Following pressure from KKL, Israel razes Palestinian buildings near Bethlehem

Family loses court battle to keep its home and restaurant, after subsidiary for land-owning giant comes forward claiming to have purchased the property 50 years ago

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

Israeli security forces demolish a building near Beit Jala in the West Bank, August 26, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Israeli security forces demolish a building near Beit Jala in the West Bank, August 26, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israeli security forces demolished a family’s home and restaurant near Bethlehem on Monday, ending a nearly 15 year-long legal battle against the Palestinian locals led by a subsidiary organization of KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund.

The razing of the Cassia family’s compound followed a High Court of Justice ruling last month that rejected the Palestinians’ last ditch petition against the demolition orders.

The property, located between the villages of Battir and Beit Jala south of Jerusalem, are located in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel exercises civilian and military control.

The Cassia family claims to have owned the property for generations. To prove ownership, they provided Israeli authorities with a so-called malia document, which shows property tax payment from when Jordan controlled the West Bank.

However, the Defense Ministry on several occasions over the past two decades rejected their requests for building permits, saying the tax paper was not enough to prove ownership under Israeli law.

Nonetheless, the family went ahead and built on what long had been agricultural lands in 2005, constructing a large home as well as a restaurant and a farm. The Civil Administration – the Defense Ministry body that authorizes construction in Israel-controlled Area C of the West Bank, issued demolition orders and razed several structures in the decade and a half that followed, but the home and restaurant had remained standing as the Cassia’s fought the orders in court.

Israeli security forces demolish a building near Beit Jala in the West Bank, August 26, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

In 2017, Himanuta, a KKL-JNF branch organization known for purchasing lands in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, joined the state’s legal efforts against the Cassias, coming forward with documents showing that they purchased the land in 1969, which the court accepted as legitimate.

The Peace Now settlement watchdog cast doubt on Himanuta’s purchase, citing the family’s insistence that they never sold the land to anyone. Moreover, the left-wing NGO argued in a Sunday statement that the area between Bethlehem and Jerusalem does not have land registration records and the rare real estate transactions that have taken place in recent decades have been done according to inaccurate listings, which often result in errors in delineating property borders.

A map pinpointing the location of the Palestinian buildings demolished by Israel on August 26, 2019. (Peace Now)

Blasting KKL-JNF’s role in the Monday demolitions, Peace Now said in a statement that “the interest of evicting the Palestinian family that has been living in the area for decades, and destroying the restaurant from which it subsists, is not in the interest of the Jewish National Fund and does not reflect the desire of thousands of Jews in the world who donate their money to it.”

This was not the first time that Himanuta had petitioned for the demolition of Palestinian property. In 2017, the KKL-JNF subsidiary petitioned to demolish the entire village of Arab a-Ramadin, which straddles the security barrier in the northern West Bank. However, the organization only proved ownership of a small part of the village and the High Court denied their petition.

In a statement respoding to a query from The Times of Israel, KKL-JNF said it would “continue in protecting its rights over land that it owns.

“In a series of Israeli court rulings, the last of which given just over a week ago on August 18th, it was unequivocally determined that these properties were built illegally and without permits on privately owned, KKL-JNF lands. KKL-JNF stands its ground in protecting its lawful rights,” the statement concluded.

The pro-settlement Regavim NGO lauded the security forces execution of the court’s ruling, explaining that the Cassia family “takeover” was part of the Palestinian Authority’s broader effort to gain control of thousands of dunams of land located in Area C.

“This is a clear example of Israel’s burning need to complete land registration in Judea and Samaria — a first and necessary step in curbing the Palestinians’ massive takeover of land in Judea and Samaria,” Regavim said in a statement.

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