The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the furthest thing from Joseph Fteha’s mind when he sought to sue the family next door to his elderly mother’s house for building their garage over her property line. True, the property was in East Jerusalem, his late Palestinian father’s native city. But what did a boundary dispute there between him and the Arabs next door to his mother’s property have to do with Middle East politics?
After all, his 91-year-old Filipina mother lived in Manila. Fteha himself lived on the Upper East Side with his wife, Marion, a Jewish Holocaust refugee from Leipzig. The property, meanwhile, had long been rented by local Arab tenants.
But when Daniel Seidemann, the Jerusalem attorney Fteha hired, researched the property records, he told the Filipino-Palestinian-American bluntly, “Forget about the garage running over your property line; the Jewish National Fund is about to confiscate your whole house and turn it over to a group of settlers.”
As it turned out, Fteha’s family property — or at least the property he thought was his family’s — is in Silwan, now site of one of the most sensitive political real estate battles in the ever-sensitive city of Jerusalem. And the tract, by Fteha’s description “the prettiest property in Silwan,” with a view right over the Pool of Shiloah, near the site of the ancient City of David, is but one of a dozen or so whose status is now in question.
The battle for control of this area, now overwhelmingly Arab, has involved, among other things, JNF challenging the ownership status of numerous properties in the neighborhood. When it can get the owner of an East Jerusalem property declared absentee — defined as someone outside Jerusalem and on enemy Arab territory when Israel took East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War — that property can be taken by the state and ultimately transferred to JNF.
To date, JNF has laid claim to some 10 acres in Silwan, including the Fteha site. The lease rights on these tracts have then been transferred to an Orthodox settler group, known as El-Ad, with no public bidding. But JNF’s efforts to obtain ownership rights on several lots are now being contested.
One family, the Ghuzlans, who lost their ownership claim to JNF when the Supreme Court affirmed lower court rulings, has rejected JNF offers of monetary compensation and is now challenging the agency to evict them physically.
Critics of JNF charge the Zionist land trust is working closely with El-Ad, a group funded by the U.S.-based Jerusalem activist Dr. Irving Moskowitz, in a virtual house-to-house campaign that aims to turn the area close to the City of David into an exclusively Jewish neighborhood.
But JNF officials defend their Silwan activities staunchly as part of their agency charter, which mandates that property JNF acquires be leased only to Jews. “We have an interest that these properties should be under the ownership of Jews, meaning KKL,” said Avraham Hilleli, chief of JNF’s land division, using JNF’s Hebrew acronym in court testimony on Fteha’s case last May.
In his testimony, Hilleli said El-Ad “sometimes gave us information” on tracts in Silwan that it claimed were absentee properties, so that the state could acquire them and turn them over to JNF — which, in turn, transferred them to El-Ad members.Eitan Geva, a Jerusalem attorney who represents JNF and El-Ad in these cases, said that JNF’s use of a private subsidiary, Himanuta, to lease out these tracts exempted JNF from any obligation to open them to public bidding by other Jews.
“I think they have a mutual interest,” he said of JNF and El-Ad.
Sitting in his modest Upper East Side apartment, Fteha said he knew little about any of this. A lean, olive-skinned man with an ingratiating manner, Fteha, 59, is now legally blind due to a cornea disease and retired from his job as an airline sales representative, where he met his Jewish wife.
The two were married in New York three times in one day, the couple said: by a justice of the peace, by a priest and finally by a rabbi.
“God, Allah or Jesus is always there. It’s the person that’s important,” he said. “I just wish the Arabs and Jews [in the Middle East] could learn that. I’m really nonpolitical.”
But he is adamant about his family’s ownership of the Silwan property, where he spent several years of his childhood when his Palestinian father and Filipina mother came to Jerusalem.
It has been, to say the least, a multicultural life. Fteha’s convoluted family history seems tied in knots formed by the 20th century itself.
Born in 1939 in the Philippines port town of Cebu City, Fteha’s earliest childhood memories include the occupation of the Philippines during World War II by the Japanese, who imprisoned his father, Ahmad.
Ahmad, a born world traveler, had come to Cebu in 1929 on his way to America, but ended up staying and marrying Fteha’s mother, Bernabella. The couple eventually had 11 children, including Joseph. But shaken by wartime experiences, Ahmad took his family back to his own home in Jerusalem in 1945.
The family lived in a large house Ahmad built on his property in 1946. Ahmad’s mother, meanwhile, lived close by, in another house on the property, with one of Ahmad’s three children from a previous marriage. Fteha and his siblings grew up raised as Catholics by their mother amid the Muslims of Silwan.
As it turned out, the family had arrived more or less in time for their second war experience. In 1948, after block-to-block battles between Israelis and Arabs in Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence, Silwan fell under Jordan’s sovereignty in a split city.
As tough times deepened, Ahmad again went abroad in search of better opportunities. But before he left, in 1951, he executed a notarized and witnessed transfer of his property to his wife in exchange for 500 dinars, then a huge sum.
It is this document Fteha brandishes today as proof that his mother remains the sole and rightful owner of the property. Though she moved with her children to the Christian Armenian Quarter around this time and returned with them eventually to the Philippines, he says, Bernabella never ceded the property to anyone.
Joseph’s roaming father, meanwhile, returned for a brief visit in the mid-’50s, and finally came home to stay, accompanied by a Spanish woman, in the early ’60s after Bernabella and her children had left for Manila. Fteha emigrated from Manila to New York in 1964.
Ahmad died in 1965. And since then, said Fteha, his half-sister’s son has looked after the house, which has been rented out. The money has gone to help the half-sister’s family in Jerusalem.But Geva, the attorney for JNF and El-Ad, says he has earlier documents that challenge Bernabella’s ownership claim. The papers, two pages dated July 1945 and August 1947, purport to document a sale of the property to another relative by Ahmad’s mother, Sabha — Fteha’s grandmother — acting on Ahmad’s behalf. Sabha, who was illiterate, signed it with her thumbprint. The relative, said Geva, moved to Jordan before the Six-Day War, making the tract an absentee property.
Fteha acknowledged that his father, indeed, appeared to have granted his grandmother Sabha power of attorney over the property while he was in the Philippines.
But 1945, the first of the two dates on the document, is the very year his father returned, Fteha said. And he built the house for his family there as owner in 1946, one year before the second date.
His attorney, Seidemann, said, “No document has been presented to the court that indicates anything other than full title being held by Ahmad, and the transfer of that property to his wife.”
A district court in Jerusalem will decide between these dueling documents. And Fteha, who already has traveled to Jerusalem three times for hearings, will do so once more in October, with no clear end in sight. Several of his siblings, including one living with his infirm mother in Manila, have also made the trip.
“We really want to show them we’re fighting very hard for this property,” he said. “We’re not just letting it go. How can settlers move in and just take it?”
“Jerusalem is the most meaningful place I ever lived,” said Fteha. “When I’m there, I feel different. I feel holy. I get up early and go to the Holy Sepulchre.”
His wife, Marion, with vivid memories of her own of dislocation and the loss of almost her whole family in the Holocaust, said, “I have a strong sense of attachment to Israel. How could I not? So it’s very hard. You’re pulled one way, then another. But when you see something’s not right, how can you not say something?”
Fteha said he believed he would win his case in the end. And after that, he added, “We’re going to go back and sue that guy who built his garage wall over our property.”