Settlers evacuate disputed Hebron building after squatting for 8 months

Evacuation said peaceful, despite vehement opposition from Beit Hamachpela’s 15 families to High Court order

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)

A group of settlers who have been illegally squatting in a disputed Hebron building for the past eight months evacuated the premises on Thursday, the IDF confirmed.

An army spokesman described the evacuation of Beit Hamachpela as “peaceful,” with the residents agreeing to clear the building adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site despite their vehement opposition to the order.

The IDF’s new head of Central Command Nadav Padan also signed an order Monday morning declaring the area surrounding the building a closed military zone, banning further civilian entry.

The residents are expected to continue their legal battle for ownership of the building in the coming months.

On March 12, the High Court of Justice ruled that the apartment complex had to be cleared of the 15 Israeli families, who were unable to prove that purchase of the structure.

Agreeing with the state’s position on the matter, which had been submitted last October, the High Court stated that nothing had changed since the building was last evacuated in 2012. Then, too, residents failed to fully prove the purchase of the building before they took it over.

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

Breaking the Silence, a left-wing organization of military veterans who carry out regular tours through Hebron to highlight what they call the mistreatment  of Palestinians in the flashpoint city, called the evacuation “appropriate” in a Monday statement.

“Still, this is just only a drop of water in the sea of illegal invasions that we guarded as soldiers… For 50 years, settlers have been establishing facts on the ground and we are being sent to guard them at the expense of the Palestinians,” the NGO added.

After a High Court 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 in late August, 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 purchased the property legally and that the registration document that the government said they were missing was not actually required for them to maintain occupancy in the apartment building.

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

The State Attorney’s Office was supposed to respond to the petition a week later, but requested several delays, through the fall Jewish holidays, before providing its response, in late October, in favor of evacuating the squatters.

During that time, however, the court issued an order temporarily delaying the evacuation. That order was canceled with the High Court’s decision earlier this month.

In December, the squatters offered a compromise, whereby they would evacuate the Machpela House peacefully as long as the state would demolish an awning on the other side of the building that they claim was built illegally by neighboring Palestinians.

The Harhivi organization, which has led both takeovers, attempted several times to appeal the 2012 decision blocking its 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, 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. In October, the Defense Ministry approved permits to expand the settler enclave with more than 31 new homes, the first approved building in 15 years.

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