Former Israeli AG discovers settler takeover of family home

Israel's former AG discovers settler takeover of old family home in Sheikh Jarrah
3 min read
16 June, 2021
Former Attorney-General Michael Ben-Yair says he would like Palestinian tenants to stay in the home amid extremist attempts to 'Judaise' the Jerusalem neighbourhood.
Several Palestinian families are currently facing eviction from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah [Getty]

Israel's former attorney-general has for two years waged a legal battle to reclaim his family's old Jerusalem home from the hands of a settler organisation intent on "Judaising" the Palestinian-majority neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Michael Ben-Yair's story "shows the intensity of the concealment and of the connection between" settlers and the Israeli courts, his lawyer told Haaretz.

Ben-Yair's family lived in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah side-by-side with Palestinians before the establishment of Israel in 1948.

The house and an attached store are listed in a 1928 "trust document" by Ben-Yair's grandmother, Sarah Jannah.

The document - a sort of will - detailed what was to be done with the home after Jannah's death. She decreed that the ownership would pass to her heirs and subsequently to their living relatives.

However, the family fled to Israeli territory after Jordan occupied East Jerusalem in 1948.

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Israeli authorities granted Jewish families like Ben-Yair's compensation for their properties - something the tens of thousands of Palestinian families who were forced to flee their homes were never given.

Until two years ago, Ben-Yair believed a Palestinian family had assumed ownership of his grandmother's old home, as was the case with many east Jerusalem homes granted to Palestinians who were displaced from their homes in territory seized by the new Israeli state.

It was a fine prospect for the ex-attorney-general, who believes Israeli Jewish families gave up their legal rights to such properties when they received compensation for them.

After seeing in the news that Palestinians were being evicted from a Sheikh Jarrah storefront previously owned by his grandmother, Ben-Yair learned that a settler organisation had taken over the property despite his grandmother's will.

A Jerusalem rabbinical court granted a settler organisation claiming no heirs could be found despite the fact Ben-Yair "is a public figure who makes public statements and even published a book about Sheikh Jarrah three years earlier", his lawyers said.

Ben-Yair has since launched a series of legal challenges with the aid of Peace Now, bringing him closer to being appointed as the trustee for his grandmother's old property. 

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The rabbinical court has forced the settlement organisation to suspend all its activities at the property. 

The trust document prohibits the sale of the property, but Ben-Yair hopes to grant a long-term lease at a token fee to the Palestinian family who lives there.

The former attorney-general has also said he plans to sue the settlement organisation for the years of rent they have collected from the Palestinian family.

It is "inconceivable under any legal system that I should receive both compensation as well as the property for which I received the compensation", he told Haaretz.

"It would also involve eviction of Palestinians who would become refugees for the second time, while they are not entitled to seek to reclaim their property from before 1948. Justice requires that they not be evicted and that their custody of the house be ensured."