For first time in 15 years, Israel okays new homes for Hebron settlers

For first time in 15 years, Israel okays new homes for Hebron settlers

Move seen as a response to UNESCO listing divided West Bank city as a Palestine heritage site; Palestinian municipality to petition against the 31 housing units

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

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)

The Jewish settlement in Hebron received building permits for 31 housing units Monday, marking the first time in 15 years that Israeli construction has been approved in the flashpoint West Bank city.

The move was seen as an Israeli response to the recent decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to list Hebron’s Old City as an endangered Palestinian world heritage site.

The Civil Administration’s Licensing Subcommittee — a Defense Ministry body responsible for approving construction over the Green Line — granted the building permits under a number of conditions, most notably that the authorization is subject to appeal.

Hebron’s Palestinian municipality is expected to petition against the decision in the coming weeks, claiming that it is the owner of the land in question.

Samer Shiahih, who is representing the municipality, argued that the building permits were not issued properly. “The Jewish settlers were never allocated the land so they had no legal right to even be requesting the permits in the first place,” he said.

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

The land in question is located at 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.

Due partly to the sensitive nature of the ancient city, the Jewish settlers have been unable to receive building approvals from the Civil Administration since 2002, when 10 housing units were approved for the Tel Romeida neighborhood.

Israeli settlers walk by an IDF base in Hebron that will be partially removed in order to compensate for a new apartment complex for settlers. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The settlers refer to the area where they plan to build an apartment complex and various educational complexes as the Hizkiya Quarter. It was under Jewish ownership prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948, but the 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.

While the land was seized from the municipality in the 1980s for the establishment of an IDF base, the Palestinians’ protective tenancy status remained intact.

Shiahih explained that if the military base is moved for the development of the settlers’ project, the Palestinians’ protective tenancy status allows them to regain control of the property.

Security forces gather on July 1, 2016 near the entrance of the Cave of the Patriarchs, in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron (AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER)

“These are indisputable points that the Civil Administration will be unable to ignore,” Shiahih said. However, the attorney added, he is preparing a High Court of Justice appeal in case the Licensing Subcommittee rejects his petition.

Beyond surviving the expected appeal, the Hebron settlers will also have to provide documents proving ownership and allocation of the land before they can proceed with building, a process that could take months.

Regardless, the Jewish settlers in Hebron praised Sunday’s Civil Administration decision.

“Upon receiving the building permits for the Hizkiya Quarter, we thank the prime minister, government ministers, Knesset members and all public figures who worked with determination and dedication together with us to promote this construction,” the settlement said in a Monday statement. “We ask everyone to ensure that the construction is indeed carried out without delay.”

The settlement’s international spokesman, Yishai Fleisher, said there was a “general linkage” between the approvals and the July  UNESCO vote.

“The response to the narrative that suggests that we are foreigners here is not just to pull out of UNESCO, but also to strengthen Jewish presence in Hebron,” Fleisher said.

The Peace Now settlement watchdog harshly criticized the green-lighting of the building permits. “If there is anything that harms Israel’s reputation in the world, it is the settlement in Hebron.”

“The plan approved today in Hebron is expected to increase the number of settlers in the city by 20 percent, and it required considerable legal acrobatics that are unlikely to withstand the test of the High Court of Justice.” the NGO said.

“Netanyahu is doing everything he can to please a small minority of settlers at the expense of Israel’s name in the world, while bending the law and trampling the basic principles of democracy,” the statement concluded.

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