance the following plans (final confirmation of the committee’s actions has not been reported as of publication on April 6th)
- French Hill/Mount Scopus – The committee was slated to possibly review amendments to two plans for a total of 1,539 new settlement units to be built in the area of French Hill and the premises of Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, most of which would be located beyond the Green Line. One of the plans – called the “Bronfman Dormitory Complex” – will encircle a Palestinian residential area on the Mount of Olives.
- Givat HaShaked – This plan outlines 700 housing units (in 4 high-rise towers and several six-story buildings), a school, and commercial buildings, all to be built on a highly sensitive and geopolitically critical sliver of land located within the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa. It was approved for public deposit in September 2022. Ir Amim reports, “although approved for deposit, the plan has not yet been formally deposited for public review. An internal session was scheduled […] to amend the decision on the plan. Although the details regarding this amendment are unknown at present, the assumption is that the modification is a technical issue.” For more information on this new settlement, see previous FMEP reporting.
- Pisgat Ze’ev – The committee was slated to possibly review amendments to a plan for 730 new settlement units that would expand the Pisgat Ze’ev settlement eastwards towards the Separation Barrier and the area of the Palestinian town of Hizma, depleting the few remaining open land reserves in the area.
- Ramot – A plan for 240 new units in the settlement of Ramot was slated to be reviewed by the committee for the first time.
Haaretz reports that the Israeli government budget request includes $11.1 million for a program that organizes and equips settlers to surveil Palestinian construction in the West Bank, doubling the government budget from 2022. Haaretz explains:
“Recent years have seen the formation of ‘land departments’ in West Bank settlements, which track Palestinian construction and cultivation and report such activity to the Civil Administration and the Israeli military. These departments have no enforcement authority, but its inspectors serve as an additional source of pressure on the Civil Administration in Area C…Settlement authorities could use these budgets to hire members of their inspection units, to purchase aerial photos, drones, tablets and vehicles. For larger settlements, the funds could be enough to hire four full-time inspectors and another four part-time ones. In addition, the funds could be used to pay youths doing their national service, and to hold public diplomacy conferences on the matter.”
It’s worth recalling that Bezalel Smotrich – who today is effectively the sovereign power ruling over the West Bank – has previously suggested empowering settlemers, on their own judgment and authority, to demolish Palestinian construction they believe lacks Israeli-required authorizations. As FMEP has repeatedly explained, Israel has long denied Palestinians the ability to build (on land that Israel recognizes they legally own) in Area C, resulting in many Palestinian structures — including homes, schools, and agricultural structures — being built without the required Israeli-issued permits. To fully understand what is happening, see B’Tselem’s excellent explainer.
The program for which the new Israeli government is doubling funding is only one of the ways in which settlers act as a surveillance mechanism of the Israeli state. In November 2020 the Israeli Civil Administration created a hotline for settlers wishing to report their suspicions of “illegal” Palestinian construction in the West Bank (on the Kochav Ya’akov settlement website, the new phone service is called a “snitch line”). In November 2021, Breaking the Silence and the Washington Post revealed that settlers have been helping the IDF build a facial photo database of West Bank Palestinians. The database serves to buttress the facial recognition capabilities of the Israeli army, as part of its pervasive surveillance arsenal, including a growing network of cameras and smartphones.
- “Mount of Olives becomes latest target in fight for control of Jerusalem” (The Guardian)
- “Why the Netanyahu Government’s Disengagement Repeal is so Problematic for the Biden Administration” (Dr. Deborah Shushan, J Street)
- “Israeli Settlements in the Ramallah & Al-Bireh Governorate” (PLO NAD)
- “Israeli Settlers Descend on West Bank Village of Hawara, Injuring Six Palestinians” (Haaretz)
- “As Israel’s Crises Pile Up, a Far-Right Minister Is a Common Thread” (New York Times)
- “To Understand the Settler Mindset, Read This Eulogy” (Avi Garfinkel, Haaretz)