Sunday, March 29, 2009

Turkey’s fallout with Israel deals blow to settlers: Ottoman archives show land deeds forged

Turkey’s fallout with Israel deals blow to settlers: Ottoman
archives show land deeds forged...

A legal battle being waged by Palestinian families to stop the takeover
of their neighborhood 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

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

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

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

`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.