Israel is demanding that the Palestinian municipal government of Hebron consent to a plan to demolish the West Bank city’s wholesale market, where the municipality is a protected tenant, and rebuild it with additional housing to accommodate Jewish settlers. In practice, the move would create a new Jewish neighborhood in the city.
Hebron’s residents are mainly Palestinian, but the city has enclaves of Jews who live in uneasy relations with their neighbors.
In a letter sent on December 1 on instructions from Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, the municipality was informed that if it failed to comply within 30 days, legal proceedings would be filed to lift its protected status.
The Israeli custodian of government and abandoned property in the West Bank claims that government has a legal basis to evict the municipality from the market and as a practical matter, to lift its standing as a protected tenant since the municipality has another marketplace at its disposal (the location of the other marketplace was not specified). The letter states that the municipality will retain its rights to the new property’s ground floor if it doesn’t oppose the plan.
The Hebron wholesale market site was under Jewish ownership before Israel’s establishment in 1948. Most of the Jews left in 1929, when Arabs attacked Hebron’s small Jewish population, killing 67. Under Jordanian rule after the War of Independence, Jordan leased the land to the Hebron Municipality through a protected tenancy. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the buildings on the site were transferred to the custodian for abandoned property, but the municipality remained a protected tenant.
In 1994, after an American-Israeli extremist, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of Patriarchs in the city, the Palestinian merchants were evacuated from the market and it was declared a closed military zone. The closure order has been repeatedly renewed and the Palestinians have been unable to return to their shops. In 2001, Jewish settlers took over the market, but they were evicted in 2006 by the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank.
Samer Shehadeh, who represents the municipality, claims that Israel needs the municipality’s consent for its proposed plan because the protected status rights include the entire site, including air rights to build additional floors or demolish existing buildings. He disputes that there are legal grounds for rescinding the municipality’s standing as a protected tenant. “This letter is akin to a threat and an attempt to pressure the municipality to grant its consent to the move, but it will never happen,” he said.
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The Israeli army’s office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories responded: “The custodian of government property approached the Hebron Municipality for its opinion prior to advancing planning steps in areas of the city. In accordance with the law, terminating the Hebron Municipality’s protected tenant status at the site in question requires that the custodian turn to judicial authorities, but he asked for the municipality’s comment before doing that. As long as that comment is not received, the custodian intends to continue to pursue the steps.”
Shahadeh expects this to be the beginning of a long legal battle. “It’s a political decision of the highest degree and has no legal basis. It is designed to make political hay at the expense of the Palestinians,” he claimed.
On December 1, Bennett issued an order to have the Israeli Civil Administration begin the planning process for the Jewish neighborhood at the site of the market, which has been a subject of controversy for years. Bennett’s statement said that market would be demolished and replaced by new shops, above which 70 apartment units would be built for Jews. “The rights to the ground floor would remain as they are today,” the statement said.
The Hebron Municipality called the plan dangerous, saying that it could ignite the region. The Israeli organization Peace Now, which opposes Jewish settlement in the West Bank, noted that Bennett is the defense minister in a transitional Israeli government. The group claimed that he is “exploiting his status to create controversial facts on the ground that harm Israel greatly.”
“The legal acrobatics have reached new heights when it comes to expanding the settlements. Ethical standards are being trampled to satisfy an extremist minority that wishes to deepen control and entrench the apartheid that exists in the Hebron settlement. This is an additional example proving the extent to which the occupation is messianic,” Peace Now said.