A Palestinian family was evicted last week, in defiance of a court order, from their apartments near Bethlehem where they had lived for decades, after Jews bought the building from a Christian group.
According to the family, a large group of Israelis, some of them armed, evicted them, then used a bulldozer to demolish the two apartments where they had lived.
The family said that prior to their eviction on August 6, they had filed a harassment complaint with the police in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. They also said they reported the eviction itself in real time. Nevertheless, they said, police failed to intervene.
That very same day, however, police arrested a member of the family and held her for two days, after the Israelis at the compound accused her of assaulting them.
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Ever since the early 1980s, the Samara family had lived in three apartments in a complex of buildings and orchards called Beit Al-Baraka, south of Bethlehem. The compound is across from the Al-Aroub refugee camp.
In May 2015, Chaim Levinson reported in Haaretz that Gro Wenske, a pro-Israel Christian from Norway, had set up a front company in Sweden which posed as a church organization, and that back in 2010, the company had bought the compound from the Christian organization that built it. In 2012, the Swedish company dissolved, and the compound was transferred to an American organization controlled by Irving Moskowitz, a major funder of Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.
In 2015, work began to renovate the compound. But the seven members of the Samara family – the father, his sister, two daughters and three sons – continued to live in their three small apartments.
In early 2016, security guards stationed at the site began interfering with the family’s freedom of movement, even barring the three sons from entering the compound. A few weeks earlier, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had given the Gush Etzion Regional Council jurisdiction over the compound in order to prepare it for Jewish settlement.
The Samara family, as protected tenants, appealed to the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. In March 2016, an agreement was reached between their attorney, Muhammad Dahleh, and Eitan and Noya Geva, the lawyers for the company that owns the compound, Beit Habracha (Kfar Etzion) Ltd. Under this agreement, which the court ratified, the company promised not to prevent Ahmed Samara, his sister Ismahan Samara, and his two daughters from entering or leaving the compound.
In his ruling, Judge David Gideoni wrote, “This arrangement will remain in force unless a different judicial order is issued after a legal proceeding instituted by one of the parties.” As far as Haaretz knows, no legal proceeding has since taken place that would change the situation.
For the next two and a half years, the four Samaras continued living in the compound, but weren’t allowed to have visitors. The sons weren’t even allowed to enter the compound to collect their belongings from their apartment, whose door was welded shut. According to the family, the only other people living there were the security guards, who treated them decently.
But two months ago, an Israeli family moved into the compound – two brothers, one of them with a wife and children. Based on their clothing, they appeared to be religious.
The Samaras said this family, including a man named Lior Levy, began threatening and harassing them, such as letting large dogs run loose in the compound during the day.
On July 27, the Samaras filed a police complaint at the Betar Ilit station in Gush Etzion. Two days later, they said, they saw the Levy family hosting the policeman who took down their complaint.
On Monday, August 6, the family said, they were tricked into leaving their apartment. At about 9:30 A.M., Ahmed Samara noticed many Israelis in the compound, some of whom called on him to come out because they said dogs had attacked his sheep. But when he went to the sheepfold, the Israelis locked him inside.
At the same time, other Israelis forcibly removed his sister from the apartment. She says they also took her cellphone.
Still other Israelis, including one woman, went to the apartment where the two daughters lived. Only one was home at the time, since the other was already at work. The Israelis told the daughter there had been an electrical short and she had to leave at once.
She said she, too, was ultimately removed by force while still in her pajamas, and that her cellphone was taken from her. She was then arrested by the police, after the Israelis, some of whom were armed, claimed she had attacked them.
The Israelis removed all the Samaras’ belongings from the apartments. The bulldozer then destroyed the father’s apartment completely and partially demolished the other apartment. The father and his sister were forcibly removed from the entire compound.
Following intervention by UNRWA, the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees, the family was allowed to return to hunt for their ID cards and a few other essential documents and articles. But all the rest of their belongings, including clothing and valuables, are still rolling around the compound, and some were even thrown in the trash. They also never got their cellphones back.
Throughout that day, they said, the police ignored their pleas to stop the eviction. When they went to the Betar Ilit police station, police refused even to let them in. Only at about 10:30 P.M. following intervention by their lawyer, were they finally allowed to enter the station and file a complaint.
The compound was built in the 1940s by an organization affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. The organization was founded during the British Mandate and was registered in Bethlehem. For years, it ran a hospital in the compound, and then a guesthouse for pilgrims.
Ahmed Samara’s father, Ibrahim Samara, worked as a maintenance man in the compound from the 1950s onward and was also permitted to farm a plot of land there. His divorced son and his grandchildren continued to live in the compound even after his death in 1994.
The Samara family had known since 2008 that the church group planned to sell the compound because of its financial woes. But the group wasn’t worried, because it assumed the buyer would be another church group.
This week, after receiving no response to its complaints from either the police or the legal advisor to Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, the family petitioned the High Court of Justice via attorneys Dahleh and Ghiath Nassir.
In response to Haaretz’s questions, Lior Levy said, “My response will be given in court. You’re always welcome to visit. The coffee’s on me. Good luck.”
The Shai (West Bank) District Police said, “Disputes over land and its ownership are settled in court via civil proceedings, not through criminal proceedings. Therefore, they aren’t within the police’s jurisdiction.
“Regardless of this, every complaint received by the police which raises the suspicion that a crime has been committed is examined and dealt with professionally and thoroughly, for the purpose of discovering the truth.
“Following the compliant submitted to the police by the family over acts of harassment, an investigation was opened. It is still ongoing, and naturally, we cannot say anything about it beyond that.
“But we’ll note that alongside the police investigation, a legal proceeding is currently being conducted to clarify the issue and make a decision in the accepted manner.”