Wednesday’s removal of the families residing in the contested Beit Hamachpela in Hebron was, to paraphrase Churchill, merely the end of the beginning.
The Israeli press reported Wednesday morning that a ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to delay evacuating the house’s Israeli residents until April 25. Nonetheless, police officers and soldiers cleared out the house at 1 p.m. the same day, to the shock of the residents and the population at large.
Haaretz reports that Defense Minister Ehud Barak came to Netanyahu’s office Wednesday morning and spoke with him mono e mono. He proffered Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s counsel that there was no legal justification for delaying the residents’ removal and the government must “execute the eviction order without delay.”
Netanyahu conceded, granting Barak permission to launch what Haaretz calls “a secret Sayeret Matkal-style” evacuation of the building. Maariv describes the 35-minute evacuation as “fast, efficient, and essentially surprising.”
Neither MK Benny Begin nor MK Moshe Yaalon, both of whom participated in the debate Wednesday night, were informed of the change of plans. Yedioth Ahronoth‘s headline, referring to Barak’s actions, reads “Behind the backs of right wing ministers.”
Netanyahu assured Maariv readers that despite his approval of the removal, “No one has a greater commitment to Hebron, the city of the Patriarchs, to the Jews of Hebron, and to West Bank settlers in general than I do.” He further stated that if the courts rule the families’ ownership valid, they will not be prevented from returning to their property for security reasons.
Barak defended his decision, saying he will “continue to protect the rule of law” and will not let it be hijacked so as to change facts on the ground.
In an interview with Maariv, he also said that “Israel has a strategic interest in a two-state solution,” and that rumblings of Palestinian discontent were rising. He did not comment on whether these two factors were taken into consideration with Beit Hamachpela.
Nadav Shragai criticizes Barak in Israel Hayom, saying his comments about rule of law were an excuse. “There are hundreds of Arab homes built without permits surrounding Beit Hamachpela. Barak and his lawyers are not troubled by them,” he writes.
The crux of the issue, he says, is the difference in opinion between Barak and the rest of the ministers vis-à-vis West Bank settlements. If Barak is unwilling to comply with the government’s decisions, then he should give that responsibility to someone else, Shragai writes.
Reactions on the right
Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu MKs bombarded Barak with criticism, and Israel Hayom writes that “Barak is he who is likely to pay the price for the evacuation” of the house, despite the fact that it was Netanyahu who gave it the green light.
“Barak is acting against the manner of this government and harms us and our ability to solve problems,” MK Moshe Yaalon (Likud) said. “When the settlers see that rule of law is only demolitions, not the granting of permits, we shouldn’t be surprised that there won’t be any trust in the government in the end.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman weighed in, saying that the decision to remove the families threatens the stability of the government coalition. (In an interview with Maariv, Netanyahu waved off Lieberman’s threat, saying that such threats have been made for the past three years and that there’s no need to pay them any heed.)
“The only solution that can return stability [to the government] is to transfer all authority over Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria to a council of ministers which will properly reflect the government and people’s majority opinion,” Lieberman said.
MK Daniel Hershkowitz (Yisrael Beiteinu) and MK Danny Danon (Likud) went so far as to call for Barak to be stripped of his control over the Civil Administration.
There is no real conflict between the settlers and the government, Ofer Shelah writes in Maariv; instead, the whole Beit Hamachpela affair is symptomatic of election-year madness. It will not change the facts on the ground in Hebron. “The Israeli government wants to play hide-and-seek with itself,” he says, “in the hope that it will garner supporters on the right and appeal to the left so everyone benefits – against the clear interest of the general public.”
You win some, you lose some
Netanyahu overturned his 2011 decision to have the illegally constructed Givat Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El demolished. He asked Weinstein on Wednesday to find a way to keep it in place.
The prime minister also decided to legitimize the settlements of Bruchin, Rehelim and Sansana, which were illegally constructed on government lands in the 1990s. These settlements are homes to a mere dozens of families apiece.
Amid all the hubbub over Beit Hamachpela, the fate of other settlements was missed in Israel Hayom and Maariv’s Thursday editions, but not Haaretz’s. Yedioth Ahronoth devoted a single line to the story.
This in mind, Gideon Levy writes in Haaretz that “there’s no point in celebrating yesterday’s evacuation of Beit Hamachpela, because there are thousands of other buildings just like it.” He calls the victory for the left in Hebron a drop in the bucket.
“We could have given the settlers that house; it wouldn’t have changed anything,” he says. “The occupation is more entrenched than ever, its end more remote than ever, and the settlers have won in a stinging knockout.” He says Israelis must resign themselves to a one-state solution with universal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.
Netanyahu and the OECD
Israel has one of the highest income disparities in the developed world, a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said. Replying to Haaretz on this matter, Netanyahu said that if you deduct the Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations from the equation, the wealth distribution is excellent.
He further stated that the social justice protests’ grievances were partly justified. “The middle class that marched in the streets feels that it finances the other two sectors — the Arab and the ultra-Orthodox. They’re not entirely wrong,” he said.
He is confident that there is no reason to worry about social justice protests. In an interview with Maariv, he defended his record in office saying, “There is nothing more social than creating jobs. Instead of hundreds of thousands of unemployed, the opposite happened.”
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