But according to Houston pathologist Dr. Hasan Khalidi, Israel has no right to grant the American government permission to build there. That’s because he believes the 7.5-acre plot belongs to other Palestinian families like his own.
“I consider this as stolen land, confiscated land,” said Khalidi, 61, who was born in Amman, Jordan, but says his family roots in Jerusalem date back a thousand years.
“We visited Jerusalem at least three or four times a year, we would always go and explore the city and he used to tell me, ‘This is Khalidi land,’” he said, referring to his father, Ragheb.
The issue here is more than a simple property dispute and instead touches on one of the most sensitive flashpoints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the city of Jerusalem. The Khalidis and other Palestinian families’ claim also provides an insight to the convictions and the sense of loss that underpin many Palestinians’ relations with Israel overall.
“These claims are based on denying the validity of Israeli law.”
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum
Khalidi’s trip to the plot with his children — Muna, 20, Ragheb, 18, Lynn, 15 — came during President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East this week, where the president has so far been greeted warmly by Israeli leaders and less warmly by Palestinian leaders. On Friday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sat down with Biden for one hour during a half-day visit to Bethlehem.
Muna, a student at New York University, said she finds Biden’s indifference to Palestinians’ land claims “infuriating.”
“I voted for Biden and I was having some high hopes there may be some changes,” she said. “It is disappointing to see that as Palestinians, we have lost so much over the past 70-plus years.”
But the Khalidis’ claims to the land received a boost during their visit when Adalah, an Israeli-based Arab rights nongovernmental organization, published new information from Israeli state archives.
The photograph of a yellowed typed lease agreement Adalah posted on its website and dated, showed signatures of members of at least five Palestinian families —Habib, Qleibo, El Khalidi, Razzaq and El-Khalili — with the British government, which at the time controlled the area then known as Mandatory Palestine.
While NBC News was not able to confirm the authenticity of the agreement, the Khalidi family had already publicly spoken about its connection to the land for decades and no one has to date contested that part of the Adalah release.
In the aftermath of that find, Khalidi family members have renewed their calls on the U.S. government, including Biden, not to build the U.S. Embassy on the land confiscated in 1950, two years after the state of Israel was created.
“There are over a dozen families that own it,” said prominent U.S. academic Rashid Khalidi, a cousin of Khalidi, who is the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University.
“It’s indecent for the United States to be building on illegally appropriated property of U.S. citizens,” he said.
The embassy lot is among many Palestinian properties seized by the Jewish state under its absentee property laws after the 1948 Israeli-Arab War. Some 750,000 Palestinians were displaced or fled as a result of the war.
Israel has held Jerusalem to be its capital since its creation in the aftermath of the war that gave it sovereignty over the western part of the city. It annexed the eastern part of the city after it captured that territory from Jordan during the Six-Day war in 1967.
Most of the international community, however, has preferred to withhold recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital until such time as there is a two-state solution to the conflict, that would include a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem and an Israeli one in the western part of the city. A portion of the international community has questioned Israel’s right to any part of Jerusalem, pending resolution of the conflict.
Then-President Donald Trump bucked international consensus in 2017 when he declared U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocated the embassy from Tel Aviv in 2018 to an already existing American facility in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood.
The Trump administration then sought to expand that facility in what could be a $700 million project that would also include the 7.5-acre lot off of Hebron Road in Jerusalem that had belonged to the Palestinian families before 1948.
“It was previously the place where the British had their military headquarters called the Allenby Barracks,” Rashid said.
According to publicly available records in Israel, the U.S. plan is undergoing the permitting process through the Israeli Interior Ministry.
In Washington, D.C. the Department of State, however, did not confirm its intention to place an embassy-related compound on Hebron Road, explaining that it was now “engaged in a process that will culminate in [the] construction of a new embassy in Jerusalem.
“The site of that new embassy has not yet been confirmed. The process to confirm the site will involve coordination with Jerusalem and Israeli national authorities, as well as design and construction,” a State Department spokesperson said.
“Given that we are still involved in that process, at this point, we have no more details to share,” the spokesperson added.
While the State Department did not directly address the property claims by the Palestinian families, it said it conducts “thorough due diligence as part of our standard operating procure on all prospective sites for the U.S. facilities.”
But Khalidi and Rashid said that Palestinian claims to the land were well-known for decades, including by the U.S.
Hasan pointed to a study by Walid Khalidi, his uncle, published in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 2000 that spoke of a U.S. lease to the site dating back to 1989. It included efforts by the administration of then-President Bill Clinton to promote that plot, particularly after the passage of Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which mandated that the United States move its embassy to Jerusalem, a step that was delayed through presidential waivers every six months until Trump’s time.
The Palestinian families even sent a letter decades ago to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright detailing their claim.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum said that the Palestinian claim was an “old one” dismissed years ago by the U.S.
“In the last 150 years, Jerusalem has been under the Ottoman rule, a British mandate, a partial Jordanian rule and Israeli sovereignty,” she said.
“These claims are based on denying the validity of Israeli law. The American government’s relationship with Israel is based on the acknowledgment of the validity of our legal system,” Hassan-Nahoum added. “We are not concerned that something planned as a publicity stunt around Biden’s visit will derail our special relationship.”
While Israeli and American officials view the issue as concluded, for Palestinian families the story is not over.
Adalah said it was weighing possible legal options.
While Khalidi would really like the family to get the land back, or at least for the U.S. government to lease it from them, he acknowledges that is unlikely.
“We cannot do much,” he said. But, at the very least, “we are here showing our opposition to this project and documenting our refusal.”
Khalidi added: “At least you are hearing our voice and hopefully, someone will listen. Most likely no one.”