Israeli law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting Israel. This dispatch is from Mayan Lawent, a law student in the Buchmann Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University and a JURIST Staff Correspondent in Israel.
Last week, on April 4th, the Supreme Court of Israel handed down a ruling that ended a thirty-year property dispute between a right-wing-funded developer and an East Jerusalem family.
The original owner of the property, Musa Sumarin, who passed away in 1983, had sold the house to a family member, Muhammad Sumarin, before his death. In addition to the sale, Muhammad had received license from Musa to live in the home for as long as he wished, given that he had taken care of Musa for many years. His receiving of the house was undisputed by Musa’s two sons, who were at the time, absent and living in Jordan.
In 1987 the Sumarin family home was mistakenly classified as absentee property according to the Absentee Property law which was enacted in 1950. This law states that the property of a person who is in an enemy country goes to the Custodian of Absentee Property (a government position). Even though the Sumarin family had been living continuously at the residence, an affidavit had been filed claiming the property as absentee. As a result of this error, in 1988 the residence was sold to a developer who has been known to be backed by extremist right-wing organizations.
Though the error was corrected in 1989, in 1991 a lawsuit was filed to evict the Sumarin family from their home, alerting them to the controversy surrounding their property.
In 1994, the Magistrate Court rejected the eviction claim. The developer filed an appeal claiming the paperwork shown by the Sumarin family was not reliable.
In 1996, the District Court decided the property was again classified as absentee as both of Musa’s sons were absent and living in Jordan. The District Court returned the case to the Magistrate Court to decide whether or not the Sumarin family’s contractual rights superseded the developer’s rights.
In 1999, The Magistrate Court again affirmed the Sumarin’s family right to continue living in their home.
In 2004, this decision was overturned as a result, in part, of the Sumarin family failing to file a summary of their claims with the court and therefore abandoning their claims. The Sumarin family filed an appeal in 2005, which was rejected as they failed to deposit a bond.
To make a long story short, a back and forth of eviction claims and defense claims filled the next 19 years, culminating in 2019 when the Magistrate Court accepted the developer’s claims that res judicata applies (claim preclusion – once a final judgment has been decided in a lawsuit, this judgment is preserved in substantially similar issues) and ruled to evict the Sumarin family. Though the Sumarin family appealed to the District Court, it was rejected.
The case then moved to the Supreme Court of Appeals in 2022. Just a few days ago, the Sumarin family’s appeal was accepted, and the developer was ordered to pay 20,000 NIS in legal fees. In the decision, the Court admonished the State, saying “This is not a property that became absentee due to the events of the War of Independence. This is a property that belonged to the Sumarin family and became absentee due to the vicissitudes of the family’s life. It is possible that from a formal point of view the State is right in its claims on the question of ownership. However, this complex history of the declaration property as an absentee cast an additional shadow on the ongoing attempts to evict the family members from it, one that should have been reflected even in the position of the State.”
Why is this case and the message it sends important? Over the past 70 years there has been a quiet yet intense battle for control over property in East Jerusalem. Extremist right-wing groups use property law and land registration to wrest control of property from Arab residents, resulting many times in the eviction of families from their homes.
A well-known example is the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. For years, legal proceedings have been ongoing regarding the question of ownership of the land, which is currently mostly inhabited by Palestinian refugees who legally settled there from the 1950s onwards. In the past, Palestinians were evicted from their homes due to proprietary claims based on a law which states that properties that were held in Jewish ownership before 1948 are to be returned to their Jewish owners. These caused great controversy, and in 2021 the resulting protests were intense and at times violent.
Though the case of the Sumarin family is not based in the same legal arguments as Sheikh Jarrah, it is part of the larger fight for control of property in East Jerusalem through legal means.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Sumarin case and the message it sends will no doubt have a valuable influence on future eviction cases and bolster the protection of East Jerusalem residents.