Issam Akel was arrested in October 2018 by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and tortured for selling his property in Jerusalem to Jews, a crime that according to PA law carries the death penalty.
Fortunately, 55-year-old Akel happened to be a citizen of Israel and the U.S., a factor that saved his life according to Ateret Cohanim, the NGO which facilitated the sale of his home in Jerusalem’s Old City. The full story of Akel’s imprisonment and the efforts to release him were told for the first time by Ateret Cohanim executive director Daniel Luria in an exclusive interview with Breaking Israel News.
“It’s only now that I am willing to speak about our role in the saga,” Luria explained. “The topic is sensitive because even though Akel is now in the U.S., there may still be elements that would want to harm him. There are dire ramifications for other middle-men, past, present and future.”
The story begins in the context of internecine conflict between two Palestinian factions within Jerusalem’s Old City: Supporters of PA’s President Mahmoud Abbas and supporters of Mohammad Dahlan who staunchly opposed the rule of the PA.
Followers of Dahlan were trying to acquire a large building near the Flower Gate (Herod’s Gate) and their efforts were foiled by the PA. Due to this conflict between the Palestinians, Ateret Cohanim was able to step in and helped Jewish entities acquire the building, now called Bet Gitta.
“This turned Bet Gitta into a major issue for both Palestinian groups with each side trying to save face by showing that they were more militant in preventing the sale of land to Jews,” Luria explained to Breaking Israel News. “The PA came off looking worse so they needed a way to save face. Soon after, they discovered that another building in the Old City near the Flowers Gate had also been sold to Jewish concerns.”
When a Jewish owner acquired the property, Ateret Cohanim dedicated the building in memory of Ari Fuld, murdered by a Palestinian terrorist. Before he was killed in September 2018, Fuld was active in helping Ateret Cohanim acquire properties in the Old City.
“The PA accused Issam Akel of helping sell the property,” Luria explained. “Initially, they were unaware that he was an American citizen. Palestinian Authority security forces abducted and incarcerated Akel torturing him for several weeks. He was entirely cut off from the outside world. The methods they used to torture him were brutal, straight out of the Middle Ages. His house in Ramallah was ransacked. Eventually, he was tried and sentenced to life in prison with hard labor.”
Foreign organizations present in Israel to report humanitarian abuses were silent in the case of Akel.
“Why isn’t the UN, the EU, or the left-wing 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. And 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.”
The Palestinian law that forbids Palestinians selling their property to Israelis is vigorously enforced as each piece of property becomes a key element in the battle over Jerusalem.
These laws were first instituted by Jordan in 1948. The law has been reinforced by several Fatwas (religious proclamations), the original issued by Haj al-Amin Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem during the British Mandate. These Fatwas prohibiting the sale of land to Jews have been reiterated by his successors, most recently in 2018 as an expression of rejecting the possibility of compromise in President Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan.
Palestinians who sell land to Israelis can be sentenced to death. Punishments can also include hard labor to life imprisonment for Palestinians who sell, rent or mediate real estate transactions to Jews.
“We are engaged in business and the people we are dealing with in good faith are in mortal danger because of unethical and racist edicts,” Luria explained. “These laws would not be allowed to stand for five minutes in any Western nation and they do not exist in Israel. It is only the Palestinian Authority that gets away with it.”
Ateret Cohanim’s mission is to actively strengthen Jewish roots centered around educational institutes in and around Jerusalem’s Old City and working toward creating greater Jewish life in neighborhoods that today are devoid of such activities. To further this goal, Ateret Cohanim has been facilitating the legal acquisition of properties in Jerusalem’s Old City. Some of these properties were formerly owned by Jews driven out by Arab pogroms before Israel became a state.
“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 purchase land in Jerusalem.”
The major obstacle preventing Ateret Cohanim from achieving their goal is the PA law that prohibits selling property to Jews, defining it as an act of treason. 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.
“Arabs living in Jewish neighborhoods are not harassed, but Jews living among Palestinians are harassed, sometimes violently,” Luria added, referring to the concept of Judenrein, 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.”
Though Luria is correct that organizations claiming to champion humanitarian issues should be concerned about the treatment of Palestinians accused of selling land to Israelis, in reality, many of those left-wing NGOs side with the PA in this matter.
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.”
Persecution of Palestinians accused of selling land to Jews often continues even after death. 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. 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.”
In a strange twist, Ateret Cohanim has become the champion of the threatened Palestinians, while left-wing “humanitarian” organizations openly side with the PA in oppressing their own people.
“Redeeming a captive is one of the greatest commandments in the Torah,” Luria explained. “Rabbi Stern ruled at that time that redeeming an Arab imprisoned for selling land to Jews is considered as performing that mitzvah.”
Pressure placed on the PA from several angles led to the release of Akel. The Israeli police shut down a PA office in Jerusalem and arrested several PA operatives. Ateret Cohanim worked to shift the media focus onto the event. The U.S. government also exerted political pressure and in November, David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, called for the PA to release Akel.
The Pal Authority has been holding US citizen Isaam Akel in prison for ~2 months. His suspected “crime”? Selling land to a Jew. Akel’s incarceration is antithetical to the values of the US & to all who advocate the cause of peaceful coexistence. We demand his immediate release.
— David M. Friedman (@USAmbIsrael) November 28, 2018
“The Fatwa has existed for more than 80 years but pressure on the street against selling land to Jews has increased greatly in the last few years,” Luria said. “This is because every single house has significance in the battle for Jerusalem. Each sale, every house, every building establishes facts on the ground which influence whether or not Jerusalem will be divided.”
Luria suggested that concerned individuals can contact their elected officials and inform them of the situation. Tax-free donations can be made to the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim to help them in their “Battle for Jerusalem.”