- Following the killing of an IDF soldier in Hebron on September 23, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declared his intention to encourage the establishment of a new settlement in Hebron at a site known as “Beit Hamachpela.”
- However, while the world’s attention is focused on “Beit Hamachpela” (whose establishment as a new settlement is facing legal hurdles that postpone it for months or even years, notwithstanding Netanyahu’s support), the establishment of another large new settlement in the heart of Hebron, at a site known as “the House of Contention,” is likely to take place in the coming days/weeks.
- The context for this is an anticipated ruling from the Israeli High Court of Justice on a case regarding settler ownership of a large property in the heart of Hebron. It is almost certain that the Court will rule in favor of the settlers (i.e., that the settlers own the property).
- This would be the first new settlement in Hebron since the 1980s, with potentially devastating consequences with respect to Palestinian residents of Hebron, tensions and violence in that volatile city, for ongoing peace talks, and for the two-state solution.
- This settlement can be stopped. The Netanyahu government will likely make the case that in both cases (“the House of Contention” and “Beit Hamachpela”), these are simply questions of legal property ownership, where the settlers bought the property from the owners, and the decisions are out of its hands. Such an argument is mendacious.
- Any ruling in favor of the settlers on the issue of ownership does not/not grant them any legal right to take control of, develop, or move into the sites. Under Israeli law, absent the explicit approval of the Minister of Defense, settlers cannot register under their names any property purchased from Palestinians in the OccupiedTerritories. Without such an approval the settlers cannot establish a new settlement.
- In addition, even if the Minister of Defense approves the registration of the purchase of a Palestinian property by settlers, the IDF still has the authority to prevent the establishment of any settlement for security reasons.
- In March 2007, settlers moved into a large building in Hebron, popularly known as the “House of Contention,” claiming to have purchased the property, Palestinians disputed that claim. Subsequently, Israeli police found that some of the purchase documents were forged and the government ordered the eviction of the settlers. That eviction took place in December 2008, following a week of settler violence against Palestinians in the area.
- On September 13, 2012, an Israeli Court ruled that, despite the forged documents, the purchase was legal. That ruling was appealed to the Israeli High Court, which held a hearing on September 2, 2013, and is supposed to issue its own ruling at any time. The High Court is expected to rule in favor of the settlers.
- The exact timing of the ruling is unknown. It is in the hands of the judges, and in theory the ruling will be issued as soon as they finish writing it. This could be a matter of days, weeks or months. However, once there is a ruling there may be very little time, if any, to prevent the settlers from taking over the site.
Ownership ≠ A Right to Settle
- A ruling in the settlers’ favor in no way implies or grants the settlers the right to occupy the site. The authority to establish a settlement in the West Bank rests exclusively in the hands of the Government of Israel, irrespective of any ownership claim. Every purchase of property in the West Bank by Israelis must be approved by the Minister of Defense.
- Indeed, the original Israeli court ruling in the case stated explicitly: “this ruling does not create any civil or administrative obligation on the Government authorities, including regarding the issue of future registration of the plaintiff’s rights”.
- In the case of the House of Contention, following the original court ruling but before the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the settlers’ purchase. Thus, the settlers will likely argue that they already have the Minister of Defense’s approval and can take over the property as soon as the ruling is handed down.
- The current Minister and Government will likely also point to the Court ruling and Barak’s approval to claim “there’s nothing we can do.” This claim is disingenuous if not mendacious.
- The army is presently in control of the site. The current Minister of Defense is well within his rights to exert authority over the issue, following the Court ruling. In this capacity, he has the authority to withdraw the approval given by the previous minister, to put that approval on hold, to postpone the implementation of the purchase, etc…
- Even if the Minister of Defense allows the registration of the purchase in the name of the settlers, he may still prevent them from entering the site for security reasons, political arguments or any other reasons. The Minister of Defense is, for all intents and purposes, the sovereign ruler in the West Bank.
- This legal construct exists, at least in part, to prevent extremist settlers and their financial backers from dictating Israeli policy in the West Bank, including the use of Israeli security resources, through property purchase faits accomplis.
- In short, a new settlement can result only if the current Israeli Minister of Defense, in his capacity as a member of the Netanyahu government, makes an affirmative decision to allow/enable it to happen.
A Disaster-in-the-Making: The (Potential) New Settlement
The site in question is a large building (4000 sq. m.) located inside the built-up area of Hebron, on the road connecting Kiryat Arba (located on Hebron’s periphery) and the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahim Mosque.
Settlers have long sought to convince/compel the IDF to take control of this strategic corridor, with the goal of establishing contiguous Israeli control between the two settlement areas.
Establishing a settlement at this strategic location would do precisely this. Specifically, it would:
- Be the first new settlement established inside Hebron since the 1980s.
- Involve a huge increase in the number of Israeli settlers living in this volatile area (potentially hundreds of new residents, bearing in mind that the present population of the Hebron settlements is around 800, total).
- Be the first Israeli settlement in this particular part of Hebron.
- Have the same impact on the ground as other settlements in the heart of Hebron, including new restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the area, including additional road closures and increased harassment of Palestinian residents by both settlers and IDF soldiers.
- When tensions rise, it may lead to a total closure of the area to Palestinians (as is the case with Shuhada Street). This would mean the cutting off of neighborhoods from one another, the closing of shops and businesses, and increasing pressure on Palestinians to abandon the area altogether.
Hebron has long been one of the most volatile flashpoint in the West Bank with respect to relations between settlers and Palestinians. This in part reflects the fact that Hebron is the only place where Israeli settlers live side-by-side with Palestinians. It also reflects the related fact that Hebron settlers are among the most hardcore, ideologically-motivated, and heavily armed of all West Bank settlers. It is no coincidence that the worst single act of settler terrorism against Palestinians – the 1994 massacre of Palestinians at prayer in the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque – took place in the heart of Hebron, carried out by a resident of Kiryat Arba.