A Jerusalem court ordered the evacuation of a Hebron house that was sold to a construction and investment company based on forged documents and taken over by settlers in the early 2000s.
Judge Yael Yitav of the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court rejected claims by settlers that, given their long occupation of the property and their investments to improve it, the house should remain with them. In addition, the settlers must pay the Palestinian family 580,000 shekels ($161,000).
The legal owners, the Bakri family, were represented by attorney Samer Shehadeh, who told Haaretz that the settlers were now appealing the court ruling.
The house sits on a 0.75-acre plot in the Tel Rumeida section of Hebron and has been the subject of a legal dispute for years. Hebron residents said the company that bought the house, Tal Construction & Investments LTD, is registered as a Jordanian company but is operated by settlers with the goal of promoting Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
In 2005, Tal Construction bought the house from someone named Hani Naji al-Batash, who claimed to have legal rights over the property after buying it from its Palestinian owners. The company paid Batash $300,000 for the house and handed it over to Jewish families. That year, the police launched an investigation into the sale, determining that documents used in the transaction were forged and that Batash never owned the property.
In 2007, the Hebron municipality petitioned the High Court of Justice, requesting the evacuation of the house. The head of Israel's Civil Administration in the West Bank told the settlers to evacuate but the company appealed to a military appeals committee and the petition was frozen.
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The legal proceedings then continued at a snail’s pace. In 2009, the Bakris asked the Jerusalem District Court to recognize them as the house’s legal owners. Two years later, Batash was accused of falsifying the documents. In 2012 it was determined that the construction company had not proved that it had bought the house, while the Palestinians had proved that they had never sold the rights. The court therefore declared that the settlers should be removed.
In 2014 the settlers appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the district court’s ruling, confirming that the house belonged to the Palestinian family. But the Supreme Court removed the wording on evicting the settlers because it had not been included in the petition to the lower court.
The next stage was the current debate at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court. The construction company said it had fallen victim to a sting operation after it had invested heavily in payments to an "impostor" for legal rights to the house, and for renovations.
It said that, based on old property laws and the renovation that was carried out in good faith, it was entitled to demand that the house be sold to it. As an alternative, it proposed that the company be paid 1.14 million shekels ($317,000) in compensation.
The Palestinians argued that they were exploited after they had to abandon the house during the second intifada. They also asked to be paid for use of the house in the years it was held illegally by the settlers.
The court rejected all the settlers’ claims. It said “there was no objective evidence for the improvements done, or for the planting of trees.” Even if some upgrading had been done, its value amounted to half the property’s value before the upgrading, thus the Ottoman civil code, on which the settlers had based their claim, did not apply.
“Thus, the appellant is not entitled to compensation for the sale of legal rights or for compensation for amounts invested in upgrading the building or for planting trees.” The settlers’ first petition against the Palestinians was therefore rejected.
The court also granted the Palestinians' demands to be paid for the use of the house by settlers.
Dr. Harel Aron, the Tal Construction company's representative, said in response: "My client respects of course the verdict, although it is completely mistaken. There is an appeal with the District Court, which has already ordered the verdict to be held. My client is certain that this verdict must not remain standing and believes that the District Court will rule accordingly."