State agrees to evacuate squatters from Hebron building
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State agrees to evacuate squatters from Hebron building

Attorney general acknowledges 15 settler families populated the Machpela House without having completed its purchase

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Israeli soldiers guard the Machpela House in the West Bank city Hebron, on July 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)
Israeli soldiers guard the Machpela House in the West Bank city Hebron, on July 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

The State of Israel informed the High Court of Justice on Sunday that it is preparing to evacuate the Machpela House in Hebron, where 15 settler families have been illegally squatting for the past month.

Responding to a petition by a group of Palestinian residents in Hebron, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said that the roughly 100 squatters will be given a week to peaceably vacate the building near the Cave of the Patriarchs before the IDF will be ordered to remove them by force.

Mandelblit recognized the extensive negotiations between security officials and the squatters, who entered the five-story building on July 25, but due to their inability to reach an agreement, and in light of a standing 2012 High Court decision, the attorney general ruled that it must be evacuated.

“There is no intention to approve the occupancy of the building prior to the completion of the acquisition,” Mandelblit wrote, referring to a lack of evidence that the house was lawfully purchased by the settlers, which had prevented authorities from allowing them to remain there in the past.

Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinians outside the Machpela House in the West bank city Hebron on July 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinians outside the Machpela House in the West Bank city Hebron on July 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In 2012, the same number of families briefly squatted in the contested building, but the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that rules on issues of West Bank land ownership — concluded that they did not have sufficient evidence to validate their acquisition of the property. The families were removed from the site after a one-week stay.

Reacting to the state’s response, Hagit Ofran, of the anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, said the evacuation should have taken place weeks ago. “It’s truly a shame that the state needs a High Court petition in order to uphold the law,” she said.

The Harhivi organization, which led the takeover of the Machpela House, as well as similar attempts to purchase other Hebron homes, said in a statement that the state’s response was “unfounded and had no basis in law.”

Young squatters of the Machpela House in Hebron watch a play outside the building on July 26, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Young squatters of the Machpela House in Hebron watch a play outside the building on July 26, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The group argued that a missing registration document preventing the final authorization of the building’s purchase was not actually required to populate the building.

“The racism against Jews who bought a house in Hebron must stop. In every other place in the country, a Jew buys a home, pays for it, and then goes to live there… It is inconceivable that Jews are not permitted to enter a building that they purchased,” Harhivi said in a statement.

The group’s spokeswoman Yifat Arieli refused to comment on whether the squatters intended to remain in the structure until security forces evacuate them by force.

Similar scenarios have played out with other Hebron buildings in the past. The cases typically start with a group of Jewish settlers occupying a vacant structure that they claim to have bought legally from its original Palestinian owners. Palestinians then dispute the acquisition, leaving the Civil Administration or the Supreme Court to rule on the authenticity of the purchase documents provided by the settlers.

In a separate case surrounding another Hebron complex, known as the Peace House, the Supreme Court in 2014 rejected a petition from a Palestinian man who claimed that the building’s purchase by Jews was fraudulent. A month later, the army gave permission to the group of Jewish owners to populate the structure with their families.

Harhivi has more than once attempted to appeal the 2012 decision blocking their purchase of Machpela House, and in June, a Civil Administration committee agreed to re-hear the settlers’ claim. However, the inquiry has not yet taken place, and the army order banning them from living in the building remains in effect.

Nonetheless, the squatters have been able to enter and exit the building freely for the past month, even enjoying heavy IDF protection after the compound and its perimeter were declared a closed military zone.

Hours after the settlers first entered the building, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to hold off on any eviction plans. Representatives from both men’s offices met with leaders of the Machpela House squatters later that afternoon, in an effort to reach a solution. Sources close to the prime minister then said that Netanyahu was seeking to avoid having to evacuate the families. The state’s response on Sunday indicates those efforts have likely failed.

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