Akiva Eldar
July 24, 2009 - 12:00am

Thirty-one years ago, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by Mohammed Said Burkan to lease an apartment in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter on the ruins of his family's home which, he asserted, had been bought under Ottoman rule. The ruling put a legal gloss on the practice of blocking access by non-Jews to state land. After years of steady encroachment, Burkan now lives in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood.

The court not only rejected his petition but ordered him to pay court expenses to the state.

In July 1978 deputy Supreme Court President Haim Cohen, who was considered one of the most liberal justices, wrote in a landmark verdict, "There is no improper discrimination in allocating each quarter as a home to its own community ... Naturally the [Jewish Quarter's] rehabilitation is intended to restore the Jewish community's heyday in the Old City, so the Jews once again have their own quarter, beside the Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters."

The justices saw no discrimination - on the basis of religion, nationality or any other kind - in the state's refusal to rent apartments to people who were not Israeli citizens.

Burkan, today 63 years old, subsists on a disability allowance. Until a few years ago he served as a janitor in the Ramat Rachel Hotel. His campaign for the house in the Jewish Quarter made headlines throughout the world. The idea to lease the apartment there occurred to him when he watched his small son sitting on the windowsill and chatting baby talk to a Jewish neighbor's baby.

"I told myself if the children can live in peace maybe we could turn back and build peace from the bottom up," he said.

When the rightist organizations first entered Silwan (City of David) and decreed that Jews may live in the heart of an Arab village, he considered petitioning for his family home again. This is why he never agreed to take compensation for the property.

"I still keep the ownership papers. Who knows, maybe one day there will be an Israeli government that will do us justice," he said.

"When Rabin signed the Oslo Agreement, I hoped my children and grandchildren would see the peace we didn't have. This appears to have been an illusion," he said.

After the Six-Day War, Burkan built a home in Beit Hanina, on Jerusalem's northern outskirts.

"Father's house in the Jewish Quarter was too small for all the children," he said. Besides, he didn't believe the Israelis would let him stay in the Jewish Quarter.

Ironically, over the years Burkan's stone house has been swallowed up by the white buildings of the new Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood. Someone may yet point him out as proof of the Jews' generous hospitality.

Daniel Seidemann, founder and legal advisor for Ir Amim, a non-profit association dedicated to co-existence in Jerusalem, says a united and equitable Jerusalem exists only in Netanyahu's imagination.

"Burkan's Jerusalem is the one that preserves the Jewish neighborhoods' unique character on the one hand and the Jews' right to settle anywhere they want on the other hand," he said.


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