Defense Ministry to advance plan for Jewish apartment building in Hebron

New legal opinion apparently sees Jewish ownership trumping longstanding Palestinian protected tenancy in flashpoint West Bank city

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative photo of an Israeli army jeep in Hebron, November 7, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an Israeli army jeep in Hebron, November 7, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced Thursday that he had ordered his office to advance planning for the construction of an apartment building for Israeli settlers in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron.

The residential building will be constructed above a section of the Palestinian market, which was shuttered following a 1994 terror attack at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in which Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian worshipers.

The market sits on land that belonged to Jews who fled after the 1929 Hebron massacre, in which Muslim rioters killed nearly 70 Jews and expelled the remainder of the population.

After the 1948 War of Independence, Jordan leased the market stalls to Palestinians and gave them protected tenancy. That special status was upheld through the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel gained military control of the West Bank, and continued past 1994, when Israeli courts rejected attempts by Jewish residents to reoccupy shops that had been shuttered by the IDF.

Avigdor Liberman is surrounded by security as he visits the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 14, 2013. (Flash90)

Liberman appeared to reference the Palestinian protected tenancy as the reason previous attempts to advance the construction of an Israeli apartment building there had been unsuccessful.

“Promotion of the project was delayed for many years due to legal difficulties,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement. However, the statement continued, ministry legal adviser Itai Ophir “formulated a legal opinion that allows, for the first time, the advancement of building procedures at the site.”

Such a legal opinion would apparently conclude that Jewish ownership of the property prior to the establishment of Israel trumps the Palestinian protected tenancy status that was granted after 1948 — a hierarchy that the High Court of Justice has thus far rejected.

The Defense Ministry declined The Times of Israel’s request for a copy of the opinion.

Palestinians seen in the market in the old city of Hebron, West Bank on July 9, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Liberman’s announcement came less than a month after the cabinet approved the establishment of a new neighborhood for Jewish settlers in Hebron in a project that will see homes built for Israelis in the city for the first time in 16 years.

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.

Under the Hebron Protocol signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians in January 1997, 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, 600 Israeli settlers live in fortified compounds heavily guarded by the IDF in the midst by 40,000 Palestinians, whose movements are highly restricted.

The Jewish community in Hebron on Thursday released a statement lauding Liberman’s “Zionist and just decision,” adding that the project will help “strengthen our hold on the inheritance of our forefathers.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Peace Now settlement watchdog blasted the government for its acceptance of a “right of return” for Jews to property seized by the Palestinians in 1929, while denying such a right to Palestinians.

Meretz lawmaker Michal Rozin lamented that “once again, the government prefers to deteriorate the political-security situation for electoral flattery to a handful of messianics in Hebron.”

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