How the ‘Poor People of Galicia’ Defeated an Elderly Palestinian Couple

Nura Gheith Sub Laban has lived in the same home in the Muslim Quarter since she was born. From 1967, she’s been on a Kafkaesque journey paved with lawsuits and harassment with only one goal: to kick her out

The “poor people of Galicia” have defeated Norat Gheith Sub Laban. The apartment where she was born in 1955, and which has been her home ever since, must be vacated. This is what the court decided, in accordance with the demand of the public endowment that is supposed to take care of these anonymous poor Ashkenazim, and who own the building.

The date set for the eviction was March 15, almost two months ago. The date has passed and Norat and her husband, Mustafa Sub Laban, are still there. They refuse to voluntarily leave the apartment at 33 Aqbat Al Khalidiyah Street in Jerusalem, where many blue and white flags (nothing to do with the protesters against the judicial overhaul) fly from several of its Jewish-inhabited homes.

“Once, one of my grandchildren put a small Palestinian flag between the bars of the window, the kind you get in kindergarten,” she told me in an interview last month. “I didn’t even notice it. Suddenly, a police officer came – apparently, one of the Jewish neighbors called him and he demanded that I remove the flag. ‘This is Israel, not Palestine,’ he said to me.” Now she and her husband rarely leave the apartment. Perhaps they are expecting a miracle. “Sometimes I embolen him, sometimes he emboldens me,” Norat summarizes.

Theirs is not an isolated case. According to the UN, another 218 Palestinian families in Jerusalem – 970 people, among them 424 children – face a similar risk of eviction. This doesn’t include the many dozens of people who have already lost their homes.

The attempts to evict the Sub Laban family from their apartment began over 40 years ago, even before the endowment was in the picture. It is difficult to sum up the number of times, hours and days that they have spent inside Israeli courts, dealing with eviction claims and prohibitions on renovations or repairs to the apartment.

Every court hearing and the wait for a decision has left its mark on Norat’s health. Panic attacks and antidepressants have becme part of her daily routine. “Our money went to lawyers – four in all, over the years, and for higher education for our five children,” she says.

In the 1950s, when the West Bank and East Jerusalem were ruled by the Jordanians, buildings owned by Jews before 1948 were transferred to the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property, which leased the apartments to Palestinian families. One of them was Norat Gheith’s family. “We knew that the house was built by the Jerusalem Palestinian Al-Rassas family,” Norat said between puffs on her cigarette and sips of her tea. “Do you drink it bitter too? Bitter as life,” she added.

“We knew that the house had passed into Jewish ownership toward the end of the 19th century, but we didn’t know how or who owned it,” she continued. These details had not concerned her in her childhood. Her father died when she was two, and when she turned 14, in 1969, her mother died and she became her brothers’ mother: preparing their food, sending them to school, doing the laundry and cleaning. She remembers that her family and the family next door, in the same building, paid together 25 Jordanian dinars a year for their apartments and two storage rooms.

When the city was conquered in 1967, the building was transferred to the Israel Defense Forces, and three years later, it was transferred to the General Custodian of the State of Israel. This is according to an Israeli law that stipulates that East Jerusalem property that was owned by Jews before 1948 must be returned to Jewish hands: if not to their owners and direct heirs, then to the Custodian. At the same time, Israeli law prohibits the return of Palestinian property in West Jerusalem to its owners and heirs, Jerusalemites who are residents of Israel.

Israel’s war of attrition against the Sub Laban family began in 1976. The stages of the war are detailed in the rulings written by the numerous judges who have heard the case over the years. It is a dizzying, confusing quantity of legal proceedings, which show both the resilience of Norat and Mustafa Sub Laban and the modus operandi of the state, its institutions and its proxies.

This sequence of events was also described to a delegation of diplomats – including the head of the EU mission in Jerusalem – who visited the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and the Sub Labans’ home a month ago. The guests heard how under the guise of regular landlord-tenant disputes and the auspices of double-standard legislation, Palestinian tenants are evicted from their homes and replaced by Jews.

At first, the General Custodian of Israel demanded a much higher rent than what they had paid up until then, says Norat. She remembers that she and her brother disputed the amount and that in 1978 the parties reached a compromise. Six years later, the General Custodian demanded that they vacate the storage room. The lawsuit went through several courts until it was ruled that the family had a legally protected tenant right to keep the storage room.

Meanwhile, one stormy winter, some of the stones making up the exterior of the house broke off and fell into the street. The Jerusalem Municipality announced that the building was unsafe to live in and that it had to be renovated. The General Custodian, a branch of the Justice Ministry, forbade the renovations. Petty harassment of tenants is not unique to the Jerusalem Municipality and Israel: It is a well-known and proven method used by property owners worldwide to force their tenants to leave.

The family had to leave the apartment because it was dangerous. The diligent General Custodian filed a lawsuit against the brother and sister for abandoning the apartment. The lawsuit against the brother was accepted. But a judge confirmed that Norat, her husband and their young children had left the apartment only temporarily, in order to renovate it and then return to it. The General Custodian did not skimp on resources and appealed. The appeal was rejected.

The year was 1989, and the Sub Labans had filed a request with the rental court to allow them to renovate the apartment. As in any legal proceeding, this request involved retaining and paying a lawyer, and the nerve-wracking uncertainty that came with it, which ended with medication for stress and anxiety. The court allowed the Sub Labans to carry out the renovations within two months of the ruling: They had until February of 1990.

The other Palestinian family in the building had left earlier – they probably wanted to save themselves the worry and the stress. The association Atara Leyoshana, which was established 10 years earlier with a mission of rehousing Jews in the Muslim Quarter, rented the neighbors’ vacant apartment from the General Custodian and subleased it to a Jewish family named Robbins.

In 1995, the Sub Laban family filed a lawsuit against the Robbins family and Atara Leyoshana: renovations the Robbins were doing in the building blocked the Palestinian family’s access to their apartment and demolished the staircase leading to it. Literally, the family could not enter their home. At the time, they were living in Mustafa’s father’s apartment in East Jerusalem’s Dahiat al’Barid neighborhood – an inherited property commonly owned by all Mustafa’s brothers and their children – which usually serves as a gathering place for family events.

One judge had dismissed the Sub Labans’ lawsuit for technical reasons. The family, still out of their home, filed a new lawsuit in 1998. Another judge took the trouble to examine the situation with his own eyes: Family members remember that he had to jump from the balcony of the Jewish tenants’ apartment to the lower, inner courtyard of their own apartment.

Then he established a “compromise” that included complicated architectural changes that would create another entryway by breaking a wall to put in a door through which the family could come into their home. Meanwhile, the unrelenting General Custodian again sued the family, claiming once more that they had abandoned the apartment and storage room. There were more court hearings, more money for a lawyer, another nerve-wracking wait – and another judge dismissed the lawsuit.

Several relatively quiet years passed in the apartment, which is only 250 meters from the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It was home in every sense of the word, typical of Old CIty dwellings: a curving staircase leading up to it, the high, domed ceiling of the living room and the bedroom next to it, and the inner courtyard, filled with potted plants and natural light, separating them from the second bedroom.

But the relative quiet period ended in 2010, when he General Custodian stopped dealing with the building’s unwanted Palestinian tenants. This responsibility was handed to a public endowment that was registered on May 6, 2009 in the name of Shmuel Moshe Ben David Shlomo Gangel, the building’s listed owner at the end of the 19th century. The internet has no information to offer about the man, his history or his family.

One of the founders of Atara Leyoshana, the lawyer Shabtai Zecharya, lovingly and meticulously researched and documented Jewish-owned buildings in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, including on Ma’alot/Aqbat’s Al Khalidiyah Street. However, in his various publications and accompanying map, there is no mention of the building at No. 33 or information about Gangel. The internet does succinctly describe the purpose of the endowment: “For the benefit of the poor of the Ashkenazi Jewish community from the Kollel of Austrian Galicia, Kraka and Wallenberg district, based in Jerusalem.”

At some point in 2010, the General Custodian “released the property” and transferred the building to the 2009 registered endowment. That same year, Sub Laban remembers, they were forced – like other Palestinian neighbors – to install bars in their windows after increasing incidents of unknown assailants throwing stones at the glass.

In November 2010, the new endowment filed a lawsuit to evict the family. The grounds: abandonment and non-fulfillment of the rental terms. The trustees of the endowment who signed the eviction suit in 2010 and the one that will come in 2019 are Aviezer Shapira, Joshua Heller and Avraham Avishai Zinwirth. Who are they? What do they do? What ties them to the endowment? Why do they think that the poor of the Ashkenazi Galician community will benefit from the expulsion of the Sub Laban family from their apartment? The Sub Laban family does not know. Despite suing the family, the three trustees have never attended any court hearings.

The person who did appear, apart from the lawyers who changed over the years, was a man named Eli Attal, who presented himself in court as assisting the trustees of the endowment and acting as their representative. He himself has been living nearto the Sub Labans in the Muslim Quarter since the mid-1980s. According to him, he “works for several endowments located in the Muslim Quarter near the property.” From 2010 until today, he has been a shadow hovering over the Sub Laban family.

It was Attal who had forced the family to remove air conditioners they had installed. He forbade them, on behalf of the poor of Galicia, to carry out basic restoration and maintenance work in the apartment: peeling walls, a leaky ceiling, and stones falling from the roof into the yard. He installed a camera in the Jewish neighbor’s apartment to monitor the family. He inquired about their electricity and water bills in an attempt to claim that they had abandoned the apartment.

In a phone conversation with him, I tried to find out details about Gangel. Search the internet, he said. I asked for details about the endowment. Search the internet, he replied. Attal was also unwilling to say how many poor Ashkenazi people benefit from the profits of the endowment. Asked why he forbade the Sub Laban family to carry out repairs in their home and install air conditioners, he replied: “Because that’s what I thought was right. I’m the landlord and I can decide whatever I want.” To a comment that his title was not landlord, he replied: “Okay, so I’m their representative, and that’s what the landlord decided.”

But who is the landlord? Is it true, he was asked, that the endowment – that is, the property – is controlled by Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing organization that works to Judaize East Jerusalem? This is not an idle question. With the withering of Atara Leyoshana in the 1990s, Ateret Cohanim became the main body operating “to acquire, redeem and manage properties in Jerusalem in large and in the Old City in particular,” as stated on that association’s page on the Justice Ministry website. Rumor has it that it also took over Gangel’s endowment. Eli Attal said that Ateret Cohanim is unrelated. “Do you work for Ateret Cohanim?” I asked him. Eli Attal said no.

In 2014, a magistrate’s court judge ruled that the couple had “abandoned” the apartment and that they had another apartment in Dahiat al’Barid. Three district judges concurred with her decision on appeal. However, the Sub Labans succeeded in obtaining permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. Its judges showed mercy: The couple is elderly, they noted; the endowment is not a flesh-and-blood person who wishes to live in the apartment, they commented.

The justices ruled that the storage room would be handed over to the endowment and that the couple could remain in the apartment for another 10 years. Until 2026. What will they do after that? That didn’t bother the justices. The Supreme Court also prohibited the couple’s children from living in the apartment: Their son, who had returned from studying abroad, and his brother and his family, who had shared the apartment with them for several years, were ordered to leave.

On the face of it, the endowment is a public institution that manages assets and their profits for humanitarian purposes. “Why would it bother people who receive assistance from the endowment if a Palestinian family continues to pay the rent and live in an apartment?” asked Sub Laban, not expecting an answer.

In the meantime, the storage room was renovated and turned into an apartment for a Jewish family. Another Jewish family built a room and a bathroom on top of the Sub Labans’ roof, and their laundry dangles into their inner courtyard. A third Jewish family drilled into a shared wall until several openings appeared. “If I throw paper at them,” Norat said, “I’ll be arrested. And they make holes in my wall and nothing happens to them.”

However, the endowment, or whoever is behind it, could not possibly wait until 2026. In 2019, its trustees filed yet again to evict the Sub Labans, claiming, again, that the family did not live in the apartment.

The magistrate’s and district court judges ruled that the couple had to vacate the apartment, and did not believe the medical records that documented Norat’s serious back problem, which required her to stay with her children for several months so they could help her. The family filed a request with the Supreme Court for permission to appeal, but Justice Yechiel Meir Kasher rejected the request and ruled that there was no flaw in the rulings of the lower courts.

On Tuesday, March 14, Eli Attal sent a WhatsApp message, in Hebrew, to the telephone number of one of the Sub Laban sons: “Reminding you that this Wednesday the house has to be evacuated. Good luck.”