Twenty years ago, an ultra-nationalist Israeli government bent on expanding Jewish control in East Jerusalem took legal possession of the Sumarin home under what is known as the Absentee Property Law. The owner of the house, Musa Sumarin, passed away in 1983. At the time of his death, all three of his sons, declared by the government to be his heirs to the property, were out of the country. Even though other members of the Sumarin family continued to live there, the State declared that the home should be considered Absentee Property, and turned it over to the Custodian for Absentee Properties.
The government then transferred the Sumarin home to JNF subsidiary Himnuta, along with seven other properties in Silwan, in exchange for other lands located in Wadi Ara. Himnuta, in turn, transferred many of the other properties to ELAD, which has been criticized as an extremist settler organization because of its aggressive role in expropriating Palestinian homes and land in Silwan and transferring them to the control of Jewish settlers. Himnuta then entered into a legal struggle to force the Sumarin family from their home in Silwan.
The Absentee Property Law had not been applied to houses that were inhabited by Palestinians in East Jerusalem until the 1980s, when settler groups, in cooperation with Israel’s Housing Ministry, then under Ariel Sharon, started to use the law to take control of Palestinian homes and lands in Silwan.
An investigative committee convened by the government of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 (the Klugman Committee) found that the takeover of Arab property in East Jerusalem was conducted through the use of false affidavits, misapplication of the Absentee Property Law, and the transfer of public property and millions of shekels in public funds to private settler organizations.
In 2005, Himnuta filed suit to evict the Sumarin family. The court ordered the family to evacuate their home and to pay Himnuta damages of NIS 2 million. About two months ago Himnuta obtained an eviction order for November 28, 2011.
Attorney and expert on Jerusalem Danny Seidemann has written us privately as follows:
“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 policy of JNF… that [its lands] be leased to Jews for the purposes of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.'”
What is Himnuta?
JNF established Himnuta in the 1930s, mainly to circumvent legal restrictions on its own land dealings. Under Israeli law, Israel’s Development Authority and the Israel Land Administration are required to administer their assets without discrimination based on nationality. Himnuta was registered under Jordanian law in Ramallah in 1971 so that it could lawfully operate and buy land in the occupied territories, which JNF says it does not do.
“JNF and Himnuta operate according to a JNF memo that provides that its assets be leased or transferred to the possession of Jews only.” (Hagit Ofran, “The Eviction of One Palestinian Family Might Cause the Next Political Crisis Over East Jerusalem,” HuffPost World, Nov. 17, 2011.) “In order to bypass the requirement of equality, the authorities in the early 1990’s used the JNF and Himnuta to transfer property in Silwan [in East Jerusalem] to Jewish settlers.
Himnuta’s offices are located in the JNF’s Jerusalem headquarters. JNF owns 100% of Himnuta’s 30,000,000 company shares. The head of Himnuta, David Lazarus, also serves as KKL-JNF’s CFO.
What is the Absentee Property Law?
The Absentee Property 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. The Custodian almost always either transfers the property to Jewish ownership or allows the State to use it for Jewish needs. In violation of the Jewish principle prohibiting acting "eifah v'eifah (acting according to double standards), this law is not used to take over Jewish owned property, and the Custodian would never allow the land to be used by non-Jews.
The use of the Absentee Property Law in East Jerusalem, while technically within the government’s “legal” purview, is highly 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.”