Playing Monopoly: Jerusalem’s Real-Estate Battles Reach A Climax
Efforts underway for the release of a Palestinian-American accused of selling land to Jewish buyers
After considerable pressure from the U.S. Embassy, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is reportedly moving to extradite a Palestinian-American resident of east Jerusalem to the United States after a Ramallah court sentenced him to life in prison at hard labor for allegedly violating a Palestinian law against selling property to Israeli Jews.
Issam Akel, who holds American and Israeli citizenship, was detained by Palestinian security forces in October and later charged for allegedly attempting to sell his property located in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of east Jerusalem to the Jewish organization Ateret Kohanim, which buys property from Arab owners willing to sell in order to secure the Jewish character of Jerusalem.
The PA’s judiciary media office stated that the offender was “attempting to sever parts of Palestinian land and annex it to a foreign state… In light of the conviction, the court handed down a life sentence with hard labor.”
In recent months, Palestinian authorities have cracked down on Palestinians as well as Israeli-Arabs who were alleged to have sold or were taking steps to sell their real-estate to Jews.
Although the PA does not have jurisdiction to operate in Israel-controlled areas according to the 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement – a follow-up treaty to the Oslo Accords – its security personnel are suspected of contravening the pact in order to apprehend alleged violators of the property transaction law. Palestinian officials have been intent on limiting such property sales to prevent Jewish buyers or organizations from establishing a foothold in areas they deem to be “occupied.”
In November, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman called on the PA to release Akel. Friedman tweeted that his “incarceration is antithetical to the values of the US & to all who advocate the cause of peaceful coexistence. We demand his immediate release.”
Attorney Mark Zell, chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, told The Media Line that the Akel case “is one of the most outrageous violations of an American citizen’s human rights that I have witnessed in my career.
“Concerned Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and others must do everything they can to secure the release of this innocent man.”
Daniel Luria, spokesman for Ateret Kohanim, a right-wing Israeli NGO that supports Jews living in all parts of Jerusalem, told The Media Line that “there is a major problem in the city’s real-estate sector with regard to Israeli legislation versus Muslim edicts and laws.
“We believe that Jews, Muslims and Christians have a right to buy or sell in any neighborhood and live together in peace. But unfortunately, the same attitude and goals are not part of certain sectors of the Muslim world where the agenda is quite clearly ‘judenrein’ [a German word for ‘free of Jews’],” Luria said.
The Palestinian ban is based on several fatwas (Islamic rulings) which declare that Muslims can be killed, tortured and arrested for either selling or facilitating the sale of land to Jews.
“Anyone who is suspected of taking part in real-estate deals to Jews is basically shunned by the Palestinian community,” he added. “This happened three or four weeks ago when a man believed to have sold land to Jews died in a car crash. The Wakf [Jordanian Islamic trust which administers areas sacred to Muslims], PA and various voices of the community refused to allow this person to be buried in a Muslim cemetery. This is just absurd.”
In a reverse-case scenario in which a Jew sells property to a Muslim, “there is no Israeli law limiting that individual from doing so,” he continued, adding that many Arab Muslims have already purchased homes in predominately Jewish neighborhoods of the city like Armona Natziv and the French Hill.
Yifa Segal, Director of the International Legal Forum, an organization that promotes justice, equality and human rights in the Middle East, told The Media Line that Akel being an American “likely helped him survive.”
“But the more troubling fact is that in the last month alone there were 40 men arrested under the same alleged charges. They are not American citizens, and if nothing changes in the international arena they will likely face a death sentence or life imprisonment with hard labor. These types of punishments belong to the darkest days of human existence,” Segal asserted.
“Unfortunately, on this issue, you see no response from any one of those entities – such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and B’Tselem – that you expect would be the champions of human rights. They have not reacted neither to Akel’s case nor to the other 40 individuals.”
On the Israeli side, she added, “there is absolutely no way that a Jew could say ‘I can’t sell to an Arab’ and that would be fine. We have anti-discrimination laws in place against such attitudes. This is light-years away from the situation in the PA.”
Nevertheless, both Luria and Segal admit that social pressure among Israeli Jews against land sales to Arabs inevitably exists in this contentious context.
Israel captured and annexed east Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967, a move the international community has not recognized. According to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, 214,600 Israeli-Jews out of a total population of 542,000 reside in his disputed area. Sovereignty over the city has remained a major bone of contention in past peace negotiations.
In May, President Trump made good on his promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. However, his position on east Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state remains to be seen.