Dana Weiler-Polak | Ha’aretz
22 November 2009
Tziona Tajer Street in Jaffa, off the main thoroughfare, Yefet, begins with a lush park and ends in a narrow picturesque alleyway bounded by refurbished old homes. One of these houses, behind a heavy blue gate, belongs to the Shaya family. Hanging by the entrance is a large portrait of the family patriarch, Salim Khoury Shaya, a priest who served in the 1920s as the spiritual leader of the Christian Arab (Greek Orthodox) community. Around that time he also built the house on a hill in Jaffa.
Salim Khoury Shaya died at age 90 in 1963. His daughter-in-law, Fadwa Shaya, who married his son George, is now the eldest resident of the house, where she has lived since 1947 and where her children and some of her grandchildren grew up. In the guest room, surrounded by hand-carved dressers and ornate 1930s-era mirrors, she tells the story of the Shaya family, at least the three generations she knows.
Salim Khoury Shaya’s seven children, she says, lived in the house their father built. In 1948, three of them went to visit relatives in Lebanon, where they got stuck when Israel’s War of Independence broke out and weren’t able to return. The other four siblings – George, Evelyn, Awda and Claire Shaya – remained in the house; their children are now in their 40s.
In 1950, after the Knesset passed the Absentee Property Law, the house was transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property. (A 1954 Supreme Court ruling said that “the Absentee Property Law is meant to fill a temporary role: to preserve absentee properties lest they become abandoned and open to looting.”) It took nine years, until 1959, for the state to recognize the rights of the four siblings who were not absentees and still lived in the house, but the authorities still did not completely give up their hold on the property.
Instead, a partnership was declared giving the state ownership of 40 percent of the house in place of the absentee siblings. The family was left with ownership of the other 60 percent. Government-owned housing company Amidar, which took over management of the property, says there are hundreds more such houses, all belonging to Arabs, that have been jointly owned by the state since some of the owners left in 1948 or later.
In the 1950s, George Shaya and his siblings tried to fight the forced partnership, arguing that before they left the other siblings sold them their stake in the house. The absentee siblings also traveled to Cyprus and signed an affidavit to this effect, but an Israeli court rejected it. In June 1960, the court turned down the siblings’ request to receive full ownership of their house, and in 1963 the Israel Lands Administration received custody of 40 percent of the house. That year, Salim Khoury Shaya died.
George Shaya continued to fight for the house until his death in 1973. His daughter, Mary Kusa, remembers her father always saying that “I don’t want to buy my house.” She and the other children grew up, married and had families. Some still live in the house.
George’s son Sami says that in the 1990s they tried to buy the state’s stake in the house, but Amidar refused. Amidar maintains, meanwhile, that the company wanted to sell but that disputes in the family prevented the deal from going through.
Amidar also says that over the years the family has refused to sign a contract and pay rental fees to Amidar, even though, “by law, when one or more owners makes exclusive use of the property he must pay the owners a relative portion of the fees for use of the property.”
Fadwa Shaya says the family feared that paying rent would be perceived as conferring recognition of the state’s ownership of the house, so they did not pay. She also says the state did not see to the maintenance of the house, as it should have. “I paid and took care of every problem that came up,” she says. “There were times when everything was falling apart and I paid for everything, even when I was a widow with four children.”
The family ignored the demands for rent payments until, in June 2007, they received a demand that was hard to ignore, for a payment of about NIS 213,000 – a cumulative bill for seven years of rent (calculated at 40 percent of monthly rent of NIS 6,340). The siblings asked Amidar to look into the matter. They say the company was understanding and promised to get back to them. The family waited patiently and cooperated with an appraiser sent by Amidar to value the house; they also cooperated with the people who took measurements to see if anything had changed over the years.
In retrospect, says one daughter, Anisa Shaya, “We learned that we were fighting people who weren’t really concerned about the people whose house this was. They were only interested in the business side – how much they’d get if the house were sold.”
The siblings say Jaffa’s rising property values are behind the move. According to Kusa, “Our feeling is that Amidar came after us. When we went to them [in June 2007] they didn’t give us a straight answer and just asked for the neighbors’ phone numbers. One day, my brother got a phone call from a detective wanting information about who lived in the house. Apparently they wanted to check if the house was rented and if they could demand part of the rental money.”
They were even more stunned when, less than three months later, with no prior notice and without having received any answers, the ILA’s development arm sued them in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court. The authority was seeking to dissolve the partnership, which basically meant that the house would be sold. “It’s a feeling of injustice,” says Anisa Shaya. “First they show up out of the blue demanding money, and the next minute they want to throw us out on the street. Where is my mother who has lived in this house since 1947 supposed to go?”
The first hearing in the case is scheduled for February. Attorney Hisham Shabaita from Tel Aviv University’s Human Rights Clinic is representing the family. “The state is cynically and aggressively seeking to dispossess citizens of their home that was built before the state’s founding, solely because they are Arabs,” he says. “The state’s aim to act upon a dubious partnership in a residence, a partnership born out of the controversial Absentee Property Law … stems from pure greed.”
Kusa adds: “I have no doubt that if we were Jews the state would not be doing this. Our whole lives we have felt that we are part of this society. Even as a member of a minority I never considered anywhere else home. But it’s clear to me that if I were to convert, they would behave differently.”
Even now, with the echoes of their father’s battle still in their heads, the siblings say all they want is to resolve the dispute and acquire the state’s stake in the property. But they say the other side has no desire to reach a solution and is only interested in tapping the property’s value.
Amidar, which manages the ILA development arm’s assets, said in response that since 2005 it has been in contact with the family in an attempt to reach an accord over the sale of the lot, but the family has not been able to come to an agreement to acquire the property.
“In September 2007, Amidar filed a lawsuit in court over the use of the property without payment of rent to the company, in accordance with the assessment of appropriate usage fees,” the company says. It says Amidar’s development authority for Tel Aviv-Jaffa “would be pleased to cooperate with and come to an agreement with the family.”