Israeli court considers landmark property law cases

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Jerusalem

image captionThe Cliff Hotel is on a hill in a strategic location in Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem

An Israeli border guard gives a warning shout as we approach the Cliff Hotel at Abu Dis, on the edge of Jerusalem.

"We're too close now. I'm not comfortable. They are monitoring us from the roof and I don't want to provoke anyone," Ali Ayyad tells me.

The large building, erected by his father in 1954, was originally for residential use. It was converted into a hotel in the 1960s, and for many years Mr Ayyad was the manager.

"This is where I met my wife and many of my long-time friends. My daughters came here after they were born. We lived on the third floor. It was not just a home, it was a way of life," he recalls.

"It's got one of the most gorgeous views of Jerusalem you can imagine. We had 36 bedrooms and bathrooms and guests came from all across Europe. We had a beautiful garden with olive trees. Now that's destroyed."

In 1996, as the hotel was being renovated in a period of optimism following the Oslo Peace Accord, the Israeli army took it over citing a security need. However, it later withdrew after legal challenges.

Since 2003, the owners have faced several further attempts by Israeli authorities to seize the building. They are currently classed as "absentees" and the Custodian of Absentee Property controls the hotel.

"It's absurd. It's a subject I keep thinking about. How can the law find somebody absent when he or she very much exists? I have to keep pinching myself to show I'm present," Mr Ayyad says.

Although he lives just 300m (1,000ft) away and has other relatives nearby, the former hotelier has a West Bank ID rather than Jerusalem residency.

The Israeli authorities now say that his building - which is close to the 1949 armistice line - falls within the boundaries of Jerusalem.

Refugees' assets

Israel's Absentee Property Law was passed in 1950.

After the war that followed the creation of the state, it was the main legal mechanism used to take over homes and land that belonged to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had fled or were displaced.

"It was very important. It was the first step to take control of the assets of the Palestinian refugees after the 1948 war," says Professor Haim Sandberg, a land law expert at Israel's College of Management.

image captionThe Supreme Court decision could ultimately affect many Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem

"When some years passed, the assets were sold to the Israel Development Authority and Jewish National Fund. Money was paid to the Ministry of Finance and they are holding the money maybe to one day compensate the former Palestinian refugees."

From Palestinians' point of view, the law has always been controversial. The rights of refugees are a core issue in their conflict with Israel.

However, thousands more Palestinians who live in the West Bank but own property in East Jerusalem could be affected by a Supreme Court decision expected after a hearing on Tuesday.

The court is considering appeals in four cases, including that of the Cliff Hotel, where the Absentee Property Law has been applied. This may set a new precedent for its continued use.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Its annexation of the area is not recognised under international law.

Many of the Palestinians recently labelled as "absentees" have been cut off from their land by new structures like roads to Jewish settlements and Israel's separation barrier in and around the West Bank.

Sporadic application

In 2005, Israel's then-attorney general told the government to call an immediate halt to confiscating Palestinian property in East Jerusalem under the 1950 legislation. However the instruction has not always been followed.

"There has not been systematic use of the Absentee Property Law but there is sporadic use and as a result there have been contradictory court verdicts. That's why this is going to the Supreme Court," says Israeli lawyer Daniel Seidemann.

Several Israeli government departments contacted by the BBC did not want to comment on the court hearing.

"The Supreme Court will make its ruling on this," one official said. "Since Israel is a state of law, Palestinians can appeal to Israeli courts, as they did in this particular case."

Mr Ayyad is anxiously waiting to see what happens.

"This is my life you know, 10 years of fighting to try to get back what is ours, to be able to go to my home, to be able to have a legacy for my family like my father had for his children," he says.

Experts point out that the implications of the case could be far-reaching if Israel is given a green light to take over Palestinian-owned property around Jerusalem.

This could help cement its control over the eastern part of the holy city, which the Palestinians want as their capital under any future peace deal.