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ILA leasing Arab-owned land in Jerusalem to Ateret Cohanim

By Meron Rapoport, Haaretz Correspondent

The Israel Lands Administration (ILA) is working together with the Ateret Cohanim association to wrest from Palestinian landowners control of 30 dunams (7.5 acres) of land in East Jerusalem and to transfer it to the association without a tender. Such is the claim outlined in a petition submitted two weeks ago to the High Court of Justice, and appearing in documents which Haaretz has received.

Ateret Cohanim promotes settlement of Jews in and around the Old City, and at times takes over Palestinian assets in East Jerusalem so as to “Judaize” that area.

The land in question, an olive grove called Kerem Hamufti, is in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. From the documents received, it emerges that the ILA has signed a contract with Ateret Cohanim for “the agricultural cultivation” of the land, even though the association has no experience in such work.

The documents indicate that the contract was signed even though the land that the ILA leased apparently does not belong to it and the Interior Ministry recognizes that the Palestinian landowners “have an interest” in it. A senior source at the ILA has said the contract was signed in order “to keep the territory in Jewish hands.”

In the petition it is claimed that an authorized official at the ILA “acted to advance the interests of Ateret Cohanim,” to prevent the Palestinians who claim ownership of the land from developing it. The petitioners define the ILA action as “corrupt” and are asking the attorney general to investigate “the involvement of Ateret Cohanim in governmental decision-making.”

In March, 40 years after declaring its intentions to do so, the state formally expropriated the land, at the request of the ILA. Former finance minister Abraham Hirchson signed on the plan to expropriate the property under the rubric of “acquisition for public needs.”

In its petition to the High Court, the Palestinian landowners, the Arab Hotels Company, asks for the expropriation to be prohibited because it was done “for an extraneous, illegitimate, racist and discriminatory purpose … An illegitimate and corrupt hand has worked hand in glove with the authorities or other elements to harm the petitioner’s rights, and to disinherit the petitioner for purposes of leasing the land to Ateret Cohanim.”

Kerem Hamufti is named for its former owner, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem. According to Israeli and Jordanian documents, in the 1960s it was purchased by the Arab Hotels Company of East Jerusalem.

After the area was annexed to Israel after the Six-Day War, the Finance Ministry stated its intention to expropriate the land “for public purposes,” but this was never carried out and the Palestinian owners continued to cultivate it. Several times over the years an Israeli court confirmed that the company is indeed owner of the property.

About seven years ago the Palestinian owners submitted to the planning authorities a request to build a hotel, a conference center and a cultural center on the land. Architect Moshe Margalit, who drew up the plan, relates that at the time the District Planning Commission confirmed that the East Jerusalem company has ownership rights to the land. The Interior Ministry confirmed to Haaretz that the company has been allowed to continue the planning as it has been proved that it “has an interest in the land.”

Municipal blessing

From the summaries of meetings concerning the property at the Interior Ministry, it emerges that representatives of the ILA were present, but did not mention they had leased the land to Ateret Cohanim or that it belongs to the ILA.

Margalit relates that the Palestinian landowners’ plan was presented “to the most senior people at the Jerusalem Municipality” and received their blessing. The petition also states that the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, Ehud Olmert, and his deputy, Yehuda Pollack, the chairman of the Local Planning and Building Committee, supported it.

However, at a certain stage, relates Margalit, it seemed that Ateret Cohanim also submitted a plan for this parcel of land: Two years beforehand, the ILA had granted permission to Irving Moskowitz, the American Jewish millionaire who supports Ateret Cohanim, to plan a neighborhood on Kerem Hamufti. A person close to the association aims to build 250 housing units there, and pressured ministers in former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s first government to approve it.

In June, 2000, immediately after the plan by Moskowitz and Ateret Cohanim was revealed, the landowners’ attorneys applied to Jerusalem’s Local Planning and Building Committee with a request to dismiss the scheme because “those who submitted it are not the owners of the land.”

The committee told the attorneys that the plan had been “shelved.”

A few months ago the Arab Hotels Company received notice from the Magistrates Court, allowing it to evict a Palestinian who was squatting on the land. However, on the day of the eviction, the Amidar company, on behalf of the ILA, filed a demand to stop it.

While the ILA and Amidar acknowledge this was indeed a matter of a squatter, a senior source at the ILA has told Haaretz that the Palestinian “was working with Ateret Cohanim.” The source explains his presence was necessary “to prevent theft of land by Palestinians.”

The current petition says the state owns about 20 percent of Kerem Hamufti under the Absentee Property Law, as it belonged to Al-Husseini, who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. However, the Palestinian landowners’ lawyers insist that the law does not apply to the property because it was purchased from the Al-Husseini family before Israeli rule began in East Jerusalem in 1967.

Attorney Danny Kramer, the representative of the official guardian of absentee property, is also a signatory to the petition, which states that the guardian has no connection to the land, and also that the ILA has been leasing it to Ateret Cohanim “for some years now.”

In its petition, the Arab Hotels Company argues that the low lease being paid by Ateret Cohanim is proof that this is an “artificial contract.” The association is paying NIS 42.5 per dunam (which comes to NIS 1,278 for the entire parcel of land), although it is in a prestigious location.

The ILA’s official response to Haaretz states that the contract with the Jewish association was signed “more than five years ago”; a senior ILA source says the contract was signed “at the beginning of the 1990s.”

At the ILA they were not able to explain how the entire plot of land was leased to Ateret Cohanim, despite the fact that even the ILA itself says the state owns only 20 percent of it. The ILA explains the fact that they dealt with the association without a tender by saying “it was the only applicant.” Concerning Ateret Cohanim’s lack of experience in agriculture, the ILA says: “It is not stipulated anywhere that the minimal condition for submitting an application for cultivation is prior experience.”

Based on past High Court of Justice rulings saying that if the state does not implement an expropriation order for many years, it’s possible to annul it, the Palestinian landowners are asking the court to issue a show cause order, requiring the state to explain why it should not prohibit the expropriation in this case.