Opposing settlers’ petition, state calls for evacuation of Hebron squatters

State Attorney’s Office says 15 families ‘made their own laws and established facts on the ground’ in illegally populating Machpela House

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

An Israeli border police officer guards outside the 'Machpela House' in the West Bank city of Hebron on August 28, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
An Israeli border police officer guards outside the 'Machpela House' in the West Bank city of Hebron on August 28, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The State Attorney’s Office on Wednesday voiced its opposition to a High Court petition filed by a group of settlers illegally squatting in a disputed Hebron building, and insisted, once again, that the 15 families must be evacuated from the site.

Some 100 settlers have been living in the Machpela House adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the flashpoint West Bank city since July 25.

After a High Court of Justice petition against the squatters was filed by a group of Palestinian residents of Hebron, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued a response on behalf of the state, giving the settlers a week to peacefully vacate the Machpela House before the IDF would be ordered to remove them by force.

On the final day of the grace period, the squatters filed a High Court petition of their own, arguing that they had legally purchased the property and that the registration document that the government said they were missing wasn’t actually necessary for them to maintain occupancy in the apartment building.

The State Attorney’s Office was supposed to respond to the petition a week later, but requested several delays through the Jewish holidays in late September and early October, allowing the squatters to remain for an additional month and a half.

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

While an evacuation of the Machpela House is imminent, with the High Court expected to side with the State Attorney’s Office, the latter’s Wednesday response emphasized that the settlers should be permitted to return to the premises if they are able to obtain their missing registration document.

“Instead of following legal proceedings… the [squatters] made their own laws, established facts on the ground and invaded the building,” the state’s response said, going on to add that the squatters’ High Court petition did not “present the facts.”

The Peace Now settlement watchdog praised the state response in a Wednesday statement. “The spin of the settlers — that they purchased the house and had the right to invade it — turned out to be false.”

The squatters, represented by the Harhivi settler organization, panned the State Attorney’s response in a bitter statement. “The residents of Kiryat Arba and Hebron regret the fact that the state of Israel chose to oppose the continuation of our residence in a building that was legally purchased with all of the necessary documents,” they said, citing the name of a settlement adjacent to Hebron.

“The state of Israel, even in its 70th year, continues to trample on those trying to carry out the most Zionist act of redeeming the land,” the squatters concluded.

Young squatters of the Machpela House in Hebron watch a play outside the building on July 26, 2017. (Jacob Magid)

In 2012, the same number of families briefly squatted in the contested building, which was unoccupied, but the Defense Ministry body that authorizes land purchases in the West Bank concluded that, then too, the settlers did not have sufficient evidence to validate their acquisition of the property. The families were removed from the site after a one-week stay.

The Harhivi organization that has led both takeovers had attempted several times to appeal the 2012 decision blocking their claimed purchase of the Machpela House, and in June, a Civil Administration committee agreed to re-hear the settlers’ case. 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 over two months, even enjoying heavy IDF protection after the compound and its perimeter were declared a closed military zone.

Several hundred Israeli settlers live in Hebron, amid tens of thousands of Palestinians. On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry approved permits to expand the settler enclave with 31 new homes, the first approved building in 15 years.

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