Settlers enter disputed Hebron home after legal win, but move appears premature

Committee rules Israeli group’s purchase of half of Machpela House legitimate, 17 months after squatters evicted, but compound must be divided before it can be re-inhabited

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

Settlers stand at the top of the Machpela House in Hebron after re-entering the building for the first time in months on August 25, 2019. (Harhivi movement)
Settlers stand at the top of the Machpela House in Hebron after re-entering the building for the first time in months on August 25, 2019. (Harhivi movement)

A group of Israeli settlers re-entered a disputed home in Hebron this week after a Defense Ministry committee authorized their purchase of half the compound.

However, the occupancy of the Machpela House nearly a year and a half after squatting settlers were ordered to leave appears to have been premature, given that an additional legal step is required to determine which part of the home now belongs to them.

Last Wednesday, the Civil Administration’s First Registration Committee ruled that the 2012 purchase of half of the Machpela House by the settler group al-Aaidoun Lil-Aqarart had been legitimate despite claims to the contrary from the Abu Rajab family, which owns the other half of the building.

In their decision to green-light the purchase, the committee members cited arrests carried out by the Palestinian Authority against members of the Abu Rajab family as proof that they had sold the land to al-Aaidoun Lil-Aqarart. Under Palestinian law, attempting to sell or selling land to Israeli Jews is a punishable offense.

Machpela House in Hebron on August 25, 2019. (Harhivi movement)

However, the ruling said the ownership of the building is to be “shared” by the Abu Rajab family and the settler group. Therefore, a process of disassociation is required in order to determine which part belongs to each side.

This step requires cooperation from both sides — likely a tall order given the longstanding dispute over the purchase. In addition, the Abu Rajab family is expected to appeal the Civil Administration ruling.

Shlomo Levinger, a member of the Harhivi settler organization responsible for recruiting Israeli families to move into the compound, said the original purchase of the Machpela House had already divided the building into Israeli and Palestinian sides and that therefore an additional disassociation was not required. However, this was not mentioned in last week’s ruling and Levinger did not produce documents proving that the property had already been divided.

Nonetheless, several Israeli families — some 40 people — moved into the Machpela House just south of the Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site in celebratory fashion on Sunday, decking the building with Israeli flags.

The IDF said in a statement that the Israeli return to the Machpela house had not been coordinated with the military, though Levinger insisted that no army approval was required.

Israeli soldiers guard the Machpela House in the West Bank city Hebron, on July 26, 2017. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

“So excited to hear about the return of Jews to the Machpela House in Hebron. A real salute to all those involved in expanding Jewish presence in the world’s most ancient Hebrew city,” Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said in a statement welcoming the move.

“But on the other hand, it it also deeply shameful that it took so long,” he added, criticizing the quasi-military Civil Administration committee that handed down the decision. “The drawn-out path that the jurists forced the settlers to take in order to enter a home that was legally purchased is an embarrassment. The fact that these jurists are still administering life in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) and that we haven’t enacted sovereignty there is also an embarrassment.”

The Peace Now settlement watchdog blasted the move, saying “a handful of settlers should not run an entire state and drag us to create another settlement in the heart of Hebron.”

The left-wing NGO argued that even if the purchase was proven to be legitimate, it is up to the government to decide whether to allow Israelis to re-enter the building — a decision that  a “responsible” government would not give.

Israeli settlers first entered the Machpela House in 2012 but were evicted by the army a week later after the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that authorizes West Bank property acquisitions — deemed that al-Aaidoun Lil-Aqarart did not have sufficient proof of the purchase.

The settlers appealed the decision in 2015 and an additional hearing was ordered on the matter. In July 2017 — before any decision was made — several dozen settlers re-entered the compound and squatted for eight months before the High Court of Justice ordered the army to once again clear the building. The settlers agreed to leave after the Civil Administration promised to speed up its ruling in the First Registration Committee.

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