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Palestinian families urge US to cancel Jerusalem embassy plans on stolen land

Heirs of original landowners whose property was confiscated by Israel in 1950 and two rights groups call on US Secretary of State and US Ambassador to Israel to halt construction plans
A worker on a crane hangs a US flag next to an Israeli flag, next to the entrance to the US consulate in Jerusalem on 7 May 2018 (Reuters)
A worker on a crane hangs a US flag next to an Israeli flag, next to the entrance to the US consulate in Jerusalem on 7 May 2018 (Reuters)

Two rights groups have called on the United States to immediately cancel plans to build a new embassy and diplomatic compound in Jerusalem on land which they say was confiscated from Palestinian families, including several who are US citizens

The call was made in a letter written by Adalah and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of the Palestinian families and sent on Thursday to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides.

"Should the US proceed with this plan, it would not only be complicit with Israel's illegal confiscation of Palestinian-owned land, but it would also become an active participant in the seizure of the land of US citizens," the organisations wrote.

'Refusing to acknowledge my rights of ownership? That's really painful'

- Ali Qleibo, Palestinian land owner

In February 2021, the US State Department and the Israel Land Authority submitted plans for a US diplomatic compound, following former US President Donald Trump's highly controversial May 2018 decision to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the American embassy from Tel Aviv.

Earlier this week, the plans were made open for a 60-day public comment period after which a final decision on the project will be made.

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In the 45-page letter, the two groups attached rental contracts between British Mandate authorities and Palestinian families who temporarily leased their land, which then made up part of the Allenby Barracks military base.

The land was confiscated by the Israeli government under the Absentees' Property Law, which grants the state the power to confiscate and impound Palestinian properties and assets that they were forced to leave behind during the Nakba.

The Nakba, or "the catastrophe", is the name Palestinians give to the massacres and forced expulsion they endured at the hands of Zionist militias in 1948, which left an estimated 15,000 indigenous Palestinians dead and some 750,000 displaced.

If the complex moves forward, Adalah and CCR said in the letter, it will be built "on land seized from Palestinians in violation of international law".

'Private property is sacred'

A portion of the land belong to Rashid Khalidi's family. Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, told Middle East Eye on Friday that the letter should "put the US government in a very embarassing position".

"Private property is the cornerstone of American capitalism. Private property is sacred," he said. "And here we have a case where an allied government has taken the property of people, including US citizens, and the US government is complicit in this theft by building on this private property."

Ali Qleibo's family also owned some of the land slated for the new complex. Qleibo, a Jerusalem-based artist, author and antropologist, told MEE that although Adalah made the historic contracts public in July, he has yet to hear from the US government.

"Refusing to acknowledge my rights of ownership? That's really painful," he said. "They haven't contacted me."

In 1948, Qleibo said his family remained in Jerusalem. "The war stopped one kilometre from our house," he explained.

However, the land, which the family had rented to the British, was seized by Israeli authorities in 1950 and to this day Qleibo still passes by it. "We have to deal with it everyday. It's a wound that never heals," he said.

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But, he said, it's not only the land for the proposed embassy that is at stake, but also all Palestinian land seized under the 1950 law. "This case epitomises it. It is not simply the property. It is all of our rights. We have no rights over our properties," he said.

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer and Adalah's legal director and director of land and planning rights unit, told MEE that she hopes the State Department will agree to a meeting with her organisation, CCR and the property owners. 

So far, she said, the only contact they've had from the US government following the July release of the historic rental documents is a State Department statement shared with media that due diligence is conducted on all prospective sites for US facilities.

According to Adalah and CCR's letter, it is not clear whether that due diligence turned up the Palestinian ownership of the property, or more broadly, whether the property rights of Palestinians, including US citizens, were criteria taken into consideration.

Khalidi said he has major questions about what the American investigation into the property entailed, noting that Palestinian scholars told the State Department in the late 1980s about the ownership of the property.

"Their claim of due diligence doesn’t require them to go to Jerusalem and walk to the site. They can simply go to their archives and see that a very careful study was sent to them and they would recognise that they received it, way back when," he said.

“The documents are incontrovertible. The British government was paying these families for this property well after 1948. So as far as the British government was concerned, this was the property of these families well into the early 1950s."

Bishara said now that the organisations and families have addressed US authorities officially, she hoped they would agree to meet, particularly given that the clock is now ticking on the public comment period for the project.

The State Department did not respond to MEE's request for comment.

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