A Palestinian family has gone to court claiming fraud over the partial purchase of two landmark east Jerusalem properties, including the home of the Palestinian national theatre, by Jewish settlers.
The move is part of a growing battle over property in occupied east Jerusalem, where hardline Jewish settlers are seeking to expand their presence in the face of vehement opposition from the Palestinians, who want the city's eastern sector as capital of their future state.
The case surrounds two large buildings in the heart of east Jerusalem located very close to the famed American Colony boutique hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
One houses Al-Hakawati, the Palestinian national theatre, and the other is the Nuzha building, which is currently leased to a branch of Israel's Mercantile Bank and the offices of several law firms and human rights groups.
According to court documents seen by AFP, the Jerusalem District Court has issued a temporary injunction freezing the partial purchase of the buildings by a company called Golden City (Jerusalem), following a complaint filed by a Palestinian family alleging that it was fraudulent.
The court ordered the defendants to file a response by the end of October.
Golden City, a private company owned by an Israeli called Yehiel Klein, is based in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit.
Lawyers for the company did not respond to a request for comment.
- Tensions over settlements -
News of the case emerged as international condemnation grew over recent Israeli moves to expand settlement activity in east Jerusalem, which has caused a major rift with Washington.
Over the past month, Israel has advanced plans to build more than 3,600 new settler homes in east Jerusalem.
Within the same period, hardline settlers have taken over 35 apartments in Silwan, a densely populated Palestinian neighbourhood flanking the Old City, escalating months of clashes in the city and prompting a sharp condemnation from Washington.
Hani Tannous, the Palestinian family's lawyer, told AFP the complaint had been filed in the name of Wafiqa Freitekh, whose late husband Ali Assad Freitekh owned both buildings.
In his will, Freitekh bequeathed 50 percent of the property to his wife and the other 50 percent to his children, on condition that the buildings not be sold without authorisation from the Sharia Court, an Islamic civil institution whose decisions are enshrined in Israeli law, Tannous said.
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The property transfer was registered with the Israeli land registry in 2009.
But the family has since discovered that Golden City has registered itself as the partial owner of the buildings.
"During searches at the land registry, we found that Golden City had registered 50 percent of the (Nuzha) building and the theatre in its own name," Tannous explained, saying documents appeared to show that the wife had sold her share.
"We have filed a complaint in the name of Wafiqa Freitekh against Golden City and against the land registry," he said.
Jewish groups buying property in east Jerusalem is an explosive political issue because it touches on the future of the city, which the Palestinians want as capital of a future state. Such purchases are often done through shady frontmen and straw companies, some times legally, other times fraudulently.
Jewish groups are seeking to establish a contiguous presence in the area, thereby preventing any future division of the Holy City under a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Selling land to Israeli settlers is viewed as treason by the Palestinians and carries a penalty of life imprisonment. There have even been several cases in which perpetrators have been killed.
- Forged bill of sale? -
Golden City has already handed the District Court documents allegedly showing details of the sale, bearing what appeared to be the seal of the Sharia Court, Tannous said.
Although the two properties have an estimated value of up to $15 million, Golden City allegedly purchased its share for just $600,000 in a transaction which took place in October 2013.
"These are forged," Tannous said, adding that the family categorically denied any knowledge of such papers.
"The Sharia Court also told us that the file number corresponds to a file at the marriage court."
And the Palestinian notary whose signature appears on the contract died in 2007, he said, adding that the person in question was not even qualified as a notary.
Mohammed Halayiqa, director of the Palestinian National Theatre, said he was unaware of any sale of the property, telling AFP he had signed a 99-year lease with the Freitekh family.
"We still have 95 years left on the lease which has been paid in advance and no matter what happens, nobody can throw us out or put its future in jeopardy," he said.
The UN Security Council was to hold an emergency session later on Wednesday in response to soaring tensions created by Israel's ongoing settlement expansion in east Jerusalem.