Court gives Hebron squatters reprieve as evacuation looms

Petition to stay eviction from Machpela House comes on the final day of a week during which the settlers were meant to leave peacefully

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Squatters of the Machpela House in Hebron sit outside the building as Border Police look on, July  26, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Squatters of the Machpela House in Hebron sit outside the building as Border Police look on, July 26, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Fifteen settler families illegally squatting in Hebron’s Machpela House were given at least another week to remain in the disputed building on Sunday after filing a petition with the High Court of Justice.

Their petition came on the final day of a week-long grace period that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit gave the roughly 100 squatters to peaceably vacate the building near the Cave of the Patriarchs before the IDF will be ordered to remove them by force. The evacuation order came in response to a petition filed by a group of Palestinian residents of Hebron after the settlers moved into the home on July 26.

Due to their failure to produce one of the documents required to validate their ostensible purchase of the house, Mandelblit wrote last week that the squatters would not be allowed to remain.

In their Sunday petition, however, submitted along with the Harhivi organization that led the takeover, the Machpela House residents said that “the state’s position regarding the registration of the house has no legal basis” and the missing document is not actually required in order for the house to be populated.

Border Police officers remove structures placed by Israeli settlers at the contested Machpela House in the West Bank city of Hebron on July 26, 2017. (AFP Photo/Hazem Bader)

“Fortunately for the patriarch Abraham,” who is said to have bought the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, “there was no need to deal with the Civil Administration in his day because otherwise [his wife] Sarah would never have been buried” in the tomb, the petitioners said, referring to the Defense Ministry body that authorizes West Bank land purchases.

In response, the court gave the state and the Palestinians who are claiming ownership of the property a week to respond, during which the settlers would not be evacuated.

Hagit Ofran of the Peace Now settler watchdog said the petition was full of “false claims that the state itself had already rejected completely.”

In 2012, the same number of families briefly squatted in the contested building, but the Civil Administration concluded that, then too, 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.

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.

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