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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Palestinians fear for their lives as real estate battle rages in Jerusalem

Selling land to Jews is considered a 'dishonour' among Palestinians, a transaction punishable by death

Adnan Gheith (C), Palestinian governor of Jerusalem, is brought handcuffed to a remand hearing at the Magistrate's Court in Jerusalem on November 25, 2018. AFP
Adnan Gheith (C), Palestinian governor of Jerusalem, is brought handcuffed to a remand hearing at the Magistrate's Court in Jerusalem on November 25, 2018. AFP

Facing the door of the tomb of Jesus, Adeeb Joudeh sipped his coffee silently. The weather was gloomy and so was the custodian of the keys. Prayers echoed against the stone walls.

"When I received the phone call, my heart skipped a beat," he told The National. The news came from his former neighbours: Israeli Jews had moved into his family home.

Impossible, Mr Joudeh swears. The old city property was sold in 2016 to a Palestinian businessman, not to "the enemy," he claims. Few believe him.

The news spread around Jerusalem in less time than it takes to shout "dishonour". The sale of Palestinian homes to Israelis is an absolute taboo. And the controversy is even bigger when the property belongs to a well-known family: the Joudeh are the custodians of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from father to son since the Crusades.

"We are Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. To sell my house to Jews would be damaging not only to my family but to all Palestinians,” said Mr Joudeh, who has a reputation to defend. “I didn't do anything wrong. People must believe me!”

How the house was acquired by Israelis remains, for now, a mystery. “Who is the traitor?" people whisper in the streets of the old city.

A narrow lane winds from Herod's Gate to a dark iron door. Three knocks made a suspicious pair of eyes appear behind the first floor's window. It opened. A young man with a shaggy beard introduced himself as an Israeli guard in charge of the security of the Joudeh house's new tenants. He agreed to answer a few questions, but only through the steel bars of the window.

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"We can live together, right? It's amazing here," he told The National when asked why he would come to live in Jerusalem's Muslim neighbourhood. But the presence of a group of teenagers cut the conversation short. "We do not want Jews here," spited one of the teens.

In the neighbourhood, many insist they would never sell their homes to the other side. “Not even for 100 million dollars,” one resident told The National.

In the real estate battle raging in Jerusalem, there are few greater dishonours for a Palestinian than selling his property to the “enemy."

Indeed, Palestinians fear any transfer of land outside of the community would further dissolve their presence in the holy city while bringing Israel closer to an “undivided capital." The Jewish State, critics say, does not distinguish between ownership of land and sovereignty over it.

"Given the pressure on East Jerusalem – namely in terms of demolitions and lack of building permits - the maintenance of properties is considered a sacred duty, both politically and religiously. To abandon this duty is not only taboo. It is considered an irreparable moral fault," a Western diplomat posted in Jerusalem told The National. "Palestinians are well aware that when giving ownership to Israelis, there is no way back."

Under Palestinian law, the sale of land to Israelis is a crime punishable by death. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, however, has not authorised such sentences since he came to power in 2004. But faced with the huge sums of money that have been offered to buy Palestinian properties, leaders have been threatening.

Last month, as the controversy surrounding the Joudeh house began to stir, Muslim religious leaders in Jerusalem reaffirmed that any Palestinian involved in such transactions would be guilty of high treason. It was not an empty threat: last week, all cemeteries in East Jerusalem refused to bury the victim of a car accident because he was accused of that crime.

"He who sells his house has no soul. He does not take into account his family and the community, he only sees the money. Those people must be excluded from society and will never be buried in a Muslim cemetery," Sheikh Ikrima Al Sabri, former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories and now the head of the Supreme Islamic Council and the Al Aqsa mosque told The National.

"In 1935, my father was a signatory to a fatwa that banned the sale of land and houses to Jews. Today it was reiterated to remind Palestinians of this religious ban," he added.

PA security forces are now reportedly going after East Jerusalem residents on “direct orders” from Mr Abbas.

“Security forces are working day and night to bring to justice Palestinians selling properties to Israelis,” a Fatah spokesman told The National.

On Saturday night, the Israeli police arrested Adnan Gheith, the PA’s governor of Jerusalem, on suspicion of cooperating with the Palestinian security services to arrest an East Jerusalem resident suspected of selling his house to Jews.

While recent controversies have shaken up the holy city, the issue of property sales has always been a sub-theme of the Jewish-Arab conflict, even decades before the foundation of the State of Israel. In September 1932, the newspaper Al Jami'ah Al Arabiyyah exhorted that “there is no doubt that the question of the sale of land is about one of the greatest dangers that threaten the future of the country".

For years the newspaper severely criticised land brokers “dazzled by the Zionist gold.”

"The greatest handicap for rural Arabs in Palestine at the time was their impoverished economic condition. Most had no access to capital, so many felt they could transfer their lands or some of them in exchange for money. Few believed that these land sales would be catastrophic for the future of their living in Palestine," Professor Kenneth W Stein, director of the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and author of The Land Question in Palestine, told The National.

“In 1936 to 1939, there was an urgency among some Arab sellers to actively seek Jewish buyers. Same could be said about the period right after WWII. There never really was a limit to land availability, there was in fact from a Zionist viewpoint a shortage of money to buy all the lands that might have been purchased,” Mr Stein added.

“At different periods of time in the mandate and since, in the 1980s, 1990s and more recently, numerous Arab leaders threatened those Palestinians who sold their land or homes to Jews that they would be barred from being buried in a Muslim cemetery. Sometimes, worse retribution such as killing sellers or land brokers occurred. But the effort to stop sales was never really achieved."

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Much of the land that forms today's Israeli territory was gained through war and annexation. But by purchasing land in Mandate Palestine, Professor Kenneth W Stein argues, the Zionist movement created a “nucleus” for a state, which became critical to Israel's early development.

Decades later, the real estate battle rages on. Several organisations aiming at establishing Jewish settlements in the occupied territory through land purchase have developed in recent years, such as Ateret Cohanim, the Ir David Foundation (Elad) or the Israel Land Fund.

Arieh King, the director of the Israel Land Fund and a Jerusalem city councilman, describes his mission as "a national duty."

"Sometimes we approach owners to see if they would be willing to sell, but most often it is them who contact us. We receive offers [from Palestinians] every other day, sometimes up to three or four in a single day,” he told The National.

“Let me check my emails," he said, taking out his mobile phone. "Ah. Here, an email from Ahmed who wants to sell two properties in Jerusalem. The Arabs constantly make me offers. There, on Facebook, the same. A message from another Ahmed, an Abed... Amar... we actually don't have enough buyers for all the properties we are being approached for. If we had enough buyers this would be a different story."

The real estate agent himself has been living in East Jerusalem for more than twenty years on a settlement on top of the Mount of Olives bought by a Jewish-American millionaire. "Generally we pay at the market price, sometimes 10 or 15 per cent more. When you talk about a property worth several million shekels or even dollars, 10 per cent extra makes the difference. It's all about money," he insisted with a confusing franchise.

Mr King says he sometimes uses Arabs as intermediaries to facilitate sales and blur the tracks. Often, he claims, at the request of the Palestinian sellers, aware of the risks they take.

“They say: OK, give us also the option to leave Israel and go to Canada or Europe. So we help them with the immigration process," he said. "In my opinion, we kill two birds with one stone. We buy a land, and we take an Arab or a Muslim out of Israel. It's fantastic. It's my privilege to help them."

Additional reporting in Jerusalem by Thomas Dévényi