Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ownership in the Jewish Quarter

Sovereignty and land ownership don't have to be connected. The fact that Israel transferred ownership of the stunning Sergei's Courtyard to Russia a few years ago meant that a government office which had been using the premises moved out - but there was no change in sovereignty.

Yet they are connected, and have been since 1937 at the latest: first, when the Peel Commission recommended partitioning Mandatory Palestine along ethnic lines, and then again in 1947 when the UN adopted a partition proposal based on the changes in the intervening decade. Assuming some day the territory which was once Mandatory Palestine will end up divided between Jews and Arabs, there is little doubt that the matter of who lives where will be relevant. Where people live often has to do with what property they own. The registration of property ownership, therefore, is crucial.

(The issue is also sensitive for not-unrelated historical reasons in some Eastern European countries, and perhaps elsewhere too. Israel is not unique in this way.)

In the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, however, the Jewish claim has little to do with legal ownership. The south-western corner inside the walls has been Jewish since the 13th century; documented modern legal titles to property can be traced back to the 19th century. Since most of Jerusalem's Jews until quite recently were the poorest of the poor, it ought not surprise anyone that many of them lived in rented apartments (or hovels) rather than owning them.

Which is the background to Y. Tamir's letter to Adi Yaffe of the Prime Minister's Office on August 30, 1967:
In the Jewish Quarter, there are about 100 empty structures and dozens of destroyed ones. Because of the hazy legal situation, there are all sorts of entities and groups, religious and non-religious, who are trying to move in, especially into the synagogues.

On the other hand, we cannot yet begin restoring the structures.

We have made plans with the Ministry of Construction to allocate funds to begin reconstruction. So as not to slow this down, we need to resolve the legal issues quickly; nor can we afford to lose control of the activity. In our discussions with the Ministry of Justice, we've delineated the area. The main question is which legal tool to use.

The Minister of Justice wishes us to declare the entire area as under survey, so as to block unauthorized activity; later we can take over buildings identified as Jewish-owned and reconstruct them.

My position is that we must take over all uninhabited parts of the area, irrespective of ownership. There's no simple way to know who owns what and it will take a very long time to piece it together, much longer than we can afford. In any case, we don't expect that more than 10-15% of the Quarter is owned by Jews, and that's not enough if we wish it to return to being the Jewish Quarter.

Please arrange this to be discussed in the cabinet as soon as possible.

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