Gloom of the Patriarchs: In Hebron the Settlers Are at War - Over Rent

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The center of Hebron sometimes seems to resemble the set of a movie about urban warfare: soldiers on every corner; watchtowers; roadblocks; concrete fences; semi-abandoned streets; shuttered shops. But amid the desolation in this West Bank city, its Jewish settlers stride confidently, as though this has nothing to do with them. Now, though, beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is the dominant presence here, a few well-known figures in the local settlement community have had a falling out.

For years they worked together – whether bringing Jewish settlers to the city, or as members of the Jewish Underground terror organization in the 1980s. On one side of the divide are those connected with the Association of the Jewish Community of Hebron and the non-profit organization, Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron – the bodies responsible for managing the Jewish settler buildings and for fund-raising. Among them are MK Orit Strock (Habayit Hayehudi); the settlement's spokesman, Noam Arnon; Rabbi Hillel Horowitz; Uri Karzen; David Wilder; Menachem Livni (a leading figure in the former Jewish Underground, Livni doesn't live in Hebron but was the non-profit's director general); and others. They are united by the fact that, in most cases, their source of livelihood is one of the two bodies mentioned above.

Arrayed against them is a group which includes Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who founded the Jewish settlement in Hebron in 1968; Rabbi Uzi Sharbaf; Yitzhak Malka; Yitzhak Pass; and others. This is a heterogeneous group, and the reasons for their opposition status are also diverse. Some allege that the non-profitis operating mainly for its own benefit, while others are critical of the management of the buildings in which the Jews live, and object to the amount of rent they have to pay. There are also more historic disputes - such as the one with Rabbi Levinger and his followers, who wanted the funds raised by the non-profit to be earmarked in part for projects outside Hebron, notably the "redemption" of buildings and land, and the establishment of settler outposts.

The internal dispute in Hebron has led to a startling revelation, which all those involved would rather have kept secret. It turns out that the Civil Administration – to which most of the Jewish-settled buildings in the city belong, in its capacity as the Custodian of Absentee Property – never authorized the Jews to make use of the buildings, in which they have been living for decades. No contracts were ever signed, and only now is the Civil Administration trying to sort out the situation and get its hands on the money the settlers owe: in short, to collect the rent.

Dirty laundry

Any attempt to find out what's going on within the Jewish community of Hebron generates resistance from the settlers, and not only for fear that the dispute between them and the Civil Administration will become known. The main problem is that all sides have agreed not to wash their dirty laundry in public. Thus, MK Strock, a Hebron resident, told me, "As in Herzliya, Petah Tikva and Ramat Hasharon, in Hebron, too, there are people who think differently from one another, and there are sometimes internal political struggles. It's a normal community and people don't always agree with one another. ... Such things are not for the media – the less [publicity], the better."

Attempts to talk to Rabbi Levinger, Rabbi Dov Lior – the rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba – and Rabbi Sharbaf about the subject were also unsuccessful. However, a resident of the city, Motti Zarbiv, agreed to explain the situation. "There is dirty laundry here, too, just like there is everywhere, in every society," he tells Haaretz by phone. According to Zarbiv, some members of the local Jewish community feel that the unit managing their buildings is operating primarily for its own benefit. "The allegation is that these people have reached a position of management and feel good there. They decide who will enter [the apartments] and who will not, whose home will be renovated and whose will not," he explains.

Most of the Jews residing in Hebron do not own the homes they live in, and have no way to buy them. Accordingly, they pay rent to the Association of the Jewish Community of Hebron, a cooperative organization that was founded in 2001 and manages the buildings. Until then, the buildings were managed by the Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron non-profit, which was originally established in 1977, contrary to the wishes of the commander of the Judea and Samaria Region at the time.

Strock was once employed by the non-profit. However, when asked why the association was established in the 2000s and what differentiates it from the non-profit, she says she has no idea, adding, "I don't know why it exists, I am not familiar with it, I don't understand anything about such things. I am not the right person to ask."

A former senior official in the office of the Registrar of Associations explains the rationale behind the association's establishment. The point is, he says, that through a cooperative society, land rights can be institutionalized, the right to land can be transferred, and a settlement's admissions committee can maintain more effective control.

Zarbiv says that, as far as he understands, the society's officials have no desire to allow the residents to buy their homes from the state. As an analogy, he notes that if, for example, the state wanted to sell the homes that are managed by Amidar (Israel's public-housing company), the company would obviously resist – because the sale of the homes would make its existence redundant.

"As soon as they want, the houses here will be sold," Zarbiv says. "I don't have to tell you who the minister of housing is [Uri Ariel, from Habayit Hayehudi]. One phone call and he puts the homes on the market; it's within his authority. ... [But] Strock or Horowitz will explain to Mr. Uri Ariel why, in their opinion, it's not a good idea to sell the homes. I don't know what he will decide. In my opinion, they will be against it."

The Civil Administration admits that it never regulated Jewish habitation of the buildings under its custody in Hebron, and that only now, after decades of settlement, are negotiations being held with the settlers for this purpose. The CA takes the view that it should be the recipient of the rent that Hebron's Jewish residents have paid for years. It is demanding that the rent be transferred to it directly from the tenants, or through the association as an intermediary. The association is thought to be against this demand.

The Jewish population of Hebron – the largest city in the West Bank, with some 250,000 Arab residents – consists of about 100 Jewish families and another 250 students at the city's Shavei Hevron Yeshiva. The city's Jewish sections are a distinctive and unusual entity as compared with settlements across the Green Line, if only because they do not constitute an independent community but are an organic part of the city.

There was a Jewish presence in Hebron in biblical times. In 1929, 67 Jewish residents of the city were murdered in an Arab pogrom. In 1936, when the Arab Revolt broke out in Mandate Palestine, nearly all the Jews left the city. Jews began to move back to the city in the wake of Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967.

The Jewish residents receive services from Hebron's municipal committee, headed by Avraham Ben Yosef (and appointed by the Civil Administration, Israel's governing body in the West Bank). In 2012, its annual budget – which comes primarily from the Interior Ministry – was approximately NIS 5 million (up from about NIS 4.5 million in 2010 and 2011). The committee is responsible for education, social welfare, water, etc., but does not manage the buildings. The historic structures in which the Jews of Hebron live (as distinct from both the new construction that has taken place in some of the neighborhoods, and buildings that have been purchased by Jews or for which purchase claims are pending) are under the responsibility of the Custodian of Absentee Property in the CA.

According to a former senior CA officer, the Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron non-profit never received authorization to utilize the buildings, though in practice the Civil Administration recognized its activity.

"The authorities ignored the situation but did not authorize it," the senior source explains. In various reports, the non-profit declared that it is responsible for managing the buildings in which the Jews live. However, its financial report for the year 2000 states explicitly, "The non-profit does not possess clear ownership rights to these structures." A year later, the non-profit reported, "Formally, the properties are under the management of the Custodian of Jews' Property and in part are under a military-seizure order. However, in practice maintenance and housing are carried out by the non-profit."

Over the years, the Registrar of Associations requested information about the buildings for which the non-profit is responsible, but the association's file suggests that it did not provide the Registrar with all the facts. According to Menachem Livni, who was the non-profit's director general for two years until he left in 2012, the association received a double power of attorney to manage the buildings – both from the Civil Administration and the original owners of the buildings, Kolel Hasephardim and Kolel Ha'ashkenazim (Chabad).

When I asked the Civil Administration officially about the status of the buildings inhabited by Jews in Hebron, and where precisely agreements exist between the Civil Administration and the non-profit or association, I received this response: "In accordance with the government's decisions about the Jewish community in Hebron, the building and renewal of the Jewish community in Hebron were allowed on the basis of government property of the 'Jewish lands' type and in the knowledge that this is government property under [Military] Order 59, the Government Property Order, of 1967."

"It should be emphasized," the response continues, "that this property was under Jewish ownership of individuals, companies and public bodies until 1948, and throughout the entire Jordanian period was managed by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property, until 1967. Occupancy of the compounds started in the 1980s – some through seizure orders and the others in the form of entry into vacant buildings or the renovation of unusable buildings by the settlers and by the Construction and Housing Ministry. Recently, a series of attempts began to regularize the contractual and financial aspects between the Civil Administration and the Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron."

The issue of the ownership of the buildings in which Jews reside came up recently at a meeting of the association. Among those in attendance were Arnon, Horowitz and Karzen. According to a source knowledgeable about the association, one of the participants said, "It's an open secret that the apartments are not ours" – a statement the others disputed. The same person added that their residence in Hebron has moral validity and no more, because "we did not regularize the matter." Another participant responded by saying that the Civil Administration wants to regularize the situation by leasing the buildings. It was also noted in the meeting that, at present, no one has a legal right to remove a family from its apartment. This means no action can be taken if a family refuses to pay rent.

Tenants' revolt

This dialogue was prompted in part by an increase in the (low) rent that Hebron's Jewish residents pay. A letter that the society sent out about two years ago stated, "Although this is a sensitive subject, we feel we are morally obliged to consider it [the increase] and make decisions. ... [We] cannot ignore a seemingly improper situation in which the apartments are rented out at a price which is considerably lower than the going rate. ... Accordingly, despite the inherent sensitivity for the whole community of residents – who are our neighbors and friends – we felt we cannot go on lying to ourselves and continuing to ignore a situation which, in our view, is improper."

The letter added, "We are all aware of the fact that the rent, which was from the outset particularly low, has not been updated for a long time. Some of the families are paying especially low, even ridiculous, rent." The association decided to raise the rent, explaining, "Even after the increase, rent in the community will remain significantly lower than the going rate in other communities, where, in addition to the rent, they pay property tax, community tax, guard fees, taxes to Amana [a settlement organization] and more."

It emerges, from the letter, that the highest rent – NIS 15 per square meter – would be paid by the residents of the Avraham Avinu neighborhood and at Beit Hashisha. In other words, the monthly rent for a 100 square meter apartment in the Avraham Avinu area would be NIS 1,500. The tenants in other Jewish sectors pay even lower rent.

The residents were incensed by the decision to raise the rent. Daniel Hizmi, a teacher who lives in Hebron, tells Haaretz that, in his view, the rent should not be raised too much because people had been paying rent for decades without the option of being able to buy their apartment. Hizmi adds that because the association has no way to force the tenants to pay rent, some people do not pay – mainly due to economic hardship.

Horowitz addressed the issue at the association's meeting. He says he had previously suggested that the rent issue not be placed on the agenda, because "they [the tenants] are liable to rebel." The question of the purchase of the apartments by the tenants – and the problems this could cause – also came up at the meeting. One of the participants explained that the Housing Ministry might ask NIS 1 million for each apartment, and that this would generate envy among those unable to meet the price. Another concern was the possibility that "hostile elements" might try to buy the apartments that would be placed on the market. This same participant added it was possible that an examination of the status of the apartments might lead to their expropriation. Another possibility was that the state would demand the society pay it rent for all the years in which it collected rent from the tenants.

Schnorrer city

The divisions in the Jewish community of Hebron go beyond the rental issue. Hizmi offers a succinct description of the nonprofit's officials: "They always seem to be running in primaries," he says. As an example, he notes the concert by singer Amir Benayoun, held outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs last month. The event began with remarks by MK Strock, Horowitz and others. "That was a demonstration of support for [the Jewish community of] Hebron, even without their taking the stage to speak," Hizmi says. "There are people in that group whose only interest is to hold onto their jobs, and they are succeeding, while others, like me – who work for the sake of heaven – have been pushed aside."

Another critic of the non-profit's behavior is Daniel Uzal. He lives in the settlement of Beit Haggai but runs a small business next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where he often sees the non-profit's officials escorting potential donors on visits to the holy site. When donations of millions of shekels come in, he says, you would expect to see concrete changes, yet in practice "we see nothing" and the donations are channeled "upstairs." "From the start they are relying on living from donations, and that is a problem," he says.

The friction within the Jewish community also has a historical background. Rabbi Levinger wanted some of the millions of shekels raised by the non-profit over the years to be used to "redeem" buildings and land, and to help build settler outposts. "He wanted to make use of the money to expand the settlement project in Judea and Samaria," says a person knowledgeable about the details. However, the non-profit rejected this approach, and a few years ago the dispute boiled over.

Also in the background is a disagreement from years ago with Yitzhak Pass, the father of 10-month-old baby girl Shalhevet Pass, who was murdered by an Arab sniper in March 2001. The dispute involves fund-raising for Hebron that made use of the family tragedy, and what Pass claimed were attempts to sabotage the founding of a religious seminar named after his murdered daughter. He now says, "This is a small community and everyone has his own opinions about all kinds of things. People change, opinions change."

Other residents object to the way in which the non-profit has isolated the Jewish Community of Hebron from the adjacent urban settlement of Kiryat Arba. They believe this is being done because it is easier to raise money for the "Hebron" brand than for "Kiryat Arba." This group is behind recently distributed, anonymous leaflets that attack various figures in the community by name. "Is this the city of which it is said, perfect in beauty, the joy of all the earth?! How have we been transformed from the City of the Patriarchs into the city of manipulations and schnorring?!" one of the leaflets stated. The leaflet also carried photographs of some of the members of the Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron non-profit, labeling them "the stars of the Jewish bluff in Hebron."

Some of the settlers claim that the leaflets are the work of a local Jewish resident who is part off-the-wall and part hyper-committed to exposing what is really going on in the community. The resident in question, who asked that his name not be mentioned, told me he is part of a broader opposition group. The head of the Kiryat Arba regional council, Malachi Levinger, declined to comment, saying only, "It's too convoluted."

When I tried to get responses from the non-profit or the association, Arnon and Karzen referred me to Wilder, who said, "Every place undergoes different things and different events over the years. I think what you are talking about is not something recent but things that were written long ago. ... Even in a home there is tension – may we be spared – between husband and wife. That was the case, but after a few years tensions disappear. Families go through hard times – certainly there are hard times when you're in Hebron – and it is only natural for there to be differences. So, alright, there are differences, but that also passes."

With regard to the allegation that both the non-profit and the association are operating only to sustain themselves and have no desire to try to sell the homes to their inhabitants, Wilder says, "You are getting into serious holes and cracks." He asked me to submit any further questions in writing, and when I did so he sent this reply: "We have decided not to comment, respond to questions or cooperate."

Money time

The Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron non-profit was created in 1977 as an "Ottoman Society for the revival of Jewish Hebron." However, when Malechi Levinger, Menachem Livni and their associates tried to register the association, they encountered an unexpected obstacle in the person of the commander of the Judea and Samaria region at the time, Brig. Gen. David Hagoel. In a letter of April 1977, Hagoel wrote, "I have examined the material concerning the request to register the aforementioned association in Israel, and the following are my comments: It can be assumed that registration of the association according to its goals and the composition of its founders will bring about the association's activity in the region and, as a result, the disruption of public order. Accordingly, my position is that we need to find the legal foundation for preventing the association's registration in Israel."

In another letter, he wrote, "The non-profit's registration in Israel does not constitute authorization of any form of activity in Judea and Samaria." Hagoel drew the attention of the Interior Ministry to his suggestion to prohibit the assocaition from being registered. In the course of the registration procedure, the police were also consulted and supplied information about the founders: "We have no comments about the founders, with the exception of ... [here the police listed the names of three of the seven founders, against whom criminal proceedings were under way for assaulting a police officer, violating the conditions of a permit according to the order of a military commander in the territories, and more]." However, neither Hagoel's opinion nor the police comments prevented the association's establishment. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1983, the Ottoman Society morphed into the Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron. Its current activity is based on outside donations, but for years it received funding from various government ministries. Thus, in 1999 and 2000, the Housing Ministry granted the association NIS 9.5 million, and in 2011 it received funds from inheritances left to the ministries of science, education and religious affairs. It is worth mentioning that, in 2010, the non-profit spent NIS 14,500 on "presents and refreshments for soldiers."

One of the allegations raised against the non-profit by Jewish settlers in Hebron is that, in its publicity, it is exploiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs in order to raise funds, even though the Kiryat Arba-Hebron Religious Council has administered the site since 2011 and invests in its maintenance. The head of the council, Yossi Dayan, confirmed to me that since he took over, responsibility for the Tomb of the Patriarchs has reverted to the Religious Council.

For the past few years the non-profit received most of its money from a Brooklyn-based organization called the Hebron Fund. The world economic crisis seems to have seriously affected the association's income. In 2006, it had donations of more than NIS 5 million (of which more than NIS 4 million came from the Hebron Fund), but in 2011 there was a steep fall to NIS 2.2 million, of which NIS 1 million came from the Hebron Fund and another NIS 350,000 from a group called Christian Friends of Yesha Communities.

In 2011, the non-profit spent NIS 900,000 on salaries. Toward the end of 2009, Livni – a senior figure in the Jewish Underground organization in the 1980s, who was convicted of murder (his prison term was commuted in 1989 by President Chaim Herzog) – was appointed director general of the Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron. Livni held the post until 2012. In 2010, his annual salary was NIS 234,000. Given that donations to the Hebron Fund are recognized in the United States for tax purposes, it would not be unwarranted to say that the United States indirectly paid part of Livni's salary. 

Israeli settler walks past a shop in Hebron.Credit: AP

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