East Jerusalem is the cultural capital of the Palestinian people and the would-be capital of any future state of Palestine. For this reason, it has been a target for the illegal Israeli settlement movement since at least the 1980s. Since then, many Israeli settler organizations have tried to buy property in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem.
Despite the fact that the Israeli state controls housing policy in occupied East Jerusalem, such attempts have often been unsuccessful. Selling properties to Jews remains taboo for Palestinians, as it is seen as aiding the illegal Israeli expansion into Palestinian land. Recently however, it is alleged that certain Israeli settler organizations have found a way around this.
Residents of East-Jerusalem are alleging that Israeli settler organizations are using Palestinians as middlemen in order to buy properties in Palestinian areas, many of which are adjacent to Muslim and Christian holy-sites such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is how it works. The Palestinian individual will front the bid, but it is then Israeli settlers who actually move into the home.
Many instances of this sleight of hand would likely not survive detailed research by the buyer, but those who do this often prey on Palestinians who are under financial pressure and therefore more likely to overlook certain finer details. This is compounded by the fact that buyers often pay far more than the true value of the house.
Upon securing a property, the Palestinian “investor” will sign over the ownership of the property to an offshore company, a transaction that often happens immediately. The ownership is then transferred to the settler organization at some later date. One example is the sale of the house of the Joudeh family.
All over East Jerusalem, this subterfuge scheme is tearing communities apart.
The Joudehs sold their home to a Palestinian man named Khaled al-Attari, who immediately transferred the deed for the property to an offshore company called Daho Holdings. The house then found its way into the hands of settlers. Al-Attari claims he was hoodwinked and did not know the property would become inhabited by settlers. When neighbors found out what had happened, they turned their ire on the Joudeh family. All over East Jerusalem, this subterfuge scheme is tearing communities apart.
Such purchases are common in the neighborhood of Silwan. There, in 2014, two Palestinian brokers named Shams al-Din al-Qawasmi and Fareed Hajj Yahya bought a number of homes that ended up in the hands of Israeli settlers. The Palestinian sellers believed that al-Qawasmi was buying their homes on behalf of UAE-based charities. Hajj Yahya was known to work for an Emirati charity.
Jerusalem-based lawyer Khaled Zabarqa, who works with affected families in East Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera: “When a person agrees to sell, . . . they’ve exhausted all options. . . . They can no longer manage the debts they owe. When an Emirati organization offers to purchase the property, they see it as a chance to get out of the mess they’re in.”
In many cases, buyers will pay three or four times the value of the house, an offer that will be near impossible to refuse for a Palestinian family in difficult financial straits. In 2014 alone, al-Qawasmi and Hajj Yahya sold around 25 Palestinian homes to Israeli settlers.
According to Professor Abdulsattar Qassim of An-Najah University, the use of Palestinian middlemen is not merely to make sellers more sympathetic. “They want the Palestinians involved in selling real estate . . . so, in the future, if there is someone to blame for losing Jerusalem, it’s the Palestinians, not the Gulf or other Arab states,” he said.
In an unlikely twist, some claim that the sale of Palestinian homes to settlers is motivated by internal Palestinian politics.
In an unlikely twist, some claim that the sale of Palestinian homes to settlers is motivated by internal Palestinian politics. Palestinian businessman Fadi el-Salameen had his bank account frozen by the Palestinian Authority (PA) when he tried to sell his home. The PA accused el-Salameen of using the account to harbor “suspicious funds.”
Palestinian Attorney General Ahmad Barak claimed that el-Salameen’s account received funds from a company owned by a major political competitor of the current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a man named Mohammed Dahlan. Dahlan currently works in the UAE as a special advisor for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi.
Such connections have led many to speculate that high-ranking officials in the UAE are involved in the sale of Palestinian homes to settlers.
Such connections have led many to speculate that high-ranking officials in the UAE are involved in the sale of Palestinian homes to settlers. “Emirati businessmen are behind this deal, and . . . no doubt that they got help from certain Palestinians, who help them pass these deals,” said Kamal al-Khatib, deputy leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
According to Professor Qassim: “Most of the brokers are Palestinians and those that receive bribes from these brokers are influential Palestinians from within the Palestinian Authority.” It is these kinds of speculations that may provide an explanation as to why the PA does not do a better job in researching the identities of potential buyers.
While the PA governs the West Bank and does not have any direct political power in Jerusalem, residents of East Jerusalem often ask the PA to use their intelligence capabilities to research the backgrounds of those selling homes in the city. These investigations often yield no fruit.
It would appear therefore that there is more to this than meets the eye. Adnan al-Hosayni, former PA governor of Jerusalem, signed off on the deal between al-Attari and Joudeh, and both al-Qawasmi and Hajj Yahya had received PA clearance. As the PA has no direct jurisdiction over East Jerusalem, Palestinians caught in this scam have no obvious authority to turn to.
Many have resorted to monitoring the situation themselves. A man named Kamal Qweider monitors home acquisitions to the best of his abilities using Facebook. “We have no one to turn to. . . . Anyone can sell . . . . There is no responsible authority we can go to for help. I have documents and papers, but who do I take them to?,” he says. The PA announced an official investigation into these matters, but its findings, if any, were never published.
Frustration is mounting in the Palestinian Arab population of East Jerusalem, as more settlers move in every month. In an already dire situation, this is yet another nail in the coffin of any future Palestinian state, right in the heart of its intended capital.