Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has instructed the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank to inform the Hebron municipality that a new Jewish neighborhood is planned for the area of the Hebron fruit and vegetable market, which has stood empty for 25 years.
According to the plan, the market's existing buildings, which belong to Hebron's municipality, will be demolished to make way for new shops and residential buildings.
According to Bennett, the neighborhood "will create a territorial continuation from the Cave of the Patriarchs to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, and double the number of Jewish residents in the city."
Bennett's statement does not clarify if the Palestinian merchants will be able to come back and work in the market, but it stated that their "rights to the ground floors will remain as they currently are."
Spokespeople for the Jewish settlement in Hebron said they had been waiting for this project for a long time and welcome it.
The land that the fruit and vegetable market stands on was owned by Jews before Israel was founded. During Jordanian rule, until 1967, the land was not sold; the Hebron municipality leased it from Jordan and the tenants had protected status. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the buildings were designated abandoned property and taken over by the Justice Ministry’s administrator general. In 1994, following the massacre in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where 29 Palestinians were murdered by the Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein, the market’s residents were moved out.
In November of last year, then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that he was moving ahead with the plan after the legal adviser to the defense establishment, Itay Ofir, submitted an opinion supporting it.
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According to Bennett, 70 apartments will be built.
Top Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat in a tweet called the decision “the first tangible result of the U.S. decision to legitimize colonization” and added: “This cannot be taken out of the context annexation: Concrete measures, including sanctions against settlements are an [international] responsibility.”
In response to a Freedom of Information Law request by the nongovernment group Peace Now, it received only a paraphrase of Ofir’s legal opinion. Ofir stated that the interpretation that the residents are protected tenants in both the built and the non-built areas is an expanded interpretation, and the reasonable interpretation is to maintain the rights of the protected tenants in the buildings themselves as well as the access to those buildings. According to Ofir’s opinion, since the shops have been empty for some 25 years, there is no problem with demolishing and rebuilding them because in any case they are in a dangerous state and have to be renovated.
Bennett’s declaration is only the beginning of the planning stage, and the project is expected to encounter numerous objections.
The Yesha Council of settlements said: “We thank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett for approving the beginning of the planning of the new Jewish neighborhood in the Hebron wholesale market. This is an important move, which constitutes a direct continuation of the old-time Jewish settlement in Hebron, whose importance is enormous.”
“After much work with the Defense Ministry we are happy to see that the matter was approved and we can now begin to move ahead with the construction of a new neighborhood in the City of the Patriarchs. The construction in Hebron is in keeping with the rate of growth of the Jewish settlement in the place and should continue throughout Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley without delay,” said the statement, referring to the West Bank.
Peace Now responded: “The settlement in Hebron is the ugliest face of Israeli control in the territories. To maintain 800 settlers among a quarter of a million Palestinians, whole streets are closed to Palestinians and they are deprived of their freedom of movement and their livelihood. Construction in the wholesale market is adding insult to injury, a waste of public money that harms Israeli interests. No future plan for a diplomatic agreement includes the Jewish settlement in Hebron and expanding it serves nothing but the messianic vision of an extremist minority.”