The cabinet approved the establishment of a new neighborhood for Jewish settlers in Hebron on Sunday in a project that will, for the first time in 16 years, see homes built for Israelis in the flashpoint West Bank city.
The decision will see 16 government ministries allocate a total of NIS 21.6 million ($5.96 million) for the construction of 31 homes, two kindergartens, a daycare center and a public park in the Hezekiah Quarter of Hebron.
The site has since the 1980s housed an IDF base, which will be downsized with the neighborhood’s establishment.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman lauded the approval in a Sunday statement, calling it “yet another important milestone in the extensive activity we are leading to strengthen settlement in Judea and Samaria,” using the biblical term for the West Bank.
Some 500 settlers currently live in Hebron, in four heavily guarded enclaves surrounded by over 100,000 Palestinians. Home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs shrine holy to both Jews and Muslims, the city has been a frequent site of Israeli-Palestinian friction.
Due partly to the sensitive nature of the ancient city, Jewish settlers have been unable to receive building approvals from the Civil Administration since 2002, when 10 housing units were approved for the Tel Rumeida neighborhood.
The settlers refer to the area where they plan to build an apartment complex and various educational complexes as the Hezekiah Quarter.
It was under Jewish ownership prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948, but the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration later leased the property to Hebron’s Palestinian municipality for the establishment of a central bus station, which was built and later moved.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said he looked forward to opening the community’s two new schools next year. “New apartments will be built for new families, and the Jewish community in the City of the Patriarchs will grow and strengthen even more.”
On the other side of the political map, Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg blasted the decision in a statement of her own. “It is not clear what this government of pyromaniacs are thinking, expanding the most extreme, dangerous and destructive settlement for the State of Israel. The state spends NIS 21 million (for the neighborhood) at the expense of the culture, education and agriculture budgets for all of us.”
The Peace Now settlement watchdog pointed out that the location for the project had once been the site of the Hebron central bus station before it was confiscated by the IDF in 1981 for the establishment of a military base.
The left-wing NGO argues that the Palestinian landowners are still protected tenants and that now that the security reasons used to strip them of their land have been ostensibly nullified, their ownership rights should be restored.
The state has argued that the site had been under Jewish ownership prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948 and that possession must also be respected.
A defense official told The Times of Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu green-lit the project a year ago, allowing the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that authorizes West Bank construction — to grant building permits for the 31 homes.
However, the project is unique in that it requires turning what is currently an Israeli military base into a residential area, and therefore requires funds from various government ministries. The cabinet okay is expected to help the project move forward with fewer bureaucratic hurdles.
Peace Now and the Palestinian municipality in Hebron have issued an appeal to the Civil Administration against the project.
The defense official said his office was aware of the appeal and that “a decision will be released soon.”
Last week, Peace Now vowed to petition to the High Court of Justice if the Civil Administration rejected their appeal.
The land in question is located in the heart of Beit Romano, one of the Jewish settlement’s four neighborhoods in Hebron’s H2 area.
Under the Hebron Protocol signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January 1997 with Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, the West Bank’s most populous city was divided into two sections.
H1 includes 80 percent of the city and lies under full Palestinian control. In H2, which is under Israeli military control, 500 Israeli settlers live surrounded by 40,000 Palestinians.