In Precedent, District Court Refuses to Boot Israelis Out of Disputed Homes

View of the courtroom at the High Court in Yerushalayim. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rightwing MKs on Wednesday hailed a decision by the Yerushalayim District Court to reject demands by Arabs and leftists that the neighborhood of Mitzpe Cramim of the Binyamin town of Kochav Hashachar be demolished, based on claims by Arabs that the land belongs to them. The court said that the claims – which were not backed up by evidence – was not sufficient to evict residents of the neighborhood, and that the petitioners should accept compromise arrangements offered by the state for compensation.

The decision was based on the legal principle of “the rule of the marketplace” (takanat hashuk), which prescribes compromise in the event of competing claims, where one of the claimants has possession of the disputed property.

Mitzpe Cramim was established at its current location in 1999, on land that was deeded to the World Zionist Organization in 1981 by the State Authority for Abandoned Property in Yehudah and Shomron. In 2011, three Arabs filed a petition with the High Court claiming that the land on which part of the neighborhood was built belonged to them, and residents – based on a newly-passed law – then turned to the district court to rule on the legal status of the various orders and ordinances that were issued allowing them to use the land.

In its decision, the court said that since the seizure and allocation of the land was done without ill intention – as no one had protested the process for 20 years – there was no place to cancel the allocation retroactively, especially if the claim was not backed up by solid evidence.

Rightwing MKs greeted the decision with joy. Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that he was “happy that logic and fairness prevailed. This was a wise decision that came after an extended struggle by residents.” Jewish Home MK Betzalel Smotrich said that “this is a small step, but it shows a big promise for the future. This decision was a ‘knockout’ of the High Court. I am happy that proper thought prevailed.” Yesha Council head Hananel Dorani said that “we have been looking forward to this for a long time. After many years of delayed justice, residents of Mitzpe Cramim will finally attain legal status for their neighborhood.”

Less enthusiastic about the decision were leftwing MKs. In a statement, Meretz said that “unfortunately, when it comes to issues involving the Arrangements Law, the courts are turning into a branch of the Yesha Council. Any authorization of illegal settlement is a dangerous precedent that signals to settlers that they can continue with their criminal activities, further harming the chance for a two-state solution.”

The case was the first test of a law passed by the Knesset in July that allows legal matters in Yehudah and Shomron regarding planning and construction to be heard in district courts, as opposed to being adjudicated in the High Court. Under the law, Palestinians who claim that land Israelis built homes on actually belongs to them will have to take their claims to the Yerushalayim District Court, as opposed to the High Court, as had been the case until recently.

The law is based on a measure passed in the year 2000 that promises Israelis who face legal challenges on matters of construction and planning the opportunity to appeal decisions that go against them, a law that has been upheld by the High Court several times. Until now, that law did not apply to Yehudah and Shomron; there, residents were forced to take their issues directly to the High Court, whose decision is final and does not generally allow for appeals.

In addition, because the court’s calendar is so crowded, issues of less importance, such as individual appeals and lawsuits, often found them pushed back on the court’s calendar, and some cases lingered for years before being heard, according to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, one of the sponsors of the bill. As Israeli citizens, residents of Judea and Samaria are entitled to the same legal treatment as residents of Israelis who live within the 1948 borders – hence the proposal, he said.

While the law will be important for individuals who have legal issues surrounding additions or changes in their homes, its greatest utility will be in issues of Palestinians challenging Israeli construction on land they claim, she said. As soon as such cases are heard by the High Court, it usually issues an injunction against further construction, and often requires demolition of the structures on the disputed land – even though there is generally no evidence presented by Palestinians beyond a verbal claim. The district courts require evidence, which Palestinians often cannot furnish.

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