Palestinians Benefit as Israel-Turkey ties sour

Palestinians benefit
as Israel-Turkey ties sour

Jonathan Cook
The National (Abu Dhabi)
March 25. 2009

alt    
Fawziya Khurd stands in front of her tent in
East Jerusalem. The tent has been serving as a
home for the family ever since they were evicted.
This is just one of many of her tents the Israeli
police have torn down that were subsequently
replaced by local and international activists.
Photo: Anne Paqi/Activestills.org

Jerusalem — A legal battle being waged by Palestinian families to stop the
takeover of their neighbourhood in East Jerusalem by Jewish settlers
has received a major fillip from the recent souring of relations between Israel
and Turkey.

After the Israeli army’s assault on the Gaza Strip in January, lawyers for
the families were given access to Ottoman land registry archives in Ankara
for the first time, providing what they say is proof that title deeds produced
by the settlers are forged.

On Monday, Palestinian lawyers presented the Ottoman documents to an
Israeli court, which is expected to assess their validity over the next few
weeks. The lawyers hope that proceedings to evict about 500 residents from
Sheikh Jarrah will be halted.

The families’ unprecedented access to the Turkish archives may mark a
watershed, paving the way for successful appeals by other Palestinians in
East Jerusalem and the West Bank caught in legal disputes with settlers and
the Israeli government over land ownership.

Interest in the plight of Sheikh Jarrah’s residents peaked in November when
one couple, Fawziya and Mohammed Khurd, were evicted from their
home by an Israeli judge. Mr Khurd, who was chronically ill, died days later.

Meanwhile, Mrs Khurd, 63, has staged a protest by living in a tent on waste
ground close to her former home. Israeli police have torn down the tent six
times and she is facing a series of fines from the Jerusalem municipality.

The problems facing Mrs Khurd and the other residents derive from legal
claims by the Sephardi Jewry Association that it purchased Sheikh Jarrah’s
land in the 19th century. Settler groups hope to evict all the residents,
demolish their homes and build 200 apartments in their place.

The location is considered strategic by settler organisations because it is close
to the Old City and its Palestinian holy places.

Unusually, foreign diplomats, including from the United States, have
protested, saying eviction of the Palestinian families would undermine the
basis of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The help of the Turkish government has been crucial, however, because
Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire when the land transactions
supposedly took place.

Israel and Turkey have been close military and political allies for decades
and traditionally Ankara has avoided straining ties by becoming involved in
land disputes in the occupied territories. But there appears to have been
an about-turn in Turkish government policy since a diplomatic falling-out
between the two countries over Israel’s recent Gaza operation.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, accused his Israeli
counterpart, Ehud Olmert, of “lying” and “back-stabbing”, reportedly furious
that Israel launched its military operation without warning him. At the time
of the attack, Turkey was mediating peace negotiations between Israel and
Syria.

Days after the fighting ended in Gaza, Mr Erdogan stormed out of a meeting
of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, having accused Shimon Peres,
the Israeli president, of “knowing very well how to kill”.

According to lawyers acting for the Sheikh Jarrah families, the crisis in
relations has translated into a greater openness from Ankara in helping them
in their legal battle.

“We have noticed a dramatic change in the atmosphere now when we
approach Turkish officials,” said Hatem Abu Ahmad, one of Mrs Khurd’s
lawyers. “Before they did not dare upset Israel and put us off with excuses
about why they could not help.”

He said the families’ lawyers were finally invited to the archives in Ankara
in January, after they submitted requests over several months to the Turkish
consulate in Jerusalem and the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Officials in Turkey traced the documents the lawyers requested and provided
affidavits that the settlers’ land claims were forged. The search of the
Ottoman archives, Mr Abu Ahmad said, had failed to locate any title deeds
belonging to a Jewish group for the land in Sheikh Jarrah.

“Turkish officials have also told us that in future they will assist us whenever
we need help and that they are ready to trace similar documents relating
to other cases,” Mr Abu Ahmad said. “They even asked us if there were other
documents we were looking for.”

That could prove significant as the Jerusalem municipality threatens a new
campaign of house demolitions against Palestinians. Last week, Nabil Abu
Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the
recent issuing of dozens of demolition orders in Jerusalem “ethnic cleansing”.

Palestinian legal groups regularly argue that settlers forge documents in
a bid to grab land from private Palestinian owners but have great difficulty
proving their case.

Late last year the Associated Press news agency exposed a scam by settlers
regarding land on which they have built the Migron outpost, near Ramallah,
home to more than 40 Jewish families. The settlers’ documents were
supposedly signed by the Palestinian owner, Abdel Latif Sumarin, in
California in 2004, even though he died in 1961.

The families in Sheikh Jarrah ended up living in their current homes after
they were forced to flee from territory that became Israel during the 1948 war.
Jordan, which controlled East Jerusalem until Israel’s occupation in 1967,
and the United Nations gave the refugees plots on which to build homes.

Mrs Khurd said she would stay in her tent until she received justice.

“My family is originally from Talbiyeh,” she said, referring to what has
become today one of the wealthiest districts of West Jerusalem. “I am not
allowed to go back to the property that is rightfully mine, but these settlers
are given my home, which never belonged to them.”

Jonathan Cook is a British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His reports
on Israel-Palestine have been published in numerous journals and websites
including the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, Al Jazeera, New Statesman,
International Herald Tribune, Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), The National
(Abu Dhabi), Electronic Intifada and Counterpunch. His latest book is
Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books, 2009).
His two earlier books are Blood and Religion (Pluto Books, 2006) and Israel
and the Clash of Civilisations
(Pluto Books, 2008). He has his own website at
http://www.jkcook.net/index.html