The High Court of Justice on Monday denied the petition filed by settlers who squatted in a contested building in the West Bank city of Hebron, stressing that they had not proven their ownership of the building, and permitting the state to evacuate them.
“After examining the claims made by the parties and the arguments they made during the hearings I’ve come to the conclusion that the petition of the [settlers’] company must be dismissed, since there are no grounds for intervening with the state’s position regarding the evacuation of the company and its representatives from the structure,” wrote Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, on behalf of herself, Justice George Karra and Justice Yosef Elron. The court rejected the settlers’ proposal to retain partial control of the three-story building until it is determined to whom it belongs.
The structure in question, Beit Hamachpela, is located near the Cave of the Patriarchs and as of now is still registered in the names of Palestinians. The building was the center of a similar controversy in 2012, when a group of settlers entered, claiming they had bought it from the heirs of one of the registered owners. The state evacuated the settlers from the building in April 2012.
In 2014, the settler-owned company, Alaaidon Lalakarat (Talmon) Ltd., filed a request with the Civil Administration’s initial registrations committee, claiming it had purchased part of the land on which the building is situated and wanted to register it as such. The registration committee dismissed the request. In February 2015 it was determined that “the chain of transferring rights from Husseini [the heir] to the company was not legally proven,” and that even if a purchase was made, it was not purchased from everyone who had rights to the land.
The settlers appealed the decision to the appeals committee. This committee criticized the work of the initial registration committee and ordered it to reevaluate the settlers’ request. That reevaluation is still not complete, meaning that it has still not been determined whether the settlers who entered the building actually own part of it or not. In July 2017 settlers reentered the building “as a unilateral action, without this being coordinated in advance with any official,” Hayut wrote. “From that moment on, there is a presence representing the company in the building.” The area was declared a closed military zone to enable the settlers to be evacuated right after they entered but the order hasn’t been enforced and settlers are living there since.
Then the Palestinians who claim ownership of the building petitioned the High Court. After that petition was filed, and after discussions with the settlers, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered the building evacuated, “Because the state had committed itself in response to the previous petition [in which it was decided that the building wouldn’t be occupied until it was determined to whom it belonged] and in light of the new invasion of the building,” wrote Hayut.
The security establishment tried to arrive at an arrangement whereby those living there would leave but the company would station guards at the building until the appeals committee finished its deliberations. But after Mendelblit refused any further meetings with the company’s lawyer, the settlers also petitioned against any evacuation. The High Court ordered, as a temporary measure, to leave the settlers there “until a different decision is made.”
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The ruling issued Monday addresses both petitions – that of the Palestinians in favor of the evacuation, and that of the settlers against it. The settlers’ petition was denied, while the Palestinians’ was then voided as superfluous. The settlers must leave until the Civil Administration’s initial registration committee decides who owns the building.
“In my opinion there is no flaw in the state’s position that justifies the intervention of this court,” Hayut wrote. “The company believes that the state’s position, which is not to give it control of part of the building until its request before the initial registration committee in decided on is invalid and should be canceled. It thinks there is no legality stopping it from seizing control of the structure after it completed the sales transaction. The company’s arguments in this context are rejected.”
The justice emphasized that “rejecting the company’s petition does not constitute a sanction for any activity of any of the parties that goes against the law.” This, the settlers say, refers to their claim that Palestinians have recently built a new illegal structure near Beit Hamachpela.
Although he agreed with Hayut’s ruling, Justice Elron also criticized the conduct of the initial registration committee in the case. He wrote he was “aware of the distress of the [settlers’] company regarding the decision on the question of its rights to the property. [...] It is understood that the length of this process does not in any way justify the company taking the law into its own hands. However, the length of time the process is taking is not reasonable at all, and the initial registration committee must finish registering the rights to the asset immediately.”