Palestinian hotel at heart of legal battle

The Ayyad family is determined to get back its property, which lies on the route of Israel’s separation barrier.

The Ayyads’ fight for Cliff Hotel is existential, literally. Ali Ayyad and his siblings have been battling in Israeli courts for over a decade to reclaim the property that’s been in the family for generations.

Originally the family’s residence, the four-storey building overlooking occupied East Jerusalem was established in 1953. Turned into a hotel in 1961, it received visitors from around the world until it was closed for renovations in 1996.

A legal challenge ended a 10-day Israeli army take-over of the hotel in 1996 – but did not end the harassment, Ali who’s been managing the hotel, told Al Jazeera.

In 2003, when Israel started erecting the separation wall, the hotel was turned into a military base and confiscated. The argument used was that the property fell in Jerusalem and because the family lived in the West Bank they are absent, according to Israeli law, and since have no right to claim ownership.

“That’s when the legal circus kicked off,” Ali said.

The result so far: too many court sessions to count, and a wall that remains uncompleted because of one family’s determination.

Illegaly seized

Despite the fact that the Israeli Supreme Court is yet to rule on whether the property was illegally seized and decide on the wall route, bulldozers have already started putting up concrete blocks cutting Cliff Hotel off from Abu Dis.

Four times since the start of 2014, the family was able to get injunction orders to stop the construction crews from laying more segments of the wall.

If it is to be built on its current route, the wall will block the Ayyads from their hotel and the 3,000 square metre of land it’s built on, with a very slim chance of getting it back.

Living in occupied Palestine long enough to be a pessoptimist, Ali knows that the wall will be built at the end of the day – cutting off occupied East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. But, he remains determined and hopeful that it won’t separate him from his property – like it did with many other Palestinians.

“If the wall stands between me and that building, next time you’ll see me here I’ll be holding my keys and the deed,” Ali said.

The hotel was always considered part of the West Bank town of Abu Dis. The family had never abandoned it, until they were banned from entry by the Israeli army. Even now they live within a few hundred metres.

This Kafkaesque situation whereby Israel changes municipal borders and extends laws as it sees fit made the Cliff Hotel case a landmark.

“Every time we’re at the court, I have to pinch myself,” Ali said.

The Absentees’ Property Law Israel cited to confiscate Cliff Hotel is one of the most controversial. Enacted in 1950, it was used to regulate the transfer of Palestinian refugees’ property into the hands of the newly established Israeli state.

Although the size of land and property affected by implementing the law in occupied East Jerusalem remains unclear, the Palestine Liberation Organisation estimates that only 13 percent is left for Palestinian use in the city.

Legal grey zone

Applying the Absentees’ Property Law to the illegally annexed occupied East Jerusalem has been problematic, even to Israeli lawmakers – most Israeli attorney generals refrained from applying it in Jerusalem from 1968 until 2003.

Most recently, in September 2013. the Israeli attorney general backtracked from an earlier opinion in which he said it would be appropriate to implement the Absentees’ Property Law in East Jerusalem in a measured fashion, citing obstacles posed by international and administrative law.

In an attempt to spare the Israeli Supreme Court to decide if the law applies in East Jerusalem, the Israeli judges said they preferred a “practical solution” to opening a Pandora’s box by setting a precedent.

The “practical solution” suggested by the persecution was retracting from describing the Ayyads as absent – at least four of the seven heirs, holding Palestinian IDs. However, it said releasing the property needs to take security concerns into account.

The Ayyads and their lawyers turned down the suggestion.

“There is no reason to release the property except for the desire to dismiss this appeal and to prevent the discussion of the question of the absenteeism,” Avigdor Feldman, representing the Ayyads, told Haaretz earlier.

“What does negative security material have to do with property rights?” Feldman added.

Ali now has no option but to wait for another court order, expected within weeks. This one will be final. Yet the 60-year-old Palestinian said that no matter what, he’ll carry on the fight.

“They can’t confiscate my property, same way they can’t deny my existence, I don’t need to prove it, I’m here and my property is there,” Ali said. “Now or later, I will get it back.”

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