An admittedly pro-Israel and frequently maligned right-wing Israeli non-governmental organization with the stated mission of strengthening the Jewish presence in Jerusalem has is becoming a powerful force working to help Palestinians and Jews retain their civil liberties. In a strange twist, their detractors, left-wing “humanitarian” NGO’s are siding with the Palestinian Authority in punishing Palestinians for selling their property to Jews.
Daniel Luria, Ateret Cohanim’s (“Crown of Priests” in Hebrew) executive director, has no false pretensions to be running a humanitarian non-governmental organization (NGO). His is a non-profit organization with the stated mission of actively strengthening Jewish roots centered around educational institutes in and around the Old City and working toward creating greater Jewish life in neighborhoods that today are devoid of such life. The organization accomplishes this by facilitating the purchases of properties and though it may seem absurd, it is difficult in the extreme for Jews to purchase Arab-owned property in Jerusalem.
“In every case, there is an Arab who wants to sell and a Jew who wants to buy,” Luria told Breaking Israel News. “No one is a victim. In a normal market, this would be a straightforward real-estate transaction and would be quite simple.”
But in the Middle East, even the simple becomes complex. The greatest obstacle to purchasing properties is a Palestinian Authority (PA) law based on a Fatwa (Muslim edict), that forbids Palestinians selling their property to Israelis. The law is vigorously enforced. Palestinians who sell land to Israelis can be sentenced to death, hard labor, or life imprisonment for Palestinians who sell, rent or mediate real estate transactions to Jews. Ateret Cohanim must go to great lengths to protect the sellers.
“The Palestinians cannot be seen as selling to a Jew,” Luria explained. “But if he wants to sell his property, as any homeowner should have the right to do, he cannot do so without the PA, Hamas, and Waqf (Muslim authority) threatening his life. In order to facilitate the sales, we are forced to put a lot of energy and resources into protecting the Arabs and their right to sell.”
Protecting Palestinians is not his primary mission but the organizations responsible for ensuring human rights and the rights of Palestinians do not relate to the situation at all.
“Why isn’t the UN, the EU, or the bleeding heart left-wing liberals jumping up and down to cancel these laws?” Luria asked rhetorically. “That is the hypocrisy. This should be at the top of the list for humanitarian organizations. Palestinians should be free to sell their land if they choose. The treatment of those accused is horrific.”
Luria noted that the PA Law and Muslim edict dating back to the anti-Jewish Mufti Haj Amin El Husseini is explicitly racist.
“The last time Jews were forbidden from living among non-Jews it was called Judenrein,” Luria said, using the Nazi term for an area that was ethnically cleansed of Jews. “It is absurd that in this day and age it is illegal for a Jew to purchase a specific property simply because he is a Jew. Especially in Israel. No one makes a fuss when Arabs buy property in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem or in other areas of Israel. There is no Israeli law preventing the sale of Jewish land to Arabs and Jews are certainly not tortured or killed for doing so.”
Despite the best efforts of Ateret Cohanim, the PA persecutes Arabs who sell their property or even assist the sale of properties to Jews. One such case was Issam Akel, who was arrested in October 2018 by the PA on charges of allegedly facilitating a sale of a building in the Old City of Jerusalem, as a “middleman” to Jews. Akel was first abducted by the PA from Jerusalem and then tortured by the PA in a Ramallah jail. Fortunately, 55-year-old Akel happened to be a citizen of Israel and the U.S., factors that saved his life.
“It is unbelievable that a man was abducted tortured in this day and age,” Luria said. “We felt that because he suffered because of allegedly dealing with us, we should help him. He was thrown out of his house and fled overseas. We are helping him to settle in as best we can. All of our sales have been on a cordial basis. We are not the enemy of the Palestinian homeowners. They want to sell and while we help them in any way possible, the enemy in these transactions is the PA.”
In another case, rabbis stepped in to help Palestinians persecuted by the Muslims authorities. In November, at the same time Akel was being tortured in a PA prison, Ala’ Qirresh, a Muslim resident of Jerusalem, died in a tragic car accident. His family was prevented from burying him by other Arabs because Qirresh had been accused of having a role in selling land to Jews, many years beforehand. He was on their “books” and lost his status as a Moslem Arab with rights to be buried in a Moslem cemetery. The case was brought to the attention of Jerusalem’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern by a right-wing Israeli NGO and the rabbi approved the burial of Qirresh inside a Jewish cemetery, referring to the Arab man as “a righteous gentile.”
“This even goes beyond preventing the sales,” Luria said. “It was horrible for the family to be forbidden from burying their loved one.”
In a strange twist, NGO’s that profess to be humanitarian, working for Palestinian rights, are often the causes of Palestinian suffering. In 2016, Nasser Nawaja, a Palestinian field researcher for the human rights group B’Tselem, and Ezra Nawi, a Jewish resident of Jerusalem and a key figure in the pro-Palestinian, pro-BDS group Ta’ayush, were recorded discussing how they turned these potential Palestinian sellers over to the PA. In the recording, they acknowledged that the people they informed on were frequently killed. Rather than reject Nawaja’s actions and decry the murder of the Palestinian sellers, B’Tselem issued a statement on its Facebook page, saying that while it opposed tortures and executions, reporting Palestinians interested in selling land to Israelis to the PA was “the only legitimate course of action.”
The danger is very real and in 2012, a retired Palestinian security officer was arrested by the PA on charges of collaborating with Israel and being involved in land transactions with Israelis. He died one month later after falling from a window while being held in Palestinian custody.
“In every case we deal with, there is a willing seller and a willing buyer,” Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim explained to Breaking Israel News. “There is no lack of Arabs who would like to sell their property,” Luria said. “And as Jews, we are very interested in helping to facilitate such purchases in Jerusalem.”
In many cases, the Arabs are illegal squatters, living in a property that was owned by Jews prior to the creation of the state. But Ateret Cohanim is dedicated to facilitating real estate transactions and has resorted to court-ordered eviction in only one case. Ateret Cohanim facilitated the purchase of several properties in the Kfar HaShiloach neighborhood (also an Arab neighborhood of Silwan), an area that was a Yemenite village until Arab violence forced the British mandate forces to evacuate the Jews in 1938. The family that was illegally occupying the synagogue refused to sell the property at any price.
“They were offered money, much more than fair market value, and they refused,” Luria said. “There was really no choice. So the old Yemenite Sanctified Trust took them to court and it became clear that they had no right to the property and were illegally squatting.”
Two years ago, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of the original Jewish owners and the building was rededicated as a synagogue. Despite the history of the land belonging to Jews and the absolutely legal process of purchases facilitated by Ateret Cohanim, the organization is the target of the left-wing anti-Israel media which object to Arabs selling land to Jews.
“Arabs living in Jewish neighborhoods are not harassed, but Jews living among Palestinians are harassed, sometimes violently,” Luria added, referring to a Nazi term designating an area that was “cleansed” of Jews during the Holocaust. “You would hope that it was a thing of the past but tragically, Judenrein exists here in Israel under the Palestinian Authority and other extreme Moslem groups.”
“One of the end results of our efforts will be actual coexistence,” Luria said. “As citizens of Israel who accept our national sovereignty, any Jew, Muslim, or Christian should be allowed to live anywhere in the country and to dispose of his property as he sees fit. Any citizen who is violent or advocates violence should be permitted to continue, especially when the violence is racially motivated. There really is no shortage of Arabs who want to live side-by-side with Jews if they would be allowed to do so and this is the only path to tolerance and coexistence.”
Admittedly, there is usually friction when Jewish families move into predominantly Arab neighborhoods but Luria doesn’t see this as a deterrent.
“The Arabs have been indoctrinated into hostility,” Luria said. “There is ongoing incitement. But that dies down when they see that we aren’t moving. Strength of conviction makes all the difference.”
Luria cited a Biblical precedent for this tactic.
And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. Numbers 13:33
“If you show courage and conviction, the Arabs understand and respect that,” Luria said.
He also noted that it was practically advantageous for the Palestinians to coexist with the Jews. After the Jews moved into Silwan, they were distressed at the lack of sanitation. The garbage disposal provided by the municipality was insufficient. In addition, several stairways in areas of public access were dangerously in disrepair.
“We worked with our Arab neighbors to get these problems fixed,” Luria said. “Unfortunately, the only reason it was fixed was because the Jews moved back in. Now there is better police protection, for the Jewish residents as well as the Arabs. It is unfortunate that it took Jewish voices to improve the situation but in this case, that is what happened.”
“I don’t expect the Arabs to gather around for a group photo, smiling with us, but they are clearly seeing the benefits of coexistence,” Luria concluded.