HEBRON, West Bank — The closed military zone order that was placed on the Machpela House in Hebron Wednesday morning did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the 15 settler families squatting in the contested building as night fell.
Just outside the perimeter of blue gates set up around the entrance of the five-story complex, a play was being put on for young Machpela House residents as well as children from the surrounding area.
Even for Hebron, where several hundred heavily guarded Jewish settlers are surrounded by 200,000 Palestinians, the presence of uniformed soldiers was particularly high. Half a dozen Border Police officers were guarding the home’s entrance and periphery alone, though few of the 50 children and supervising adults watching the play about the destruction of the second Jewish temple seemed fazed.
The inside of the complex had a similar energy and age demographic, with most of the religious families having at least five kids. An apparent open-door policy allowed youngsters to run from apartment to apartment and up and down the stairs as they became acquainted with their new home.
While the atmosphere seemed exceptional, most of the residents, even some of the adolescents, had been in nearly the exact situation before.
In 2012, the same number of families briefly squatted illegally in the Machpela House near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that rules on issues of West Bank land ownership — concluded that the settlers did not have sufficient evidence proving their acquisition of the property. The families were subsequently removed from the site after a one-week stay.
Similar scenarios have transpired with other Hebron buildings in the past. The cases typically start with a group of Jewish settlers occupying a vacant structure, claiming to have legally bought the property from the original Palestinian owners. Palestinians then dispute the acquisition, leaving the Civil Administration or the Supreme Court to rule on the authenticity of the documents provided by the settlers.
In January 2016, Border Police evacuated several dozen Jewish settlers from two buildings they had named the Houses of Rachel and Leah after the Civil Administration ruled that the purchase was not valid.
But in a separate case surrounding another Hebron complex known as the Peace House, the Supreme Court rejected a petition from a Palestinian man who claimed that the building’s purchase by Jews was not legal. A month later, in April 2014, the army gave permission to the group of Jewish owners to populate the structure with their families.
With the Machpela House, the roughly 120 settlers, largely from elsewhere in Hebron and the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement, moved into the building Tuesday evening. There was no coordination with area security forces, and the IDF only learned about the move after the fact.
Speaking with The Times of Israel Wednesday night, the group’s spokesman Shlomo Levinger said the decision to move into the structure was made largely in response to the vote earlier this month by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to list Hebron’s Old City as an endangered Palestinian world heritage site.
“The Jewish people have had ties to this city for thousands of years,” he said, adding that moving Jewish settlers into more Hebron homes will remind the UN committee who is truly sovereign in the city.
Levinger also insisted that the Machpela House had been lawfully purchased by the Israelis from an original Palestinian owner, despite the latter’s claims to the contrary.
The group has more than once attempted to appeal the 2012 decision blocking their purchase, and last month a Civil Administration committee agreed to re-hear the settlers’ claim. However, the inquiry has not yet taken place, and the army order banning their living in the building remains in effect.
The Peace Now settlement watchdog called on authorities to evacuate the settlers immediately. “After their claims of ownership had been denied, the settlers have decided to take the law into their own hands and establish an illegal settlement that might ignite the region,” the NGO said in a Tuesday statement.
In the meantime, the 15 families have remained in the building, confident that the government will not remove them this time, regardless of the legal issues.
One 18-year-old resident, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, explained that most of the families currently occupying the building are only doing so temporarily. Speaking from one of the many largely empty apartments, she said that once the Civil Administration “God willing” clears the purchase, the true owners will then move in. Asked if that made her and most of the families pawns in the ordeal, she disagreed vehemently. “My family has volunteered to do this. It is an honor,” she said.
Next door, a group of younger girls were busy preparing a massive pot of pasta for the residents. The kitchen was barely stocked, but they said that more pots and pans would be arriving over the next few days. The electricity connected by the group that had moved in five years ago remained intact. “We will soon have everything we need here,” one of them said excitedly.
Late Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to hold off on any eviction plans, and representatives from both of their offices met with leaders of the Machpela House squatters Wednesday afternoon in an effort to reach a solution on the matter. Sources close to the prime minister said that Netanyahu was looking to avoid having to evacuate the families.
The squatting has received support from a number of ministers, including Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and Uri Ariel (Jewish Home).
“In the last few days in which Jerusalem has been under incessant incitement, I am happy that the people of Israel are continuing to establish stakes in the City of the Patriarchs,” said Ariel in a Tuesday statement.
However, some lawmakers spoke out against the settlers. Tweeting hours after they moved into the building, Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid said, “the Hebron invaders have placed an additional burden on security forces during a tense period. They must be evacuated without hesitation.”
Wednesday’s closed military zone order allows the IDF to operate more freely around the area and suggests that an evacuation may still be imminent. However, as of late Wednesday night, little tension was felt at the site, and army officials present made no indication that the building’s clearing was forthcoming.
Meanwhile, the IDF closed all entrances to the Rachel and Leah Houses in an effort to ensure that other settlers not get any ideas from those in the Machpela House, the Walla news site reported.